Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Until My Darkness Goes (Paint It Black)

I'm back from my blogging hiatus now that another semester has passed. How long this return will last before I'm pulled entirely back into my studies I can't be sure. Still, it is nice to have time for reading for fun again. The Best American Noir of the Century is a collection compiled by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler.  It's a massive book with nearly forty stories, and stretches as far back as 1923 (Tom Robbins' "Spurs") and as recently as 2007 (Lorenzo Carcaterra's "Missing The Morning Bus")  for it's material. When a collection claims to be the best of the year, I approach it with what can only be described as modest expectations. If the time period expands to larger proportions, such as decades or more my skepticism and hopes rise in rather unequal amounts. Usually in favor of the former, seeing as I am a bit cynical, even around the holidays. Luckily I was pleasantly surprised again and again while reading these stories.

Noir, in literary terms can seem at times to be simple and complex when it comes to classification. It started as a sub-genre within mystery fiction which has since broadened its scope and  as such has grown to include  a wider array of writing.  Perhaps the easiest way to explain noir to those unfamiliar with it, might be to say the stories are well, black. From the settings to the plot lines and characters there is an ever present sense of darkness. Murder happens more often than not in noir fiction. There are ill-fated love affairs, of standard and triangle  variety. There are heists gone right, or wrong, and sometimes there are just psychopaths - who kill, just to kill. What makes almost any character interesting in any genre, is the depth and complexity of their flaws. That, for me, is what makes noir so fun to read. The protagonists aren't who you'd always expect. They are as flawed as anyone and might be called bad guys depending on how one chooses to look at it. Personally I've always been drawn to anti-heroes and so with this collection I found a lot to appreciate.

I've read countless collections and anthologies throughout the years - but never, and I mean never, have I been introduced to so many interesting authors as I have with this. Many of those authors are well-known and so I knew of them going in, but still hadn't read any of their work. This short list includes James Ellroy, who helped compile the volume and is regarded as one of America's finest crime writers. ( L.A. Confidential, The Black Dalia )  Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley) is another prime example. I'd been intending to check her out ever since I read and reviewed Thieves of Manhattan - the story she wrote in this case was actually inspired by a Richard Nixon quote, scary right? "Slowly, Slowly in the Wind" is just so memorable and creepy that I had to reference it by name. ( it is also the title to a short story collection by Highsmith) Lastly among these well known but, new to me writers was Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, Shutter Island) You may have noticed by now that all the larger works I've mentioned were made into films, some with greater success than others. But that brings up another intriguing fact about this collection in that many of the stories included have been made into films themselves. Oftentimes re-branded with new names such as the aforementioned opener "Spurs" which was adapted way back in the black and white era into the film Freaks (1932). An example of one story that kept the original title when it was adapted would be MacKinly Kantor's Gun Crazy (1950). I plan on trying to track down a number of these movies sometime "Spurs" with it's midget, murderer, anti-hero was one of my favorites from the lot. As for what was my absolute favorite story, right now, I am leaning toward Tom Franklin's "Poachers". I'll leave the details to those curious enough to actually check out the book, as it is one of the longer works included. But what I will say is that setting, and the characters are just fantastic. I've always thought there was something extra unsettling about the south, this story and a few others selected only prove that point.

I'm tempted to give more plot specifics to certain stories, but I think that to any serious reader there is something terribly exciting about not being told everything.  There is something special in discovering these kinds of stories, and writers on your own so I will leave that reward for you. To readers looking for something new I strongly recommend giving this a try. Nearly every story is a gem. Maybe not emeralds or sapphires but surely obsidian - black, flawed and still beautiful. Stories of covetous, murderous dreamers who aim for stars because anything less would be inhuman ; or perhaps un-American. The genre, and American talent, could scarcely be better represented than they are in The Best American Noir of the Century.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Pure Imagination (The Marsist)

Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews
Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews
Simply put Ray Bradbury is the reason I read science fiction.  He isn't the only writer in the field I read, but  his writing best exemplifies what I love about the genre. There are technical masters like Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke - men who might be too smart for their own good. They can tell you kinds of marvelous things about technology and the way things work.  Ray has never been quite so concerned with such details, as he says in one interview he doesn't care how to build a rocket - he just wants to fly. You see even at age ninety and beyond Ray Bradbury is still in many ways a ten year old boy. He never gave up his love for toys or his sense of childlike wonder. Thus the imagination of Ray Bradbury has never been polluted with things that would otherwise limit his gift.

Throughout this book of interviews readers get a glimpse into the mind of a true legend. Sam Weller, the author of Listen to the Echoes also wrote The Bradbury Chronicles, an award-winning biography.  For fans who want to know everything that is likely a better choice - however for those readers who just want 'the good stuff' this will suffice nicely. Each interview covers a set topic ; Childhood, Hollywood, Art & Literature, Sexuality to name a few.  It isn't set up entirely chronologically, as some cover multiple decades .  As a fan I am sometimes torn when it comes to reading about a writers 'intent' or 'reason' for writing this or that.  On the one hand I am curious, but on the other some things are better left unexplained.  This is especially true in the case of sci-fi in my opinion.  These interviews balance those concerns well I think, although much of that is owed to Bradbury's own respect his readers in my view.

As one familiar with his work would expect, Ray Bradbury's influences are vast and numerous.  His love of films is as complete as his love of rockets. He recounts his life as a teenager in Hollywood like it was yesterday.  He was an obsessive fan, who was often posted outside or as near to studios as possible.  He collected autographs of actors and directors in a little book he still cherishes to this day.  Of course once his own star had risen in the world meeting celebrities became a much easier thing.  A couple of my favorite remembered recollections were his meeting David Bowie and John Steinbeck. When explaining the diversity of his influences some might be surprised to hear that he hasn't read anything in his own field of science fiction in over fifty years ; However as a rapper who admittedly hardly listens to rap music anymore this fact resonated with me.

There are some details of Ray's past which seem perhaps too fantastic to be believed.  For instance he claims to actually remember his birth. His defense to the assertion that this is untrue is that he was a ten month baby - that the extra month in the womb allowed his eyes to develop beyond the level of ordinary infants.  While I fully acknowledge that Bradbury is anything but normal, this was still too much for me.  Being the fan I am though I think it only right to allow a visionary, and one of fiction's true idea men to get away with a lie here and there. After all so many of Bradbury's lies are the best kind of lies, the ones you wish were true.

Bradbury is perhaps the best short story writer that has ever lived. This is how I first encountered his work, and likely what I will always remember about him.  However he is also an accomplished novelist, screenwriter, playwright, and sometimes poet.  He even once won an academy award for an animated short.  In addition to all this Ray is the very definition of prolific.  Throughout his iconic career he has written over 600 stories. Despite caring so little for being scientifically accurate he did write what may well be the most prophetic piece of sci-fi literature, Fahrenheit 451.  This is evidence of not only his imagination but also his practical knowledge.  When skeptics of the genre belittle the value of science fiction, I point them toward Ray Bradbury.  After reading this collection of interviews I will do the same with any pessimistic complainers ; One need only look at Ray's many loves to be reminded of the good things. Ray loves books, movies, plays, music, people, toys, and rockets ; but most of all Ray loves life.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

When The Grounds Soft For Diggin' (Murder In The Red Barn)

Kings of the Earth: A Novel
                                                              Kings of the Earth: A Novel
Having read Jon Clinch's previous novel Finn I was not entirely surprised to find that everything in Kings of the Earth starts with a corpse. He's only  written two books and they both open with descriptions of a dead body in the first paragraph. You might think this trend emerging shows either a lack of creativity, or morbid obsession on the part of the author. You may even be right in a way - still ends are beginnings in the right frame. So maybe you're thinking  Mr. Clinch  may not have the cleanest bill of mental health. It could be he hears voices in his head. Voice is, after all what breathes life into Clinch's writing.  His characters feel like authentic representatives of an older world. This is as true in Kings of the Earth as it was in Finn. What should be made clear here is that  Finn was set in the late 1800's. (a re-imagining of the life of Pap Finn - from Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn)  Kings of the Earth however, is at least partially set in 1990. Despite this fact  it all works, and works very well.

The Proctor boys were raised in simpler times, and as their younger sister Donna explains, they never left them.  The three brothers Vernon, Audie, and Creed live together on the family dairy farm in upstate New York. The 'farm' is actually little more than a shack. I've seen houses like this while driving through the more rural parts of Nebraska and have been shocked to find a pickup parked near, as if, against all logic, someone still lives there. A writer of less imagination would surely set a horror story in a place like this.  Not John Clinch though, no suh.  He chose to tell a story with real emotional resonance.  A story that asks us how civilized are we, really? Modernization seen through the gray lens of ambiguity and uncertainty.

Vernon, the oldest is the fresh corpse detailed on page one. Though trust me when I say that knowing that will not ruin anything for you if you decide to give it a chance. The chapters are short and the perspective changes every couple of pages. The time shifts as well. From the the different stages of the Proctor's lives. We see defining moments from their lives. (early childhood in the 30's, after the death of their mother in the 60's up to the recent past of the 80's and a few select spots in between) The book's most endearing character, at least from my view was the middle son Audie.  Audie is described as feeble-minded in the books synopsis on the front flap.  He is quite clearly mentally handicapped. As a result the sections from his perspective are very short and direct and show a childlike innocence.  At one point early in the novel, after seeing a children's play of Peter Pan Audie rides standing on the back of a tractor with his arms spread out in imitation of the flying children.

The central plot centers around Vernon's death, which is thought to be a murder.  What eventually plays out raises questions of the legal system and law enforcement that may remind some of the classic To Kill A Mockingbird. The remaining Proctor boys are railroaded by authorities who want things to be wrapped up quickly.  Being seen simple and somewhat unsavory by most they are convenient targets. Of course what actually happened is much more complicated.

I'll likely never look at rundown home the same way again. This book really made me think about the world in which we live. It made me consider just how isolated is too isolated - and also how very close that boundary between the old world and the new one really are. With his second novel Jon Clinch has cemented his gift for capturing the past in his voice.   He writes no more than he needs to.  I would compare him to Cormac McCarthy in that respect. He is blunt and graphic and vividly real.  I will gladly read whatever he writes next, and I won't so much as bat an eye if it starts it with a description  of someone newly deceased.

*mini disclaimer - the song chosen for this review was not entirely my idea - Clinch actually quotes the song himself following the opening dedication. I could've searched high and low, and wouldn't have found a better fit.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Terror of Knowing (Under Pressure)

Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine
Play Their Hearts Out: A Coach, His Star Recruit, and the Youth Basketball Machine
I am a die-hard sports fan. Evidence of this fact is not hard to find ; For instance I spent the majority of yesterday afternoon watching preseason NFL games - All in anticipation of the Broncos opener. (and the debut of Touchdown Jesus Tim Tebow) Basketball, and the NBA's Denver Nuggets rank second in the hierarchy of my rooting heart. At least where the so-called 'major' sports are concerned. Despite all that I rarely read sports related books. My reasoning for this is simple. I can usually place said sports books into three basic categories. First is the success story. I don't want to give the impression that I am some bitter armchair asshole who doesn't like to see people achieve their dreams.  However, I would much rather watch those sort of triumphs live. The Saints' recent Superbowl win is a good example of this. Particularly because head coach Sean Payton and starting quarterback Drew Brees have both released books on the heels of the big win. (neither of which I have any intention of reading) Sorry champs, I know how the story ends. The second category is the hard luck heartbreaker.  The story of the star who didn't make it.  Sure there are lessons to be learned from such books but as I've already said I do not derive pleasure from an athlete's failure. Third, and most likely to draw my disdain is the tell-all media whoring money grab. The kind of book released by guys like Jose Conseco, full of finger-pointing, and rife with tones of self-righteousness. Of course I don't condone cheating, yet there is something especially off-putting about books like that. Even more so when you consider the fact that most authors of these books wouldn't be saying anything if they weren't broke and desperate for cash.

Now that you know why sports related literature is a rarity for me you may wonder what makes George Dohrmann's Play Their Hearts Out an exception to the rule. Well I'd be remiss if I didn't admit that I was somewhat obligated. I won an advance copy of this book through a goodreads giveaway.  Still there is a reason that this book enticed me to enter where others of it's ilk get no attention whatsoever. The hook was that I wanted a better understanding of the so-called grassroots game.  This is the term most closely associated with the AAU system.  The AAU organizes leagues and tournaments  for grade school kids as young as seven, and as old as eighteen. (second grade, through highschool).  The AAU dabbles in almost all sports, but basketball is by far king in it's the youth sports machine.  Baseball has Little League. Football has Pop Warner. Youth basketball has no such establishment, outside the AAU, or at least not one so strong.  Basketball also differs in another big way. The NBA's entrance procedure is different. Players are not barred from joining the Association straight out of high school, and more often than not, straight off an AAU roster.  Superstars can be, and are routinely drafted early.   The NFL still requires it's players to, if not attend college, at least wait three years after high-school graduation before becoming eligible.  The MLB, though not shy about drafting youngsters, has an extensive minor-league system where prospects develop before being sent up to the majors. One need look no further than the NBA's two biggest  stars to see the contrast.  Kobe Bryant and Lebron James never went to college.  They are both products, and prodigies of the AAU. Other notables include Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, and Tracy McGrady.

Basketball is unlike other team sports, in part because of it's limited team size.  Having only ten players in total on the floor at any given time means individuals have greater chance to shine, as individuals. Yet the brighter spotlight is not all a natural occurrence. Sponsorship greases the wheels of the AAU system in an unmatched capacity.  Specifically sponsorship of shoe companies, such as Nike, Adidas,  and Reebok.  In the AAU it is common practice for coaches of elite teams to sign on as "consultants" with shoe companies, which nets them salaries and product (in insane amounts) in exchange for agreements to wear gear, and in many cases run sponsored tournaments and camps. The money allows teams to travel nationwide and increase their top players profiles which helps explain some of how mega-hype spreads.  The coaches themselves are some of the loudest drum beaters for potential phenoms, and as you will see subsequently, one of the most unsavory elements of grassroots basketball.

I don't want to give away too much of the plot here, seeing as this advance review. (release date says 10.5.10) What I will say is that the story deals primarily with one star, Demitrius Walker, and the coach who ' discovered' him Joe Keller. At the age of nine or ten Walker was told by Keller that he was destined for the NBA, and of course riches beyond imagining.  Demititrius had size and quickness that other boys his age couldn't hope to match  These types of promises are doubtless common, no matter how ludicrous they might seem.  Yet what Keller didn't mention to his golden boy recruit was both money and revenge were coach Joe's primary motives.  Years earlier Keller had been duped by local coach and power broker Pat Barrett when he handed over eventual #2 overall draft choice Tyson Chandler. Barrett had promised a partnership which never materialized.  Barrett's SCA Stars were already sponsored by Nike, and so Keller thought he would extend either a joint-team proposal or a similar contract to the one he enjoyed.  Dohrmann, who was  writing a story for Sports Illustrated  in 2000 hoped to get some dirt from Keller.  When their initial meeting revealed little, Dorhrmann assumed he'd have to look elsewhere.  Still a relationship was forged, and Keller would eventually talk at more length about his relationship with Pat.  Nothing goundbreaking was published at that point but after a follow-up interview  in 2001 Keller advised Dohrmann to keep in touch.  He explained his intention of starting a new squad to beat Barrett at his own game.  What is even more telling is Keller's decision to allow extended access to his teams story once Walker was found.  Keller explained that as long as any comprehensive piece done about his team, (or a book like this one) waited until the conclusion to be published, he, meaning Keller, would be rich, and would no longer care what Dohrmann said.

The story is a long one that spans over eight years. From the inception of Keller's team the Inland Stars to the high school graduation of it's players. The team is eventually re-branded as Team Cal, following a sponsorship with Adidas.  The roster changed frequently but Demitrius was always the focal point as far as coach Joe was concerned. Many  Inland Stars / Team Cal alums went on to sign with Division I programs.  This is the most positive part of the story to be sure.  It also proves Keller's eye for future talent. What is also apparent however is Keller's reputation as a dishonest, and generally bad guy. For example he is no longer on good or even speaking terms with his former players. Walker's rise to a #1 ranked prospect (in the 8th grade) led to his being dubbed by one of Dohrmann's SI colleagues  ' The Next LeBron ' in 2005.  His life anointment shines a light on the darker side of expectations and the hunt for NBA dollars.

Again I reiterate that I do not typically read sports books.  Play Their Hearts Out is more than that. This is the type of story that movie makers might salivate over. If anything holds this back from being a blockbuster it will either be it's grittiness (which may scare away family oriented film makers) and it's length ( which could keep it from being a future Spike Lee Joint) It's no real surprise that this was well written.  After all Dohrmann is one  only four sportswriters to ever be awarded a Pulitzer - Albeit an earlier series of stories he wrote for the St. Paul Pioneer Press detailing academic fraud. The book may not change the way you view basketball, but it will show you up close, what has changed basketball.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Observations of the Visceral and Real (The Trouble With Poets)

The late Roberto Bolano has been celebrated as one of Latin America's finest writers. He has been compared to the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. ( Love in the Time of Cholera, One-Hundred Years of Solitude) After reading The Savage Detectives I'd have to agree with that assessment for two reasons ; First  is the feel for authentic setting. Both writers are easy-going educators. After reading their work I felt as though I'd actually gained some knowledge of Latin American culture. Let me also say that learning direct from the source is far more useful than three to four years of Spanish class. At least here in the States, where it seems as though the question of cultural education can be answered by three very basic components.  What they wear,  what they eat, and what holidays do they celebrate? What we see here is something very human and very real. This brings me to the second point of comparison between G.G.M. and Bolano ; The characters, of which there are many. What is so impressive when dealing with extensive casts, and in the process spanning many years - is that each author is able to do so, and at the same time present characters that are strong, and fully-realized individuals. (in Marquez's case this is even more awe-inspiring when so many of those characters have similar names, and can be mistaken for one another if you attempt to read too fast.)

Last week I expressed apprehension about reading supposedly literary novels.  Yet here I am again, reading and writing about reading and writing.  Thankfully once again I thoroughly enjoyed the book in question and thus I feel only slightly snobbish blogging about it. The way I figure it is that you can't get any more self-important once you start a blog in the first place, right?  The Savage Detectives may seem like a misleading title for this book, being that it ins't about detectives at all. Instead The Savage Detectives is about poets. More specifically it's about a group of poets who call themselves visceral realists. What visceral realism means is never quite clear, even for it's adherents.  What is clear is that they are a sort of new guard for Mexican poetry, brash, severe, and excited about the world. The novel's narrator for the first and last sections of the story is Juan Garcia Madero.  Juan arrives in Mexico City to study at the university, although once he falls in with the visceral realists he stops attending classes.  Juan is endlessly knowledgeable about poetic terms and the intricacies of form.  This fact is what draws the groups founders to him when they are on campus looking to recruit.  His fearlessness at showing up a local poetry professor also earns their respect. The two founders are Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano (who is a younger representation of the author even in his Chilean background)  The two sections with Juan as narrator move exceptionally fast.  This is helped by the dairy format which lists the day and is followed by a brief account of the relevant happenings. This might seem like something that would hurt the overall storyline by only skimming events but for me it provided plenty of information. Juan's connection to the reader here is very important because his introduction to the group is our introduction as well. This bit ends with Juan, Ulises, Arturo, and a whore named Lupe riding in a pimp's camaro into the Sonoran desert in search of Cesarea Tinajero, who they consider the mother of visceral realism

The middle portion of the novel ( which is the real meat of the book) is also where the name comes from.  The formatting here is set up as a long series of interviews with various characters and spans three decades. (76-96) Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano are mentioned frequently although no one can seem to get a fix on either for long.  For a time Lima vanishes in Nicaragua. Belano is spotted abroad in Paris by old friends. One interviewee recalls the time Belano discovered a 500 franc note on  the ground, and says now, he always walks with his head down.  Rumors are started and spread about both men although you don't find out why they are being sought out until the novel is just about over. Even the interview styled format isn't explained to the reader, yet that makes it more rewarding when it eventually clicks and you can savor the 'aha' moment. 

The third and final section of the book resumes the story from the beginning and ties things together in a mostly tidy fashion.  In all honesty there are more than a few interviews from the middle which probably could have been left out, although I won't complain.  As I said there are some enlightening things in this book which make it both educational and entertaining.  In addition I feel it is only right to praise the translator of this novel, which like all of Bolano's works was originally printed in Spanish. So, big ups to Natasha Wimmer.  She did an amazing job translating this into a smooth and effortless reading experience. At least as effortless as a 577 page novel can be. Of course from my recent review of Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones it is only more apparent what damage a poor translation can do. This has also restored some of my faith in the 1001 book you must read before you die list.  Having never read Bolano previously I was skeptical of how great of an impact a writer with just two novels to his credit could have - Still having not read much Latin American fiction I feel somewhat ill-prepared to make grand statements ; What I am sure of is Bolano's talent. The Savage Detectives proves something I've said of poetry for some time - Observation is the key, after which everything else falls into place.

Friday, July 30, 2010

How You Tell It (New Slang)

The Thieves of Manhattan: A Novel

If by chance you are an aspiring writer this book's view of the publishing world might really bum you out. When a book is labeled as 'literary' it seems a somewhat natural response to brace for possible pretentiousness. Books about books can indeed be redundant and often miss the mark ; writer protagonists face a daunting task, because referencing other works may only remind readers of those works, thereby drawing attention to an authors inferiority. This is not the case with The Thieves of Manhattan. Adam Langer's approach shows his literary chops in a playful way that grows more endearing as the novel progresses. He does this by referencing books through descriptive slang - rather than in some long dramatic monologue by an annoyingly well-read character. For example ; A well groomed mustache is a Steinbeck. A pervert is a Humbert. A mischievous grin, a Cheshire. To puke, is to Palahniuk. All of these references may seem like s lot to remember.( there is a glossary in the back for those you might miss) However, much like the use of Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange Langer's slang is something I picked up quickly and really grew to appreciate.

As mentioned above Langer's protagonist, Ian Minot, is a writer. Ian is struggling to sell his short stories. Rejection letters note that his characters are small and quiet people who don't do enough, nothing is a stake for them. The success of both Blade Markham - a supposed former gang member and drug addict, and Ian's Romanian girlfriend Anya, only makes things worse. Blade's memoir is a mega-hit and Ian can't seem to escape his gangsta grill on billboards and TV. Anya is a short story writer like Ian, yet her past in Bucharest is both beautiful and heart-breaking. Her stories and her looks have made her a darling in the eyes of potential agents and publishers. This is where " The Confident Man " enters the story. The man is a regular at the coffee shop where Ian works. He comes in every day and sits down to read his copy of Blade By Blade. This naturally frustrates a resentful Ian. Shortly after being dumped by Anya, and verbally threatened by Blade, Ian blows up. When the confident man walks in Ian snatches the book away and hurls it out the door. Ian is fired on the spot and leaves fuming. The confident man is waiting down the street. It turns out that he was testing Ian. The man whose name is actually Jed Roth has a plan, but he needs Ian in order to make it work. Roth explains that he too detests Blade Markham's book, and even left his job as an editor over it's publication.

Roth's scheme for revenge is simple. Write a fake memoir ala James Frey, sell it to publishers as fact. Then when the time is right ( after they've cashed the checks ) reveal to the public that the book is all lies. This will crush the publishers reputation, but still leave Ian as a known entity. Having read Ian's stories before as unpublished submissions, Roth knows they won't sell. Unless of course people know his name. The Thieves of Manhattan is the book the two create together. The plot involves an authentic first edition of The Tale of Genji, a library fire, a beautiful stranger, a thieving librarian, a crooked antiques dealer, and of course the hero, Ian who supposedly lived it all. Like any good adventure novel it also includes chases, gunfights, and true love.

This is all setup for a face-paced story that shares some qualities with the pulpy works Ian's 'memoir' evokes. The chapters are short and often end on cliffhangers or Scheherazades, as Langer calls them. It will keep you reading as fast as any good thriller can. ( I finished it in less than 24 hours ) The humor is solid as well. There are very few books that have consistently made me laugh. Humor is a hard thing to nail in writing, at most funny fiction gets a few smirks and chuckles from me. While I wasn't physically laughing at Thieves I found myself smiling frequently which is probably the best a reader has the right to hope for.

I really enjoyed this book, and recommend it to anyone and everyone who enjoys reading. 259 pages isn't asking much from the reader. Without question The Thieves of Manhattan is worth the day or two it takes to finish. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give a book which has been dubbed 'literary' is that it made me want to read the books it referenced. Most notable of those which I haven't yet read but now want to is Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep which is alluded to in Langer's term for gun, Canino. Initially I tried winning this book through goodreads. I didn't win but was still siked when I saw it at the library the next day. It's the most entertaining novel I've read in a while, and the best of the summer so far.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Read (Miserable Lie)

The Kindly Ones is one of the most disgusting books I've ever read. Other contenders for that honor happen to rank among my personal favorites. You may ask, what made this brand of awful so, well, awful? Perhaps it was the length - after all this book totals damn near 1,000 pages. Could it be that depravity is not suited for such scope? The first of those previously mentioned novels, which I loved so much, was Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange which even in it's expanded form - comes in at less than 200 pages. Is bloody murder simply better when bite-size? The answer is no. Although the pacing in 'orange' is very well done. Still, I say no while thinking of another favorite; Bret Easton Ellis' infamous American Psycho - while considerably shorter than Littell's book, its 400 plus pages include long passages about things like men's hair care products. How does Ellis manage to keep my interest? By making Patrick Bateman's psychotic outbursts chaotic, yet still believable. Thus the main character is more compelling - and dare I say it, more likable. On some level being appalled by Littell's protagonist Max Aue is the only viable response. Sure, that's understandable when you are talking about a Nazi SS officer. Yet there are instances where depth of character and motivation necessary to keep things interesting. For the most part this depth is absent. We as readers see Max's rise through the ranks, committing or witnessing atrocities at many WW2 hotspots - from Ukraine and the Caucasus, to Stalingrad, Auschwitz, and even the Battle of Berlin. However powerful these events and the images the conjure can be, the narrative is largely dragged down by bureaucratic blah blah and pure filth. I honestly don't know if I've read more passages about poop and it's excretion in my entire life, let alone all in the same novel.

As historical narratives go, The Kindly Ones is not entirely inaccurate. At least not in a grand and offensive fashion. There are a fair amount of embellishments to be sure - brief appearances by well known Nazi figures (Himmler, Speer, Eichmann, and yes, Hitler) which add some intrigue for a moment, until you realize that they seldom contribute to the plot in anything but a vague and in-direct manner. In Hitler's case his most memorable part in the book comes as comic relief when he is bitten on the nose. With these characters, and innumerable others, who are made up, but ultimately no less inconsequential - Max talks. Sometimes at great length about the war, it's impact, meaning, direction, implementation and everything else. Despite these conversations and tireless referencing the payoff in most cases seems rather shallow. Of course the translation doesn't do us any favors either. This book was originally translated from French, and not very well I might add. Thankfully grammar isn't the culprit here - if it were this book would be nearly un-readable. Instead form, and formatting is to blame. Paragraphs frequently run-on for pages. Add to that the fact that there are no indentations with a change in speaker, and you get a reading experience that really drags and sometimes confuses.

Finally to address the plot - and the aforementioned disgust. The book is set up as Max's fictional autobiography. As such his actions as an SS officer are expected to be gruesome, and they are. However as a student of history, this was nothing new to me, nor was it what truly repulsed me. Being a straight man, I was not entirely ready for the amount of homosexuality in this book. As someone who has newly resolved to be a somewhat serious critic of literature I could not let this deter me. I said to myself, hey Aaron, Elton John is a legend, and Morrissey is awesome - Don't give up this may turn out to be a good story. Well, I didn't give up, and soon I found yet another sexually deviant secret of Max's. That secret was offered as his explanation for his choice in sexual partners. See in truth Max is incestuously obsessed with his twin sister Una. Having been discovered by their mother the siblings are parted. Deciding that since he can no longer be with his sister - being her, in a sense, is the next best thing. While engaging in forbidden acts which could get him killed while in the SS, Max remains in a hollow existence. He continues to hold out hope that he'll be reunited with Una even after her marriage - and hates his mother eternally for her actions. This dynamic is where the novel gets its name. The Kindly Ones, refers to a Greek tragedy involving The Furies who torment those who commit patricide, or matricide. This is a reminder of how common a theme incest is within literature, as such it does not cease to be gross - But it does cease to have such dramatic impact. What actually does shock the reader comes much later on in the novel, well past page 800. Without going into too much sordid detail, I will say it includes auto-erotic asphyxiation, more sodomy, and more poop. This truly is a scene from the nightmares of Ugandan evangelicals - they really do "eat da poo poo". In a work touted as groundbreaking and controversial, the evils of Nazism become banal and boring.

Thematically speaking this actually turned out to be cliche, despite acclaim which praises Littell for originality. A rather huge disappointment all told. I checked this book out because it was on the 1001 books you must read before you die list. It may be my own fault, considering I like the idea of not knowing what I'll find - selecting books from the list at random, and not reading the introductory flap before diving in ; although the flap, when I read it after finishing the book - proved to be useless as far as preparing the reader for what is in store should they attempt to read The Kindly Ones. This novel won the Prix Goncourt in 2006. (a French Prize) which says it's for the best most imaginative prose work of the year. Now I'm sure that it reads better in it's original French translation - but I am equally sure that there must have been something more worthy of a prestigious national award.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Is It Kosher, I Wonder? ( Melt Show)

The Karp family are hiding something in their freezer, and it isn't large thick slabs of glorious bacon ; although if certain accounts are to be believed it may taste something like pork. Fifteen year old couch potato Bernie Karp ( the novel's primary protagonist) happens upon his family's heirloom whilst searching for an attractive piece of meat which he intends to put to use in a rather inappropriate manner. Hunger pangs emanating just south of his stomach Bernie comes face to face with a fully grown man frozen in a block of solid ice.

The next night at the dinner table Bernie mumbles about the 'old man in the meat freezer'. Bernie's father explains "Some people got taxidermied pets in the attic, we got a frozen rabbi in the basement. It's family tradition." The way in which this scene plays out serves as a good example of the kind of comedy Steve Stern is capable of delivering, which he does with some frequency. It's situational and at times ironic . Chapters then alternate between Bernie's story and several of his ancestors whose adventures document the travels of the Rabbi who remains burdensome, yet sacred cargo for five generations. These interludes are quick glimpses at the changing times and the immigrant experience in general, and sometimes more specifically the Jewish experience.

Perplexed Bernie wants to know more about the Rabbi who is supposed to bring good luck - yet the journal of his grandfather, which explains the rabbi's past, is written in Yiddish. Bernie can't make heads or tails of it, until lighting strikes, quite literally. Once again when Bernie is left at home to his own devices fate intervenes. A flash flood hits and the power goes out. When the storm subsides Bernie is startled by a noise from the basement. He goes to investigate and finds the Rabbi , fully-thawed, half-naked, and inexplicably alive.

Initially worried about his parents' reaction Bernie hides the Rabbi in the family rec room. A place his parents never bother to venture. The two begin to tutor each other in their respective languages. With little else to do the Rabbi also gets a crash course in modern times and American society by watching television. An education which proves to have profound effect on the holy man's faith and philosophy. Bernie too undergoes a significant transformation. He begins having out-of-body experiences which are at first alarming but ultimately euphoric for the young boy. The new studious nature with which Bernie adopts in imitation of his mentor has drastic physical consequence as well. The formerly chubby cheeked layabout begins to lose weight and pimples. This garners suspicion from his parents, but also attracts the attention of a girl – Lou Ella, who is intrigued by his spiritual episodes and believes she can help trigger them. This story of young love is paralleled again and again within the history of the Karp family. The previously mentioned chapters show a cycle of ascendancy, fall, and redemption. These chapters are engaging if brief. Still Bernie and the thawed Rabbi's story remains the central plot.

Parts of this book feel like a classic coming of age novel, and in some ways it may be – only on a larger more expansive scale than the one most first consider. Stern's breadth of imagination is impressive throughout. It's a whimsical take on Yiddish folklore which rightly draws comparison to Micheal Chabon. Stern's 2005 effort The Angel of Forgetfulness won the National Jewish Book Award which is now on my to-read list. This story poses questions of fate, faith, discovery, and heritage. The Frozen Rabbi is easily one of the most surprising books I've read this year.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

A Blog Is Born (Oh My Pregnant Head)

Twenty-Three years ago today there was a disturbance in the universe. A poor man and a poor woman welcomed a strange boy into the world. The boy was early according to doctor's standards - The boy, for his own part, cared nothing for time tables and expectations. That's not to say he doesn't appreciate proper timing, where some things are concerned. And so today he has set out to once again defy logic and maybe, just maybe, scare his poor parents. (probably not for the last time either) You see despite his gender the boy was determined to have a baby of his own, by unconventional means. A normal (human) baby was not an option, nor the objective. A figurative baby would do just fine. Thus he, or I, give to you.... Subliminal Maybe.