Friday, June 14, 2024

Hot, Cold, Heavy, Light: 100 Art Writings 1988-2018 by Peter Schjeldal


The show was conceived on the Planet of the Scholars, where every question is considered except "So what?" [178]

I began to imagine the artist's [Picasso's] pictures as a steamrolled sculpture. [190]

Cartier-Bresson: [Photography] is a marvelous profession while it remains a modest one. [320]

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

James by Percival Everett


Another classic from Everett, this time longer and "more conventional" than his other novels, a resonant and deeply felt re-telling of the brunt of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from the point of view of Jim, who in this version is far from the ignorant version Mark Twain gives us.

Monday, June 03, 2024

Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72 by Hunter S. Thompson


Have had this on the shelf for literally 35 years - but have I ever read this? No sign of markings, no memory. And it's a lot to take in: none of the colorful and hallucinatory characters and action of LAS VEGAS, which I remember well (well, mostly for the drugs). And the 1972 McGovern presidential candidacy is not something I know a thing about.

Thompson's political writing style (if one can call it that) is absurd - he reports a ton about what other reporters are reporting, and he reports on his own personality.

In Memoriam by Alice Winn


Stunning WWI novel about two English schoolboys who fall in love, enlist, and then meet again in the trenches at the battle of the Somme.  Terribly sad, quite beautiful - and even ends well! Well, not for most, that is. It's apparently Winn's first novel, but seems a much accomplished and polished and thoughtful work. Her close writing about men on the battlefield is exquisite.

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Like a Rolling Stone: A Memoir by Jann S. Wenner


Had to put it down not even halfway through. Though the dude knew everybody from the 1960s, his sly and immodest style of claiming to influence almost any important work that took place during his tenure as publisher of Rolling Stone became too annoying for me to take.

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Dance of the Happy Shades by Alice Munro

 Munro's first published book, and a fitting way to kick off my retrospective of her important body of work. She hasn't yet unleashed the "time torquing" technique of her later work, but the stories are wonderfully detailed and the characters deeply engraved.

The Pigman by Paul Zindel


Revisiting this 1968 YA title after fifty years! Still pretty good, pretty sad, little melodramatic, but basically a strong story. The ending particularly bittersweet -- narrator's rumination on how the whole human race are "baboons" waiting around the monkey house for someone to visit.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

Alice Munro RIP

Self-deception seems almost like something that’s a big mistake, that we should learn not to do. But I’m not sure if we can. Everybody's doing their own novel of their own lives. The novel changes -- at first we have a romance, a very satisfying novel that has a rather simple technique, and then we grow out of that and we end up with a very discontinuous, discordant, very contemporary kind of novel. I think that what happens to a lot of us in middle age is that we can't really hang on to our fiction any more.

Memory is the way we keep telling ourselves our stories – and telling other people a somewhat different version of our stories. We can hardly manage our lives without a powerful ongoing narrative. And underneath all these edited, inspired, self-serving stories there is, we suppose, some big bulging awful mysterious entity called THE TRUTH, which our fictional stories are supposed to be poking at and grabbing pieces of. What would be more interesting as a life’s occupation? One of the ways we do this, I think, is by trying to look at what memory does (different tricks at different stages of our lives) and at the way people’s different memories deal with the same (shared) experience. The more disconcerting the differences are, the more the writer in me feels an odd exhilaration.

I’m sad that I haven’t written a lot of things, but I’m incredibly happy that I’ve written as much as I have. Because there was a point when I was younger where there was a very good chance that I wouldn’t write anything – I was just too frightened.

I want to tell a story, in the old-fashioned way – what happens to somebody – but I want that ‘what happens’ to be delivered with quite a bit of interruption, turnarounds, and strangeness. I want the reader to feel something that is astonishing – not the ‘what happens’ but the way everything happens. These long short story fictions do that best, for me.

Monday, May 06, 2024

Four Novels of the 1960s by Philip K. Dick


The Man in the High Castle: Fascinating, weird, psychological alternative history, set in 1962, in the Rockies and in SF, after Germany and Japan won WWII. Dick has quite a beautiful prose style, and several of the characters are obsessed with the I Ching, and the process of casting and reading it are beautifully rendered.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch: Even more gripping. A future (2016!) where the solar system has been colonized and conscripts from Earth are drafted to inhabit the rough and ugly planets, surviving by regular hallucinegenic dosing and fantasizing about life inside a barbie-like game construct of Earth. Dick maneuvers the reader into a labyrinthe of real/unreal/surreal settings - his characters don't know if they're dreaming life or living it.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?: Renowned as the basis for the film BLADE RUNNER, it actually bears only the slightest resemblance. The movie is all neo-noir and stream-punk moody atmospherics, but the novel is more about relationships between the human and non-human, and conversations about the importance of living animals and.

Friday, April 26, 2024

In The Early Times by Tad Friend


Good. Weird. Pretentious.

A brilliantly written and odd book, mostly a memoir and an autobiographic essay by career New Yorker writer Tad friend, but verging at times on crystalline fiction, on sappy self-help relationship book, as furtive apologia by an unreliable narrator who cheats repeatedly on his wife, and finds in his father's life both a justification and a source of blame for this.

Friend's Wasp-y background -- born and raised in New England, his father a distinguished East Asian Studies professor an author and president of Swarthmore, a preppy education and avocations (Tad was a nationally ranked squash player - as was his father) -- this chill and chilly background is at odds with Friend's confessional intention.

If you love a demanding task that requires both discipline and talent...-- you eventually discover an innate boundary: you can apprehend real virtuosity, especially as it's used to best you, but you can never quite incorporate it. You will never be more than almost great...Yet the truly great players sacrifice so much that they stare back at us with equal longing. Or so we console ourselves. [115]

"Oversight" is a Janus word, like "buckle" or "cleave": it means both supervision and neglect [122]

'Life is contemptuous of knowledge; it forces it to sit in the anterooms, to wait outside. Passion, energy, lies: these are what life admires.' - James Salter [128]

'Think well on this, my sweet:
Our bodies need not truly beat 
Upon each other,
But, past their funerary heat.
Will slide together perfectly,
Grain and micrograin
Intimate and without stain,
Closer than ever they were in life.' -Day Friend (Tad's father) [155]

Monday, April 22, 2024

The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty by Sebastian Barry


Another winner from Barry, this one from 1988, so the earliest of his work that I've read. A Sligoman is caught between nationalist and royal sides in the Irish civil war, given a death sentence, and flees, effectively banished for life. He returns several times, though, unable to completely leave home, which eventually kills him.

In Eneas, Barry has created a memorable, gentle, conflicted character torn on all sides by family, country, spirit, goodness, and evil.

Some words have no tune for themselves. [13]

... it strikes him that any person alive in the world, any person putting a shoulder against a life, no matter how completely failing to do the smallest good thing, is a class of hero. [130]

... the peculiar clock of God, whose divisions seem both unending and brief in the same span... [130]

He passes a number of bottles with thick blue glass and the faces of people he knows etched in them... whole "dying" passage at end of novel, [307-308]

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Mayflies by Andrew O'Hagan


Good, pungent book. The story of a friendship between two Scottish men broken into two parts: Summer, 1986 and Autumn, 2017. The first half is a trip to Manchester for a concert, and is rip-roaring and drunken, loaded with 18 year old full of themselves and life and bristling with arrogant comic knowledge of a world they barely. The second half, thirty years later, is sobering, to see the least.

Almost all references are insular to UK 1980s pop, American mid-century films, and English literature. Didn't know half of them, but they still gave me a kick.

But found it an abrupt book, something missing from the center, and what happened in the intervening years. Still, O'Hagan a gifted stylist and dialogue-ist. Will seek out more of his work.

They say you know nothing at eighteen. But there are things you know at eighteen that you will never know again. [121]

"'The past isn't really the past, Tully said. 'It's just music, books, and films.'" [p. 244]

Thursday, April 11, 2024

Absolution by Alice McDermott


Liked this, although there's a cautiousness and a certain smugness to (both) the narrator's voices that I dislike. The first half of the book feels like it's heading toward a more dramatic ending that I got, and the switching of narrators between the older woman and the younger woman does not yield significant unveilings of meaning or narrative.

Monday, April 01, 2024

Deliver Me from Nowhere: The Making of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska by Warren Zanes


Great book! That rare thing, penetrating writing about music.

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut


Must have read this before but don't really remember it. It's interesting but seems to be an early (1963) experiment in Vonnegut's more mature and radical books Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions.

The fantastical human-based religion of Bokonism, the short chapters that always end with a flair (if not much narrative oomph), the sci-fi flirtation of the doomsday weapon ice-nine, are all elements to be perfected later.

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles by Geoff Emerick


Good but not great. It was a different time - and certainly, just the placement of the microphones and crude primitive physical sound manipulations were enormously important in the 1960s in pop music studios. Emerick is a bit gushing (but it's the Beatles, so who wouldn't be?) and he has a way (as does anyone outside the Beatles who is writing about them) of desperately trying to take credit for something that was most obviously a result of the group's own creative effort and genius.

His recounting of the recording of Revolver -- and especially Abbey Road -- are the highlights.

Some of his anecdotes - John and Yoko dragging a bed into the studio during the recording of Abbey Road, Lennon high on acid being rescued by the other three from the roof of the studio, George Martin's chilliness - are great. But barely registers against Lewisohn's stunning biography.

Tuesday, March 05, 2024

Time for the Stars by Robert A. Heinlein


Pairs of twins on earth are trained as telepathic modes of communication: one will embark on space travel and the other will stay earthside, and together they will transmit news and updates instantaneously across a trillion miles. Time, however, will pass more slowly for the twin travelling through space at a speed just below the speed of light, making for uneasy relationships between twins who started out the same age but end up vastly separated by time AND space. Interesting although not much happens.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years Vol. 1 by Mark Lewisohn


Riveting, deeply detailed group biography of the Beatles, from their Liverpool origins and childhood, right up until the beginning of 1963, when the release of "Please Please Me" is about to launch them into a stratosphere of pop celebrity which had never been seen before.

Their intertwined lives - how they grew up just minutes and miles from each other - are richly described.

Cannot wait for Vol. 2.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Orphans of the Sky by Robert Heinlein


Continuing my sci-fi jaunt through the mesmerizing imagination and intelligence of Robert Heinlein. A marooned "generational spaceship" is a complicated mini-world where the diverse population has forgotten the reason for the original journey from Earth to a distant star system, and reverted to a primitive (if still high-technology) culture and belief system.

Beyond the Bedroom Wall by Larry Woiwode


Astonishing and I'm only two chapters (100 pages in). A stunning opening where a son makes his father's coffin out of scratch.

Now I'm 450 pages into 600. Still going but it is a heavy, dense book. Some of the prose gets a bit wiggy and descriptive, but the weaving of past and present, and characters' thoughts and actions, has real power. Will finish if it kills me. Thankful that the county library system has abandoned their punitive overdue fining system.

4/16/2024. only 40 pages to go. Still amazing.

This extended section hear the end is as close as I have gotten to an understanding of Woiwode's complex, heavy novelistic structure:

Charles had a vision of a book: it would be a journal written by his mother, beginning the day Jerome was born, and would move throughout her years in Hyatt in an earth-colored, unbroken line, and then begin to explore her past, tentatively at first, as though stalactites were forming below the line, and suddenly drop and move back toward her birth, while the narrative grew thinner and thinner, until, at the journey's end, you'd feel left on paper-thin footing, looking down a sheer cliff. That would be her death. Then a series of multicolored pieces about North Dakota and Illinois, like large rocks in a stratum at the edge of her journal, each piece complete in itself, whole and unshakable, bearing no outward relationship to any other piece, implying that it's impossible to relate experience or contiguous periods of time in terms of continuity in our time (each moment, each year sealed off because it's escaped destruction and has to buttress the chaos battering at it), so that an incident from childhood might have more temporal value that ten years of adulthood, and this particular incident -- set off and explored to its limits (this harked back to her journal) -- would be more mature than the man carrying it; or it might be seen as outside him, a luminous omnipresence, a portion of his past that lay ahead and was a goal to be achieved if he was to grown -- This wasn't entirely clear yet. But the pieces themselves, the rocks of the stratum, would lie where they were, so you'd bump your head or wedge the lines apart if they weren't entered on their own terms, and then as more were added (but not so the book was like shaking a puzzle box), pressure would be put on earlier ones, and then at certain points the first piece would shift. Then, as another was added, several would shift at the same time; and then a continual rearrangement, a giving away begins (somewhere in here would go all the trouble he'd had with women), and suddenly there's a feeling of an earthquake, and an abyss opens in the book. On this side of it, Charles' journal, the actor's journal, Karl's journal, begins in New York, where the desolation, the bleakness and anonymity are identical to that of the plain, but more pernicious: man's constructed the city and chosen to live in it; the plain is a natural phenomenon he can always leave; swarms of people shoulder past more swarms in the city without touching another life; people move over unpopulated spaces of the plain to have a specific effect on a particular person -- so the city makes him more conscious than ever of the plan. In his journal the actor discovers attributes that belong to his mother instead of him and so, fearfully at first, begins to explore his past as his mother has, hoping to follow it backward to hers, and sees everywhere in the city parallels to an earlier life (these winos would be in it; like the Plains Indians, caricatures of their former selves from the time their homes, their spiritual roots, had been usurped; more committed to illusions than others to reality, and determined to sustain the illusions be continuing to drink -- firewater, the Indian's name for it; how could the two elements mix?-- and remaining rootless), and after a month's work it occurs to him that he's constructing, as the city's been constructed, his own reality, artificial or not, and making room for himself to operate within it (his generation acting what hers actually felt), whereas his past lies outside him in a state as natural as the plain, and he begins to long for an early love affair (here he'd use Jill), but realizes that the affair began as early as memory, or more. And then he sees his mother signaling to him from the other side of the book and they reach for each other across the abyss. (And now it had a title, The End of Flesh, which would tie these two themes together.) The edge of her journal is like the border of North Dakota and he wants to return there, not just metaphorically, and is planning a trip when one afternoon in the New York Public Library he finds in a history volume (like the one his father found; that would have to be in earlier) a paragraph about his great-great-grandfather, on his mother's side, who disappeared from the plain without a trace during a buffalo hunt. He's electrified. He then begins to act out his prose instead of writing it (he'll say that without the voice, without the limbs and their movement through space, his spirit -- his flesh? -- turns stale) and then the prose begins to act on him; it hangs from him like ropes and chains and unopened padlocks and replicas of all his joyful days gone hard as brass. And then it works inward. He can't eat and it's hard for him to breathe. He puts pieces of it down on pages, finally, like scattering paper over paper in straight lines, and finds himself becoming unburdened, fragile and airlike, and then glances at his band and sees that he can read his manuscript beneath it; his hand is transparent. This doesn't bother him, he's expected it, he makes a note of it and goes on writing, and at the end of the book his completed journal is discovered by a cleaning lady in an empty room with a mound of hair piled over its top. Maybe then an introduction by somebody who's known him (an editor? his brother?), telling how his family has instituted a search for him that's lasted several years, with Emil involved in it, but found no trace? Or a final paragraph of the actor knocking on the lines of his prose from behind to get out? Or into the world of his family? No, he'd remain motionless, flat on the page, like a plain. The plain, the plain, and each page a reminder of the cycle of the book, of course!
    And then he remembered those puerile, unpolished, ramble-tongue and tongue-tied paragraphs, those scribblings in his room, which he'd torn from the letter tablet and hidden in his paperback dictionary, and knew he could never write a book such as this, not in a lifetime or by himself, not without outside help, and never would.

[pp. 548-560]

Tom Lake by Ann Patchett


Okay but seemed to take forever to finish. A wife and mother relaxes on her cherry orchard in Michigan and recounts, half to her three daughters and half to herself, the story of her young life and career as an aspiring actress.  The play OUR TOWN is the palimpsest behind it all, which she starred in, although she also has a brief fling as a rising Hollywood actress too.

The tone is rather smug and self-satisfied and wearing, although the on- and off-state drama and the characters of a summer stock theatre are richly drawn.

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Who I Am by Pete Townshend


A complex character. Rushed to read this after reading the infamous DEAR BOY autobiography of Keith Moon, who was certainly the heart and blood of The Who. But the astonishing songs, the soul of the band, are almost all Townshend's - and cover such a range from 1963 to 1978 as to almost beggar belief.

All these guys also grew up - and were navigating the end of the 1960s and early 1970s in their early 30s at best, barely matured in one sense, and having seen it all (and more) in another.

And what a band! The Who have been accurately described as a band with four lead soloists - and Moon's idiosyncratic wild and powerful drumming leads the way, along with Townshend's amazing melodic and rhythmic guitar, Entwhistle's foundational (and extremely melodic) bass playing ("Thunderfingers"), and Daltrey's central, powerful roaring voice.

Townshend's voice is strange - defensive, arrogant, slightly delusional (he invented the Internet, power chords, rock opera, among other things) - and his spiritual pursuits are foregrounded while his sexual mishaps are glossed over.

Still, an extraordinary musician and mind - the Beatles had three great songwriters, the Stones had two, but The Who had one, and they still stand in the same ring as those other greats of the pantheon. Dylan is different - he stands apart from any one band. The 1960s singles, The Who Sell Out, Tommy, Who's Next, and Quadrophenia are all five star albums. The Who played and stayed live in a way the Beatles never did.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray


Meh, couldn't finish it. Big fan of Murray's but here it seemingly goes nowhere (at least after a hundred pages).

Thursday, January 18, 2024

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein


Vivid memories of reading this as a teenager, I'm remembering complete sentences (at least in the first 50 pages, did I read the whole thing?).

It's got a bit of a cheesy late fifties-early sixties vibe, some of the slang and the general misogyny.

But Heinlein deftly imagines an interplanetary and advanced  future and how a human born and raised on Mars (by Martians) might be welcomed on earth. The concept of "grokking" (i.e., knowing fully, but also sexual consummating and cannibalism) was unleashed upon an unknowing America, and one must still only wonder at how many people have actually read the book as opposed to how many use the term "grok" fluently.

Too long and too polemical, the action really dries up in the (lengthy) middle of the book. Still, a fascinating novel of ideas.

Friday, January 12, 2024

Prophet Song by Paul Lynch


Not loving it so far - and don't understand why it's so critically beloved. Lynch's prose style is hyperconscious about protagonist Eilis's perception of physical micro-movements, and natural description is pregnant with metaphoric foreshadowing.

Maybe it will change and grow on me, I'm only a third of the way through.

Disappointing. Difficult slog as Lynch doesn't use paragraphs or quotation marks and prose bludgeoned me. Not that he is untalented -- and not that I wasn't moved in parts - but overall didn't care for it.

... and she can see that the world does not end, that it is vanity to think the world will end during your lifetime in some sudden event, that what ends is you life and only your life...

... and the prophet sings not of the end of the world but of what has been done and what will be done and what is being done to some but not to others, that the world is always ending over and over again in one place but not another and that end of the world is always a local event... [304]

Tuesday, January 02, 2024

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein


Great, surprising book. Mike the Computer alone is worth it, for Heinlein's witty fortelling of artificial intelligence. And the political discussion is bracing an intelligent, swirling around the Moon's struggle for independence from the Earth -- a lunar population  descended from convicts and conscripts banished from the mother planet -- the political discussion covers democracy, autocracy, libertarianism, and anarchy.

Dear Boy: The Life of Keith Moon by Tony Fletcher


Jammed with good details - particularly music, TV and film references -- but overwritten and I generally hate Fletcher's effusive and emotive and melodramatic prose.

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