Without a doubt, Sjon’s The Whispering Muse is the oddest, little book I’ve read in a long, long time. It’s protagonist, Valdimar Haraldsson is a puffed-up, self-absorbed intellectual who has written a 17 volume set on the correlation between Nordic superiority and Nordic fish consumption. He is a man who cares only about eating fish, talking about fish, and foisting his theories on those around him. He’s strange, he’s cocky, he’s pathetic, and he’s funny. He gets invited to spend time on a Danish merchant vessel, touring Norwegian waters. Once on ship he gets distressed due to the lack of fish on the dinner the menu. Such is the life of a man who once wrote a book called Memoirs of a Herring Inspector. At night, one of the mates regales the guests with stories of his involvement in the Jason and the Argonauts saga. It turns out the mate is none other than Caeneus, he who sought the Golden Fleece with the mythical Jason. Keep in mind, the book is set in the 1940s. It’s not quite magical realism, but the book seamlessly weaves myth and modern sensibilities. It’s all a little bonkers. Quite often I found myself wondering, “why?”. The Whispering Muse clocks in at a compact 130 pages, there’s not much of an arc to the story, but the writing is good, the characters keep you guessing, and it’s strangely compelling.
Sunday, August 10, 2014
In the early 80s, I loved British Ska. I couldn’t get enough of the likes of the Specials and The Selecter. I can’t say I listen to those bands much any more and I haven’t been tempted by any of the reunion tours cycling around. Regardless, they all have a place deep in my heart. Out book shopping recently, I came across Black By Design, an autobiography of Pauline Black from The Selecter. I picked it up on a whim, figuring it would be a good summer read.
The first third of the book is very strong. Black’s upbringing is a truly interesting window into England of the 50s and 60s, particularly since Black views it from the perspective of a black woman. Black was adopted by white working class parents in the 50s. This was not a common occurrence in England at the time, and though her family was, by all accounts, loving, her black heritage was a mystery. She was the only black girl in town and she felt the sting of racism. However, she could share her feelings with nobody. Not family or friends. She was aware that her blackness set her apart from her contemporaries, but her nascent black pride could only be nurtured alone. She was fascinated by the race issues in America and looked to the black power movement in America as a guidepost for her own behavior. Though her parents were kind, they did not love when Pauline would assert her blackness. Once she left for college, she never looked back.
The middle part of the book talks about her time in The Selecter and the 2-Tone scene that was exploding in Coventry where she was based. While I enjoyed this section of the book, I really wanted more. Granted it’s a memoir, and Black talks honestly from her perspective, but I felt I wanted deeper insight into why the movement was happening, who all the players were, and what fueled the coming together and the division of the various audience groups (the punks, the mods, and the skins). Black addresses it all, but not with the depth I hoped for. I’d be up for a juicy oral history from all the players of that scene.
It’s also interesting to note that The Selecter’s time in the limelight was incredibly brief. The Selecter track that appeared as a b-side on the first 2-Tone release was a hit. But that track was really a solo endeavor by guitarist Neol Davies using the name The Selecter. Once he had a hit, he needed a band. The band was still being formed even though they were already in demand and on the rise, riding the coattails of The Specials. Almost from the outset, the band is at odds with each other, fighting about producers and musical direction. The band implodes in about two years time. The rise and fall is equal parts exciting and dour.
Black is at her best and most passionate when she talks about the difficulties of being a black artist and a woman artist. The 2-Tone ethos was the perfect vehicle for her message. After the break up of The Selecter she struggled finding her way. Musical projects were mostly ignored. She found her way to the stage and television. She was moderately successful in those arenas. She found her way. Not as exciting as The Selecter in their heyday, but she made inroads as a working artist. The book, however, gets a bit dreary for my likes. It becomes the memoir of someone struggling, but eking out a living. The highs aren’t that high. The lows aren’t that low. I have nothing but respect for all that Black has done, and her political view of the world is spot-on, but the writing isn’t strong enough to elevate this into a must read.
Tuesday, August 5, 2014
Ah, The Goldfinch, a 700+ page tome that many are hailing as the book of the decade and beyond. Of course there are also those that think Donna Tartt is overrated and overhyped. Who doesn’t love a good literary dust up? I was a big fan of Tartt’s The Secret History and just finished The Goldfinch, so I suppose I must weigh in. This will be a pretty thin review because I don’t want to give away any spoilers. When I read The Goldfinch, I knew absolutely nothing about it, not one plot point. One of the big joys of The Goldfinch is how the plot twists and turns, travels through time, and trots across the globe. I was glad not to know what to expect around any corner, so I promise not to spoil.
Tartt is an excellent writer with a vivid imagination and The Goldfinch’s plot is testament to that. The book tracks Theo Decker from teen years to adulthood. We first meet Decker as a thirteen year old. He’s a liberal, cultured New York kind of kid. Hints of a Salinger and Fitzgerald protagonists are in his DNA. He’s a sensitive boy. This is no surprise based on the prep-school milieu Tartt’s work seems to inhabit. Theo’s mother instills in him a love of art, and much of the plot revolves around their connection to Carel Fabritius’s Dutch masterpiece The Goldfinch. Tartt gets a big thumbs up from me for focusing her story around a piece of art. The book makes us question the importance of art in culture, in society, and addresses how we interpret and value art. That’s good stuff as far as I’m concerned.
But this isn’t some navel-gazing art salon universe. Theo’s path gets violently altered at the outset of The Goldfinch, and his journey from boyhood to adulthood is painful. My one issue with the book is that for the bulk of the novel, after his life-altering episode, Theo becomes a bit of jerk. He’s a fairly unlikeable character for much of the novel’s 700+ pages. I have no problem with unlikeable and conflicted protagonists, but I just felt that the character he becomes for the bulk of the novel is not in keeping with the character we meet at the outset. Similarly over the novel's final 30 pages, Theo looks back and reflects on his experiences in a thoughtful and philosophical manner. He's regained the grace of his younger self, but it seems like such a sudden about face given the hellish path he's walked down.
Ultimately, The Goldfinch is an excellent read, so it’s a minor point to be sure, but I felt that given the grand scope of the novel and the Pulitzer Prize and all, that there was some fraying around the edges of this one.
Tuesday, July 22, 2014
Nobody symbolizes the American Dream better than John Waters. I’m sure I’ve said that before, but every time he makes a new movie, publishes a new book, or heads out on a new tour, I think it bears repeating. Waters has managed to turn his perverse obsessions into semi-fame and semi-fortune. At the time it would have been unimaginable that the guy who made Desperate Living or Female Trouble would ever sniff mainstream success. Waters has managed this feat without ever compromising or “selling out”. In fact he seems to be getting more randy with age. From his last film, A Dirty Shame, to his previous book Role Models, to his latest book Carsick, the tawdry tales keep getting more graphic.
The conceit of Carsick is pretty great. Waters decides to hitchhike from Baltimore to San Francisco and document the proceedings in a book. Carsick is divided into 3 parts; a novella where the idealized version of his trip plays out, a novella where his nightmare trip unfolds, and the final version based on what really happened.
The two novellas are pure Waters. The novellas’ chapters recount each fictitious ride he receives along the way, and they play out like classic scenes from his movies. In his “good ride” novella, Waters partakes in a bank robbery, becomes a sideshow freak at a hipster carnival filled with malfunctioning rides, reconnects with Edith Massey, and has a sexual encounter while in the passenger seat of a car in a demolition derby. At 66 years of age, Waters still revels in shedding light on the weirdest subcultures and fetishes. At one point he gets a ride from an “alternative librarian” distributing obscure genres of literature such as “womb raiders”. “Are you familiar with that genre?” the librarian asks. Waters replies, “You mean women who tell their husbands they’re pregnant when they’re not and then follow real pregnant ones, kill them, cut out their babies and take them home claiming they’ve just given birth.” Carsick is a real joyride, let me tell you.
The brilliance of Carsick is that if you listed the characters he meets in the “good ride” version of his trip alongside the miscreants he meets in the “bad ride” version of the trip, you’d be hard pressed to figure out which people belonged to which novella. Everybody seems like a renegade from a Pink Flamingos universe. In the nightmare novella, his past literally comes back to haunt him. In one case, a killer he has made fun of in Shock Value is back from the dead, picking him up for a ride, and out to seek her revenge. It’s fun to watch Waters’ discomfort as he tangles with some of these fantastic creations.
Waters’ actual hitchhiking experience is a far cry from either of his novellas. The drama and tension revolve around mundane hitchhiking concerns. Will he get a ride? Will it stop raining? Will he have to sleep in the bushes? Will he ever get out of Kansas? Waters seems humbled by the experience and comes across as grateful for every ride he receives. Sometimes he’s recognized and sometimes he’s not, but he is actually coming into contact with big parts of America that he has never dared step foot in. He shops at a Walmart, dines at Ruby Tuesday’s, and meets people he would otherwise never come into contact with. It may not be as dramatic as the offerings in his novella, but dare I say, it’s sweet.
Sunday, July 20, 2014
I can’t get enough of the Femmes Fatales book series on Feminist Press. They’ve been reissuing classic noir novels from female writers. I’ve started with the books that were adapted into films. In A Lonely Place was haunting. Bunny Lake Is Missing was dripping with gas light paranoia. In many respects Olive Higgins Prouty’s Now, Voyager is a departure from those first two titles. It’s not really a noir at all, but a classic 40s romance. The book follows Charlotte Vale, a spinster aunt who embarks on a European cruise after a stint in a sanitarium where she was recovering from a nervous breakdown. Courtesy of her caring sister-in-law, Charlotte has a new wardrobe and a new hairdo. Over the course of the cruise she starts to regain her lost-confidence, in large part due to her dalliance with the henpecked JD Durrance. There’s honesty to their blossoming romance. Durrance has also suffered from a breakdown in his recent past and his married life is a shambles. Now, Voyager’s strength comes from watching our two leads crawl from the wreckage of their lives, trying to find a place for themselves amidst a world that hasn’t been kind to them. To be sure, Now, Voyager has some dark underpinnings. Their romance seems doomed due to Durrance’s marital status, and the threat of emotional relapse gives the novel a sense of disquiet, particularly once the cruise ends and each must return to their formerly lonely lives. The first half of the book is a carefree escapade that gives way to the book’s second half and it’s more mundane realities. It wasn’t part of my summer plan, but, hey, I just read a summer romance novel!
Friday, July 18, 2014
Having just read a couple of pot-boilers and more modern pop-cultural novels, I was hankering for something with more of a classic feel and reached for Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. I loved the subtle, teen sci-fi direction of Never Let Me Go, and was intrigued by Remains. The novel is set in the 50s, the era when England’s great houses are coming to a close. The book follows the manor’s head butler, Mr. Stevens, as he takes a road trip through the English countryside. Over the course of the trip he reflects back on his life of service to his employer, Lord Darlington. Though at times a little slow, Remains of the Day manages to have an impact. Mr. Stevens is a fascinating case study of a life measured by one’s service to another. Steven’s has placed a premium on his unwavering service to Lord Darlington and the running of the manor. As the book unfolds however, it becomes evident that his Lord ended up on the wrong side of history during WWII, with a dubious political track record. Though Stevens can be proud of his life and the way he carried himself, his life increasingly looks a bit of a sham for his slavish dedication and apologies for a Lord who has not held up his part of the social contract. Moreover, it’s clear Steven’s has made many personal and emotional sacrifices to maintain his standing as a top butler. Given his Lord’s shaming fall from grace, coupled by the collapse of the whole manor system, there’s no way to avoid feeling a tinge of melancholy for Stevens and the life he lead.
I imagine this is a must read for anyone enamored with Downton Abbey. I must admit that my reading of The Remains of the Day was informed by Downton, which sadly, informs the majority of my knowledge on that slice of English history.
Tuesday, July 15, 2014
When I was young, I loved scary books. I even remember being home alone one afternoon while reading Amityville Horror, and being so scared that I had to go sit in my mom’s car in the driveway to finish a chapter. My fascination with horror was relatively short lived, but in the past year, I’ve picked up a handful of titles veering toward horror, gothic, and the supernatural. Doctor Sleep (Stephen King), Night Film (Marisha Pessl), Prayer (Philip Kerr), We Have Always Lived In The Castle (Shirley Jackson). It’s been fun. With that in mind, I took a stab at Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane. It’s a short tale about a middle-aged man who returns to his hometown for a funeral. To escape the family for a bit, he wanders to the end of the lane where, by chance, he runs into an old acquaintance. Long forgotten memories of his childhood come flooding back. The bulk of the book takes place within those memories, where, as a 7 year old, he is imperiled by a shadow world that is using his body as a doorway into our world. The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is quite moody, though not particularly frightening. Amazon tells me that it’s geared toward adults, but to me it feels like it’s geared toward the young adult market. I’ve got no problem with that because Gaiman is an excellent writer and the novel flows along quite nicely. For me the highlight was the frame story. His middle-aged interactions within the adult world and his grappling with fragmented memories of his past rang true and strong with just the right amount of sadness and melancholy.