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Monday, January 18, 2016

"Staying Up Too Late: Edward Hopper's Nighthawks and the Dark Side of the American Psyche" by Gordon Theisen

In 2008, I wrote a blog entry about Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks," the iconic painting of the late night diner and the characters inhabiting it.  I wrote my entry mainly directed at the composition of the painting rather than its overall symbolic meaning.  I've always felt lacking in my art appreciation skills; what little I can summon to make cross-examinations between literature and philosophy, I cannot translate to my interpretation of art.  I am not sure why this is so, since I have been widely accused of having a "gift for gab" when it comes to academic topics.  Nevertheless, I love visual art in all of its forms and writing about it here is a good exercise.

Back in 2008, when I was still within the safe confines of academia, a colleague found out I was writing an entry on "Nighthawks" and recommended a relatively "new" book on the matter.  I did not go out and purchase the book right away, but I read some reviews online and made a note to find it and read it eventually.  Fast forward to 2015... out of academia and slumming around used bookstores, I come across a hardcover copy of Gordon Theisen's "Staying Up Too Late: Edward Hopper's Nighthawks and the Dark Side of the American Psyche" for a mere $1.  The book was heavily annotated by someone who had obviously enjoyed it, and I took that as a good sign.  I found the book informative and passionately written.  The volume occupies itself with its title subject, but also delves into the works and lives of many other artists--it also covers a variety of overlapping topics, a broad swat of ambitious intellectual composition.  This, I respectfully believe, is what dooms parts of the book.

The introduction's pace is furious.  Theisen writes intelligently about American culture, history and folkore.  The problem stems from the fact that the author cannot conceal his politics (not that he is obligated to) and shows his bias a bit too forcefully.  Some of this authoritative bias is understandable enough--it is his book, after all, but at times even the most subtle instances of it strike the reader as obnoxious.  The fact that Hopper was "staunch Republican" strikes the author as odd, but it comes across as if Hopper, being an artist, was suffering from a type of intellectual or political leprosy.  I think Theisen's interpretation here is unfounded.  The so-called Republican Party "intolerance" of liberal arts, arts in general, etc. is a modern caricature conceived by pundits and political "experts."  Back in the late 1920s and 1930s, the Republican Party was not the iconic intolerant, conservative, super-religious, backward organization it is represented as today.  Both parties during the lifespan of Hopper's life had bigger "fishes to fry" other than engaging in petty "culture wars."  The fact that Hopper grew up in a conservative household may have more to do with his reserved, painfully conservative politics and ideas, not simply the fact that he "carried the label" of the Republican Party.  I am not defending a political ideology or even a party, but this type of what one can only assume to be "unintended bias" seems to have run its course during the Bush, Jr. years and now it sounds tiresome and only alienates those who see it for what it actually is.

I am sure Theisen did not set out to make it so, but the introduction is alarmingly depressing.  His treatment of American optimism from a historical perspective also shows his bias.  Our religious heritage has been damaging to American history; the Founding Fathers were blindly optimistic while ignoring the plight of non-white peoples; our economic system is based on optimism composed of thinly veiled lies, and so forth and on.

Once the book returns to the title subject, the core of its content is both entertaining and educational.  Biographical details about Hopper are well-researched and presented here clearly, and the non-chronology meshes well with the analysis of Hopper's work.  For the most part, the analysis of the art work is clear and informative; only in a few places does the language turn esoteric, and the analysis seems more like a stretch than insight.

I enjoyed the book tremendously.  Perhaps my negative comments come from the fact that life outside academia is different; one doesn't have the luxury anymore to believe that analysis and interpretation "matter."  Out here, a painting is just a painting and a late night diner just a late night diner.

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Friday, December 18, 2015

"The Mindful Writer" by Jan Marquart

I have written sparingly about books dealing with writing.  The last time I did, I got some nasty comments for my criticism of a famous writing guru who mixes writing with neo-esoteric/mystical themes.  My premise then was that one needs not to get so overly complicated about the writing process, or delve so deeply into the non-tangible to be successful.  I think my repulsion to these types of writing techniques in those days was due to my full-time teaching position.  Semesters are based on producing material (good material) leading to a finish product for a grade of some sort, and I was so centered on this philosophy to care about anything else.  I left teaching in 2009 and never looked back.  As a result, my opinion on the matter has changed greatly since, and I have come to appreciate every type of technique, no matter how over-the-top or unique.

"The Mindful Writer" by Jan Marquart contains the right combination of biography, philosophy, practical advice and exercises.  This is fairly rare on these types of instructional book.   The parts of the book that are narrative in nature are clearly marked from those intended to be instructional, yet the seamless border between them makes the text easy to read and approachable.  There are no "do it this way" rules and the biographical passages are simply included to personalize the effectiveness of what Marquart is trying to get across.  There is a persistent tone (a gentle one) on creating the kind of confidence that the reader will hopefully take to his/her own blank page later, and this alone sets this book apart from many others intending to foster the personal journal techniques to heal and understand one's own past.  As a result, most of the exercises yield deeply personal (at least in my case) entries which often do the most to clarify one's mistakes, pain and unresolved heartache.  The prompts of the exercises are open-ended in a way that allows the student writer to find his/her own way through the map of experience; they are general in context and deceivingly universal once the writer engages them.

This is a carefully and beautifully written book by a writer who knows the healing and the power of writing as a self-examination tool.  I highly recommend Jan Marquart's book to anyone seeking advice on creating positive healing spaces for themselves on the blank page.  

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Wednesday, November 11, 2015

"Eight Pieces for the Left Hand" by J. Robert Lennon

Picking up a volume of "The Best American Short Stories - 2015" edited by Michael Chabon, I came across this gem by J. Robert Lennon.  "Eight Pieces for the Left Hand" is written in the form of brief episodes that illustrate amazing twists of fate, random switch of circumstances and an insight into real human fragility.  The one piece that impressed me the most was one relating the story of a poet of "considerable national fame" who had just finished a collection of poems.  The collection was delayed during the revision process and awaited by the publisher and fans with some anticipation.  The poet is arrested for drunk driving and his car is impounded.  With the only manuscript of the work inside the car at the time, and the car and all of its content now owned by the police department (the legality of such matters escapes me at the present time, so I will just suspend my disbelief/skepticism), a long legal battle ensues to recover the manuscript from the car.  In the meanwhile, the poet dies.  After some more years, the publisher comes to an agreement with the police department to have the poems read to an editor over the phone with the idea of having the editor write them down by hand.  The phone call takes place, the poems are set in book form and published to vast critical acclaim, ensuring the poet's place in the cannon of contemporary literature.

Some years pass and eventually the poet's family wins the protracted legal battle against the police department rescuing the original manuscript.  After careful examination, everyone comes to realize that the poems published in book form bare little resemblance to the ones in the original manuscript.  The story conclude this way: "It was not long before a city policeman confessed to having improvised much of the manuscript during its telephone transcription.  His only explanation was that he saw room for improvement and could not resist making a few changes here and there.  Almost immediately, the policeman was asked to leave the force, and the acclaimed book was completely discredited.  The true manuscript was published in its entirety, to tepid reviews."  

And that is how you write an amazing story of real human depth.  I read through the rest of the pieces and they were just as brilliant, but for some reason this one stayed with me.  It would be an understatement to describe it as "clever," for it is far beyond more than that.

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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

"A Tranquil Star" by Primo Levi

"A Tranquil Star" by Primo Levi is one of those books one picks up at a bookstore mainly due on the strength of the author.  I must confess that what interested me the most about it was the tantalizing fine print on the cover: "unpublished stories."  My experience with Primo Levi was strictly limited to non-fiction, primarily his holocaust books "Survival in Auschwitz" and "The Reawakening."  The cover flap insde "A Tranquil Star" bills the stories as newly translated into English (the first effort since 1990).

The stories follow a chronology and they depict the early conventional narrative style and the more experimental one later on.  "The Death of Marinese" and "Censorship in Bitina" build up and resolve quite conventionally with the draw, pitch and conclusion of stylistic narrative.  Since I had never read any of Levi's fiction, it was hard to detect a specific stylistic voice to them; they could have been written by anyone.  The later stories reflect a more experienced Levi, one that has honed his craft and created his own narrative voice.  The stories "Gladiators," "Fra Diavolo on the Po" and "The Girl in the Book" force the reader to suspend certain levels of disbelief much in the same way that "magic realism" does in the literature of the Latin American boom.  In "Gladiators," Levi offers the readers the tale of warriors doing battle against automobiles in vast arenas, and in "The Girl in the Book" he offers a tale of surrealist quality, blending temporal and symbolic elements nicely.

Often times, readers are hesitant to observe narrative/stylistic qualities of specific writers when the works are translated.  This can be a very tricky and misleading belief.  Although my Italian is limited to the extent of my fluency in Spanish, I looked up the originals in Italians to make comparisons on specific passages that initially felt odd.  I can say with confidence that both Ann Goldstein and Alessandra Bastagli did an amazing and miraculously job translating these.  Not only did they capture the full meaning of the stories, but inasmuch as the "early" and "late" stories are concerned, they were able to capture the development of Levi's style with both precision and clarity.  This is probably the most difficult thing for a translator to do and they both pulled it off flawlessly.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck

I first saw this painting during an introductory art appreciation course in college.  My exposure to art had been very limited up to then, but the timing could not have been more perfect.  At the time, I was in the middle of a mental renaissance; I had just finished my military service and landed right in the middle of an intensive liberal arts curriculum that became the center of my life.  The professor was very good and "broke down" the painting progressively, pointing out the obvious and later delving into complex theories of interpretation few of us had thought about until then.  What fascinated me the most about the double portrait was the amount of detail included.  When examined in close detail, the amazing attention to the smallest articles in the room and the characters is simply amazing.  Later, when we realized the portrait measurements were only 2' 8" x 2' the sense of surprise led to that of absolute wonderment.  How can an artist put that much detail into a painting that small?

The composition is simply enough.  A husband and wife standing in a room showing the comforts of home.  The professor explained (based on my notes which I still have and from where I am typing most of this) that the composition was rare in "early" art because of its orthogonal perspective, a technique not usually practiced during van Eyck's time.  Along with this complex composition setting, van Eyck also employed the use of a mirror in the background which leads to a sense of space and depth to the confined portrait.  Two standing figures in a room with angles (orthogonal) that split the image through its center-middle is hardly a difficult one to understand.  The simplicity of this composition allows van Eyck to then incorporate the narrative of the Arnolfini's life with lush material details.  The furniture, the attire and practically every single item inside the painting tells a story of a young married couple embarking on their life together.  Giovanni Arnolfini was a merchant of some distinction at the time, and the exquisite detail of their attire is presented to depict their socio-economic status as much as their other fine possessions.  van Eyck creates luxury in every fold of the fabric, especially that of Mrs Arnolfini.  The pet dog is another sign of affluence, as is reported few people were able to keep such luxuries.  The fine mirror depicts the stations of the cross around the center mirror piece, no doubt a religious obligation from the time.

The story of the marriage in the portrait is a complicated one.  Some experts theorize that the woman in the painting is not Constanza Arnolfini, but a second unidentified one.  Very few details remain from the time, but it is commonly held that the portrait was done a year after Arnolfini's wife, Constanza, had died.  Other theories speculate Constanza Arnolfini being pregnant in the painting, and that the painting was done in honor of her having died during birth giving.  The story is very much unclear, and as such in the art world where stories such as this one lead to interesting (often false) narratives.

The painting resides at The National Gallery in London since 1842.  The rest of the provenance is nearly impossible to trace unless one has access to the records in London.

I consider this painting my introduction to art appreciation.  There are times when I realize how little time I dedicate to this part of my life-long learning, but I do take time to remember the joys that class introduced me to.  For me, it was the beginning of appreciating things more than just looking at them.

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Friday, August 14, 2015

What We Write... How We Heal

I read somewhere that most people who write journals often end up writing about the same thing over and over again.  I may be very guilty of this offense.  I've begun the process of typing up my Moleskine notebooks, and have become fully conscious of the cyclical patterns in them (the picture below is an example of the last couple of years worth).  This could feel like an exercise in patience or a colossal waste of time.  There are some bright moments, to be sure, but most of us who write for self-examination/healing know deep inside that most of what we write is both repetitive and in some ways useless.  Yet, something keeps pushing us to do it, to put pen to paper and finish notebook after notebook.  It is not hypergraphia, or at least I do not think so, but the desire to write is real, albeit inconsistent from time to time.  This whole thing is a careful balance between desire, discipline and avoiding the call (to write), and the process can lead to inactivity and frustration.  I'm okay with it, or at least I think I am.

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Monday, July 20, 2015

"The Principles of Uncertainty" by Maira Kalman

I've had this book for a long time (it was presented to me as a gift the very week it was published) and I never took the time to read it right away.  I certainly appreciated "The Principles of Uncertainty" by Maira Kalman the moment I picked it up.  It is a heavily constructed volume.  While it is only 336 pages, for a book it's physical size it feels like holding a heavy encyclopedia volume in your hand.  My guess is that the hardcover can withstand nuclear Armageddon and not have a scratch on it.  The physical feel of the book is perfectly emblematic of its content.  Simply put, Kalman's book is one of those rare ones that fits John Updike's description of a book perfectly ("A book, in every relation to the human mind, hand, and soul, is a perfect thing.").

What awaits the reader inside is a combination between art and thoughts that will encourage a soul to take pause and simply rest.  Many of the entries are based on family biography, but Kalman writes simply and beautifully about these characters and they appear warm and familiar.  There is no doubt Kalman is a great artist and this volume also depicts an insightful and thoughtful writer.  Many of the entries are carefully balanced between a stream of consciousness and artfully crafted compositions.   A year is simply not enough for Maira Kalman's beautiful artistry and vision.  I will be looking at her other books soon.

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Friday, June 12, 2015

"Hotels, Hospitals and, Jails: A Memoir" by Anthony Swofford

"Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails: A Memoir" by Anthony Swofford should be the last book I pick up at the present time.  Nevertheless, I picked it up and read it voraciously with the love of literature only tragedy and pain can bring.  We all read to escape, and there should be no shame attached to that fact.  I consider myself testament to that fact.  Anthony Swofford is best known as the author of "Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War," later a fairly uneventful film at the box office.  He has been treated unfairly by the critics after his first book, and as a result, quickly took on the unfortunate label of "one hit wonder" among the literary circles of both the east and west coasts.  I remember finding his second book, the novel "Exit A: a Novel" on the remainder stacks just a few months after it was published.  The reviews were not only unfair, but tragically written by critics who obviously failed to veil their personal contempt with anything resembling a fair language.  This is as unfortunate as it is unfair.  Swofford is a great writer.  He delves into personal and psychological traits of tortured people with the same delicate touch as he does fragile details of young love and other emotional topics.  His description of the Saudi Arabian desert, among with the terrific exposition of emotion/stress and heartbreaking disappointment in "Jarhead" should be considered as classic as Hemingway's famous description of the Italian retreat from Caporetto... but then again, that's just my opinion.  Aside from my education, writing and literature teaching career, I'm just a bitter former U.S. Marine that's proud of his Marine brother making it big. 

"Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails" redirects attention from the glamor of literary success to the everyday struggle to keep a promising career afloat in the fact of personal and professional missteps.  Swafford is as brutal with his own family members (his father in particular) as he is with other topics regarding his own behavior.  The telling of his postwar memoir reads like a travel guide to the fifth circle of hell.  Is Swafford a reckless drunk who turns to the pen to air his dirty family laundry with complete disregard for the consequences?  Swafford describes the long drive from the west coast to a mid-west college to attend his niece's graduation.  Along for the ride on the rattling RV, his aging father, almost immobile, a bitter drunk, a master manipulator of others and a thorn on the author's psychological side.  They argue bitterly about the past.  They reconcile and then fight again.  What is revealed here is not a typical relationship full of heartbreak and emotional baggage, but a tug of war between two people who love each other greatly and cannot face the fact without trying to destroy it first.  This is a highly-accentuated psychological dilemma and Swofford puts it down on paper with clarity and candor.  I can't even begin to image how painful writing something like this must be.  To have to relive events from years ago and retell them with detail and in a manner that reaches the reader with palpable pain must have been exhausting and damaging. 

Similarly, Swofford retells/relives his relationship with women (before and after his success) among a mixture of drugs, alcohol and emotional recklessness.  The healthy aspect of all this wreck-like emotional menagerie of pain is that Swofford emerges with a clean voice at the end.  He is the writer who can point to himself and confess his shortcomings without sounding fake or unrepentant.  Critics may miss this level of sincerity and truthful writing, but those of us who know disappointment and pain (both the pain we cause and the pain others cause us) can definitely tell the difference.

"Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails: A Memoir" is classic Anthony Swofford.  All that is left for Swofford to do is to translate this type of brutal writing to the past-postmodern, contemporary fiction of today.  With luck, the critics and reviewers will come to understand that Swofford's voice is full of real talent, and is one to be reckon with.

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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Life Ends... And There is Nothing We Can Do.

Life ends... There's nothing we can do about it.  At that time, we must lock ourselves up in a tiny place and take refuge away from others... take refuge in literature, art and music... away from everyone, from everything.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

"Cuando Un Amigo Se Va" - Alberto Cortez (When a Friend Leaves)

Cuando un amigo se va /  When a friend leaves
queda un espacio vacío  /  only an empty space remains
que no lo puede llenar  /  that cannot be filled
la llegada de otro amigo.  /  with the arrival of a new friend.
cuando un amigo se va  /  When a friend leaves
queda un tizón encendido  /  there only remains a bright light on
que no se puede apagar  /  that cannot be extinguished
ni con las aguas de un río.  /  with all the waters from a river.

Cuando un amigo se va  /  When a friend leaves
una estrella se ha perdido  /  a star is forever lost
la que ilumina el lugar  /  that used to light the place
donde hay un niño dormido.  /  where a little child sleeps.
Cuando un amigo se va  /  When a friend leaves
se detienen los caminos  /  all the paths close
y se empieza a revelar  /  and it begins to reveal
el duende manso del vino.  /  the gentle elf-spirit of wine.

Cuando un amigo se va  /  When a friend leaves
queda un terreno baldío  /  a space is left barren
que quiere el tiempo llenar  /  that time tries to fill
con las piedras del hastío.  /  with the rocks of boredom.
Cuando un amigo se va  /  When a friend leaves
se queda un árbol caído  /  a fallen tree is left dying
que ya no vuelve a brotar  /  that won't flower again
porque el viento lo ha vencido.  /  'cause the wind has defeated it.

Cuando un amigo se va  /  When a friend leaves
queda un espacio vacío  /  a space is left barren
que no lo puede llenar  /  that cannot be filled again
la llegada de otro amigo.  /  with the arrival of a new friend.

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Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"American Pastoral" by Philip Roth

The protagonist of Philip Roth's "American Pastoral" should be listed as one of the great tragic figures of American literature.  Seymour "Swede" Levov is a literary character like many people I have met throughout my life.  His story is complex inasmuch as we understand quiet suffering and normalcy bias to be complex--like the type of people who come across as if nothing ever happened in their lives other than perfect success.  Internally, however, the story is incomprehensibly tragic.  As a young man, "Swede" Levov is Newark's super athlete, a young man whose success in the baseball/football field and basketball court is both record-setting and instant legend.  The Jewish community looks up to him as a cultural savior, and showers him with admiration often reserved for professionals or politicians.  "Swede" doesn't let it get to his head, the narrator tell us, and his calm demeanor, patient and collected posture assures everyone that his future is to be one full of success and greatness.

The narrative is driven by the voice of Nathan Zuckerman, the famous Roth protagonist/character.  Zuckerman is a few years younger than the "Swede" and looks up to him, admiring him just like everyone else in Newark.  But the years pass, and when "Swede" Levov and Nathan Zuckerman meet again, Zuckerman appears as a harsh critic, condemning Levov's seemingly "perfect" life.  Zuckerman seems to think that "Swede's" life was too bland, nothing that happened after his athletic career came to an end (military and business success, marries the beauty queen, etc.) is good enough in the eyes of the narrator.  Zuckerman walks away feeling that the famous "Swede" turned into a bland, mere mortal, not a fitting end to a figure of mythical proportion.  Later in the story, Zuckerman finds out what ails the "Swede" from Jerry Levov ("Swede's" brother, his best friend in school).  In addition, the narrative point of view is complex, changing and varying point of views appear throughout.  Zuckerman's criticism of "Swede" is more disappointment than character judgment, so the reader doesn't seem to take a stand either for or against him.  

Historically, the novel takes place through a stretch of years in which America was socially transformed; this adds to the upheaval and confusion the characters experience throughout the narrative.  From World War II years to the chaotic late 1960s/early 1970s, the chronological line doesn't seem that long, but considering the change and mutation of American values over the course of 20 to 25 years it appears as a lifetime.  The "Swede's" life is turned inside out by his daughter Merry, who goes from a sweet, little girl with a speech impediment, to anti-war activist and political terrorist.  Throughout the narrative, the superhuman effort by the "Swede" is to conceal his pain, hold his life together and run his business successfully.  This passage, I believe, carries the real meaning of the novel as it appears not only to "Swede" and Zuckerman, but to anyone whose heart was painfully squeezed by the story: 
"That people were manifold creatures didn't come as a surprise to the Swede, even if it was a bit of a shock to realize it anew when someone let you down.  What was astonishing to him was how people seemed to run out of their own being, run out of whatever people seemed to run out of their own being, run out of whatever the stuff was that made them who they were and, drained of themselves, turn into the sort of people they would once have felt sorry for.  It was as though while their lives were rich and full they were secretly sick of themselves and couldn't wait to dispose of their sanity and their health and all sense of proportion so as to get down to that other self, who was wholly deluded down to that other self, the true self, who was a wholly deluded fuckup.  It was as though being in tune with life was an accident that might sometimes befall the fortunate young but was otherwise something for which human beings lacked any real affinity.  How odd.  And how odd it made him seem to himself to think that he who had always felt blessed to be numbered among the countless who had always felt blessed to be numbered among the countless unembattled normal ones might, in fact, be the abnormality, a stranger from real life because of his being so sturdily rooted."  

"American Pastoral" is not a lineal, traditional narrative.  I can imagine that many readers might feel disappointed by the end of the novel, but the "hold-your-breath-nothing happens" effect is not really what this novel is about.  There's a certain amount of inference required of the reader, not just your run-of-the-mill "trust the author on this one" type of reading, and this might present a challenge to the inexperience Roth reader.  Nevertheless, "American Pastoral" is one of those books whose lessons remain with you, a clear and classic example of how literature can help us understand the raw emotions of life and leave us better for it.

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Sunday, March 01, 2015

"Boredom" by Alberto Moravia

"Boredom" by Alberto Moravia is one of those novels that remains undetected until a big series of republications bleeps it out into the literary radars.  I picked it up at Barnes & Noble for $4.95 in a reprint from the New York Review of Books "classics" series.  I wasn't planning on reading it but after finishing "The Anthologist" by Nicholson Baker I sort of fell into the "drone" of the hyper-introspective male narrator voice, and wanted more of the same highly intellectual, philosophical, hair-splitting story-telling.

The story revolves around a middle-aged artist who has decided not to paint.  He is filled with boredom, which he describes as his inability to have any connection to real things.  Most of the novel revolves around the definition of boredom with the action and descriptive pull of the story as the fuel to that drive for definition.  He becomes involved with a young model named Cecilia and uses her as a laboratory rat for his "travels" in and out of boredom.  What he doesn't count on is her extreme elusiveness.  The young woman is a master of the art of lying, and the long stretches of conversation among them (more like interrogations by the jealous artist) are an example of amazing artistry on the part of Moravia.  Here, as in the many long passages on the nature of "boredom," Moravia "splits hairs" about the seemingly most insignificant matters, but at the same time revealing the intellectual pleasure of delving deep into psychological and philosophical matters that otherwise would appear, well, boring (no pun intended) on the page.  The narrator eventually finds out that the young model is being "unfaithful" to him with another man, an actor named Luciani.  The narrator's drive to find out the truth appears to him as a deterrent to his boredom, but unfortunately it is entirely the contrary. The entire definition/redefinition/classification and reclassification of the story elements make the narrator appear as a very confused chess player trying in vain to make sense of a irrational match.

The narrator does not know where to find the truth, and even as his own eyes appear to deceive him, he resorts to his obsessive thought-process.  But the only thing of which I was not capable was resigning myself to Cecilia's elusiveness, accepting it, and, in short, calmly sharing her favors with Luciani.... so did I seek to console myself by telling myself that, while I knew that Cecilia went to bed with the actor, the latter did not know that she went to bed with me.  In other words, I now found myself, in relation to Luciani, more or less in the position of a lover in relation to an ignorant husband, and no lover was ever jealous of a husband, precisely because knowing, in certain cases, means possessing and not knowing means not possessing.  It was a wretched consolation, but it helped me to pass the time with calculations of the following kind: I knew about Luciani and Luciani did not know about me, consequently Cecilia had been unfaithful to him with me and not to me with him.  Finally there was the question of the money, as there had been with Balestrieri: I gave her money and Luciani not merely did not give her any but spent my money with her; therefore she was making me, not him, pay her, and consequently was in a way unfaithful to him with me.  However, it was not impossible that she was going with Luciani for love and with me for money, therefore she was being unfaithful to me with Luciani.  But Cecilia attributed no importance to money.  Money therefore had perhaps a sentimental significance between her and me, and since the actor did not give her any money, perhaps she was being unfaithful to Luciani with me.  And so on, ad infinitum."  

While the plot runs throughout with passages very much like this one, the novel is driven by a subtle amount of action that does not interrupt the inquisitive stream of consciousness-like thought process of the narrator.  This is where I believe the artistry of the novel resides... Moravia is able to (much like Nicholson Baker in "The Anthologist") straddle that line between the useless "hair-splitting" and the philosophical examination and get it down on paper in a very pure state.  To engage the reader at that level, and to get readers to continue passing the page while at the same time putting down these type of passages of deeply introspective ruminations that could potentially bore the average reader... well, to do that and to do it well is art exemplified.

There is no real revelation for the protagonist/narrator at the end.  Yet, having said that, this novel drives itself by the mere force of its art and its amazing depiction of the obsessive human mind at work.  Perhaps that is exactly where the core of existence resides... that we may struggle for meaning and definition while the continued examination never really ends.  "Boredom" is Alberto Moravia's "Ulysses" but with a far better and more traditional plot.

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Saturday, February 21, 2015

"The Anthologist" by Nicholson Baker

Nicholson Baker is regarded by many people in literary circles as a quiet genius.  "The Anthologist" might just be the biggest proof of it.  Baker does not stand out outside of literary fiction circles as other massively popular writers; perhaps this is one of those immeasurable gifts to devoted readers of the genre.  I only knew Baker from a non-fiction perspective "The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber", despite having copies of "Vox" and "Fermata" that I have never gotten to.

"The Anthologist" is an intimate story.  Paul Chowder is a poet seemingly obsessed with proving to the world that the basis of all poetry is the four beat count.  He is struggling to write the introduction to an anthology of works that he believes will prove his theory.  Amid the daily ordinariness of his life, Chowder struggles with everything from procrastination to personal relationships, and the reader is taken for an intimate look at the psyche of a very (and I mean very) delicate individual.  Paul Chowder may be obsessed with his four beat theory, but he's one of those fictional characters that make us look at ourselves and the mass of inexplicable factors who make up personality and psychology.  The illustrations of absent-mindedness and never-ending rolling thoughts, the ease with which he branches off into a million different directions of distraction captures procrastination is like nothing I've ever read before.  This is just one of the many charms of this book, along with the numerous examples of poetry Chowder dissects to show his theories of rhythm.

Chowder also injects an incredible amount of information about literature and poetry into just a few passages of the book.  Nicholson Baker is amazing this way.  The intricate details of poetry and any other literary variables come into play in the narrative with powerful displays of what appears on the surface as "useless information."  To the "trained" eye, of course, these passages are the building blocks of making a genius come to life on the page.  Baker fleshes out Paul Chowder in just this way, and the result is simply perfect.  In regards to the popular latin phrase Carpe diem, Chowder explains, "Horace didn't say that. 'Carpe diem' doesn't mean seize the day--it means something gentler and more sensible. 'Carpe diem' means pluck the day. Carpe, pluck. Seize the day would be 'cape diem,' if my school Latin serves. No R. Very different piece of advice.  What Horace had in mind was that you should gently pull on the day's stem, as if it were, say, a wildflower or an olive, holding it with all the practiced care of your thumb and the side of your finger, which knows how to not crush easily crushed things--so that the day's stalk or stem undergoes increasing tension and draws to a thinness, and a tightness, and then snaps softly away at its weakest point, perhaps leaking a little milky sap, and the flower, or the fruit, is released in your hand. Pluck the cranberry or blueberry of the day tenderly free without damaging it, is what Horace meant--pick the day, harvest the day, reap the day, mow the day, forage the day. Don't freaking grab the day in your fist like a burger at a fairground and take a big chomping bite out of it. That's not the kind of man that Horace was."  Of course many people would read this passage and complain about the unnecessary splitting of hairs, but there is something deeper here, and Chowder (through Baker) hit the proverbial nail dead-center on the head.  What is represented here is the thought process of genius at work, and the difficulty of getting it down on paper again and again through the novel is just what makes this novel so amazing.

There are numerous passages like this one, and they vary with the ordinary moments of Paul Chowder's life.  The bulk of the narrative feels like a train wreck about to happen, for Chowder is facing a great deal of unknowns with each passing day he does not complete the introduction to his anthology.  His lover leaves him, he is not writing poetry or submitting for publication, and things simply do not look good for Chowder.  The reader, however, is not just rooting for Paul Chowder... the reader becomes (and is) Paul Chowder in many, many ways.

The novel is charming due to its lovable character, but there is an under-current of meaning and literary detail here that goes beyond its 243 pages.  It is the core of its simplicity--the flow of a narrative full of descriptive detail, literary insight and even psychological perspective-- that makes Nicholson Baker a master of the form and a genius of a curious and rare kind.

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Thursday, February 05, 2015

"A Rumor of War" by Philip Caputo

The impact of a book like "A Rumor of War" is forceful in many intimate ways.  This is not just a "war story," but a story of a truth so devastating few of us would look at it directly without blinking.  The narrative is personal and its honesty so palpable as to leave the reader wondering whether (if given the opportunity) he/she would write so openly about a topic so profoundly wounding.  I am not sure if Philip Caputo set out from the start to delve into the deepest pool of honesty, or if the narrative was carefully constructed by hinting and tapping the ugliness of the experience just enough to get it down on paper... what comes across, however, is one of the most bare and sincere books I have ever read.  Philip Caputo opens up about his experiences in Vietnam in a way that leaves him completely vulnerable and naked.  The courage it takes to write it all down in this fashion is astonishing.  Few men would readily admit to even a microscopic fraction of what Caputo embraces as his reality and his experience.  "A Rumor of War" is simply the best book on the Vietnam war; its excellence is without equal.  I have had this book for years and just this past week decided to finally read it.  I am still trying to get over the remorse of not having done it sooner.

I was 14 years old when "A Rumor of War" was turned into a television movie.  The book had been published in 1977 (I own a first print copy I purchased a few years ago), just two short years after the fall of Saigon.  The movie left a bitter taste in my mouth due to the fact that we lost two family members in that ill-conceived war, and my father and mother watching with me that night were divided in opinion, going back at each other regarding the spectrum of politics.  I remember that was bothered me the most was not my parents' comments but the fact that the personal story was lost to both of them.  The movie was not about the shoot'em up, run-between-the-raindrops, dash and stab action of most war movies from previous conflicts.  "A Rumor of War" was the first narrative to come out of that war to embrace the personal, the emotional, the recognition that something had reached a higher-level of insanity in the ridiculously insane act of war.  There is, of course, little a made-for-television movie can do to convey the message of the book, but even at the tender age of 14 (when nothing was more important to me than getting to 17 so I could join the Marine Corps) I understood that the idealism behind what push men to die for God and country was a fragile idealism, a dangerously thin crystal that could shatter at the softest of air drifts or bumps.  I never forgot the experience of watching the movie, and even when the "barrage" of Vietnam movies began to flood the movie theaters in the mid to late 1980s, it was always "A Rumor of War" that stayed with me.  I did join the United States Marine Corps before finishing high school, and left for boot camp less than a week after graduation.

Caputo's story grows and branches out into vast realities.  The ugliness of the war is there, vivid, palpable and without compromise... so is the suffering of the men.  As a young lieutenant, Caputo is forced to lead men into the madness of seemingly suicide missions against an enemy they couldn't see or find, in an environment that would drive most people mad in just a few days.  What Caputo does best in this book is to balance that ugliness with how it affected him and the men around him.  There is a strand of the story that is clearly psychological and here Caputo captures it raw--it's as if we have been asked to look into a microscope and into the psyche of men at war.  The reader can't help to stop at points and ask "how is this even possible, how could someone survive this?"  The truth Capote exposes is that they really didn't.  The dead died horrible deaths (which Caputo retells in detail as he is sent to HQ to become "the officer in charge of the dead," responsible for writing the after-action reports for the killed in action and other casualties).  Men also died horrible emotional deaths, psychological wounds that are still bleeding to this day.  His bitterness boils over and the beginning of this shattering idealism takes a hold of him as one of his duties is to write the statistics on a board at headquarters so the higher-ups could decide which encounter with the enemy was successful and which one was not.  It all became a game of statistics and ratios--the entire war did.

Caputo shows how the entire machinery of war functions just like a private sector enterprise.  You have career-driven people who care about nothing more than advancing their own path, even at the expense of other people's lives.  You have these same people obsessed with liability, the ones who are always on the look out to make sure that the paper trail never leads back to them, that their names are never associated with any disaster... "What do you mean? I delegated that to so-and-so... I had nothing to do with that."  I think this was probably the most difficult part of the book for me to read, really, not because things like that happened to me in the Marine Corps, but because they certainly happened to me in the private sector.  The details of ground combat operations, of seemingly suicide patrol missions and the inconveniences of the environment (monsoon season, extremely hot temperatures, the variables of field pain-in-the-ass everyday bullshit) were not as painful to read as those parts where Caputo unmasks the "faceless high-command."

The last part of the book, the part dealing with Caputo's potential court-martial is excruciating.  I am not going to recount it here but only to repeat what I started with regarding the honesty of the narrative.  How could anyone write so honestly about something so damaging, so painful and make it be so unwavering and unquestionably true is frankly beyond me.  Philip Caputo's ordeal at the end of his role as a platoon leader in Vietnam, and his ability to recount what happened with such openness is mind-twisting.  I don't think I have ever read an author leave himself so completely open and vulnerable as this section of Caputo's book.  His integrity and his courage are without equal.  He's not asking for us to "forgive" him because, after all, it was the war that did it... the war made men do things they would otherwise never do.  Caputo takes full responsibility for his actions.  The fact that at the end of it all the military bureaucracy comes to the conclusion it does seems to me a fitting end to the bitterness and ugliness of what Vietnam was, and how the higher-ups played a bloody game of chess with the lives of so many young American men.

This is a brutal book, a book that will shatter many misconceptions about the historical reality of Vietnam.  Americans have a funny disposition to make things less terrible as time passes--the usual "oh-that-happened-so-long-ago-and-it-wasn't-as-bad-as-I-remember-it."  "A Rumor of War" is a book that reminds us it REALLY was that terrible and certainly we should NEVER forget.

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Saturday, January 31, 2015

"The Journals of John Cheever" -- Painful Truths as Enlightenment

My fascination with John Cheever's work and life began with a photograph of the author in "The Writers' Desk" by Jill Krementz.  The photograph shows Cheever at his typewriter and is taken at a strange angle, as if the photographer was standing above the writer perhaps taking leave from him.  At any rate, the photographs in the book by Krementz come with a little blurb by the writers regarding their writing habits and desks.  John Cheever's words impressed me and since I first read them I haven't been able to shake them off.  I later went on to read Blake Bailey's biography "Cheever: A Life" while visiting Japan in 2012.  It wasn't a cheerful book to read, but Bailey's style and amazing capability for the facts made it an excellent biography and introduction to a complex subject.

I began "The Journals of John Cheever" as an experiment of sorts.  "The Stories of John Cheever" was a lengthy masterpiece; a book that ranks far above anything Cheever's contemporaries put out.  I knew that ahead of me were "The Wapshot Chronicle" and "The Wapshop Scandal" but these days are full of time-constraints and personal issues and the luxury of really delving into a book as these two volumes deserve seems like a distant memory.   So I "tackled" the journals instead expecting an entertaining and inspiring experience, sort of what I felt reading all three volumes of Christopher Isherwood's diaries.  The complexity of John Cheever "the man," far overshadows "the writer" throughout the journals.  It is not a book for the faint of heart, or even for someone with a propensity for melancholy or depression.  I do not say so in a negative way; rather, it is a sort of warning that this is a book to be approached seriously and with iron-like nerves.  It is inevitable to feel sympathy for the man.  Cheever's personality comes through not only because of the sincerity of his words but also because there is no way one could tackle the subjects he did, the way he did, while at the same time darkening and shadowing and covering up the "unpleasant" things of every day life.  I came to the journals hoping to learn something about the writing process of this magnificent genius, only to walk away thinking I sort of violated some mental health ethics principle by reading Cheever's psychologist/therapist's files on him.

John Cheever's son, Benjamin writes an extraordinary introduction in which he explains the process of how these journals were published.  He recounts the moment his father addressed him about the issue of publishing the journals after his death.  Candidly, Benjamin writes about the first reading of sections his father gave to him, and the tearful moments that followed.  "The Journals of John Cheever" explicitly follow the development of Cheever as a complex personality--not exactly from his youth (although he relates and philosophizes a great deal about how his past shaped him) but from the mature man struggling with his sexuality; with a marriage that was as complex as the two individuals involved; with the menacing presence of alcohol and his slow spiral towards alcoholism.  Throughout the journals Cheever tackles his sexual attraction toward men referring to it as homosexuality, despite many instances where he explicitly declares his preference for women.  He writes about sexual encounters with both men and women often times in great detail, and feels that generally his infidelity appears justified by his wife's coldness.  I don't really know what to make of this part of the journals because I don't have his wife's position on the matter.  A lot of these passages strike me so full of emotional pain that it makes me wonder why Cheever did not end up like Hemingway (a topic he refers to lightly as an enigma to be solved).  Of all the difficult passages to read regarding this matter, the one that moved me or reached me the most (in a painful way) was this one:  "I am the immoralist, and my failure has been the toleration of an intolerable marriage.  My fondness for pleasant interiors and the voices of children has destroyed me.  I should have breached this contract years ago and run off with some healthy-minded beauty.  I must go, I must go, but then I see my son in the orchard and know that I have no freedom from him."  I don't believe Cheever means anything negatively about his son in this passage; it's more like an acceptance of his own shortcomings more than an indictment of others.  There is another passage in which he compares his advances towards his wife in the marriage bed as trying to breach a castle under siege; a far more painful passage that I neglected to underline and cannot find presently.  It is difficult to point to Cheever's unhappiness in his marriage but the clues he gives are that of a man who is unhappy with the lack of intimacy in his marriage.  Whether it is because of Cheever's demands of his wife, or because his complex management of his bisexuality might remain unknown forever.  Of course this unhappiness, when combined to the demands of the writing life, leads to a painful alcoholism that robs Cheever of a great deal.

Then of the writing process there is very little.  John Cheever seems to have kept his writing process private, and whatever was left there by the editor of the journals (Robert Gottlieb with the assistance of the Cheever family) appears limited in scope.  There's more about "Falconer" in terms of the writing process and germinating of ideas, but even that is very limited.  What is on full display are Cheever's amazing powers of observation with the sharp writer's eye: "At the table on my right is a family.  The woman must have been pretty and is pretty no more, but she carries herself well and has her self-possession.  He is perhaps fifty, and there is no trace of what he must have been as a young man.  They order a moderately priced meal.  They have either agreed or been taught not to ask for the filet mignon.  Spaghetti and meatballs; the tuna-fish casserole.  They say almost nothing to each other during the meal, but they seem not in the least uncomfortable.  The daughter is pretty, but I can't see the fourth member, a son, until they leave the table, and when they do leave I see a cruelly crippled spastic whose smile is broad and maybe convulsive or maybe genuine.  Make him twenty.  Many of the other customers are women with children.  Does daddy teach a seven o'clock class?"  What we see here are the seminal moments of a story, a kaleidoscope turning and turning until it becomes the desired random design.  I got so much from this passage in terms of how one must approach observation and imagination and the creation of fiction that I wish I could find a way to train my eye in the same way.  But there is not methodology to this type of genius--you either have it or you don't.

"The Journals of John Cheever" are not for everyone.  If you are a literary history buff, you're better off with Blake Bailey's book.  If you are looking for the inside view of a complicated genius, for the way the mind of a tormented soul is able to operate and be fully productive despite its struggles, then the journals are for you.  Be mindful, however, that where the journals resonate with echoes of your own experience, the pages might become nearly unreadable.  I think that most of all the journals were a "literary experience" for me--a way of connecting with a man who, above all, fought for his artistic and human survival and won.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

If You Forget Me

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Saturday, January 10, 2015

Robert Stone, 1937-2015

I read "Bear and His Daughter" in 1998, shortly after it was published.  It was the very first book I purchased the Saturday immediately after finishing graduate school, and one of the very first books I read for the pleasure after the "torturous" experience of writing a thesis.  Later I went on to read everything by Stone, among which "A Flag for Sunrise" is one of my great favorites.  I never failed to go to the "S" at the bookstore to see if I could find something by this great writer.  Rest easy, brother.

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Saturday, December 27, 2014

"Goodbye, Columbus" by Philip Roth

I didn't plan on reading "Goodbye, Columbus" this year.  This collection of short stories by the great Philip Roth wasn't even on my reading list, but finding a paperback copy in my local used bookstore for $1 changed all of that.

The title story is a touching narrative of a young man searching for meaning.  Neil Klugman's search for both identity and meaning seems a conventional one at the start.  He's a young man, and young men in 1950s America had visions driven by personal urges in a post-World War II America filled to the brim with the expectations of success.  He becomes involved with a young woman, Brenda, from a rich Jewish family.  Throughout the narrative, Neil navigates a confusing map of love, materialism, identity, race and gender roles.  This is what Roth does best by way of style.  He creates characters that walk a thin line between making the best of the lot given to them, their struggle to reject/change that lot, and ultimately the reemergence of an altogether new person.  Neil is the great observer of the Patimkin clan, Brenda's family.  In this process of observation, Neil's own struggle with identity and "Jewishness" is detailed with masterful strokes.  Neil recognizes these struggles, but remains objective, reserving judgment of himself while still giving others the benefit of confidence and intimacy.  There's a very touching scene with Ron Patimkin, Brenda's brother, in Ron's bedroom that reveals the source of the title in the story and is perhaps one of the most intimate and disarming scene written by Roth in his early career.  The story really shows a mature writer, a man with a great sense of style and the talent to bring it forth with a sense of realism and believability unmatched at the time.

The stories that follow the title-story are perhaps the source of Philip Roth's early notoriety.  In "The Conversion of the Jews," "Defender of the Faith," and particularly in "Eli, the Fanatic," Roth really straddled hot topics related to the Jewish faith and identity.  For this reason, Roth was labeled a "self-hating Jew," and call a number of other unflattering names.  I suspect that those judgments were made by people rushing to conclusions about the real meaning of the stories.  There's a level of artistry and literary sophistication in Roth's work that would elude the conventional reader.  I am not saying this to be a snob about literary matters, especially in defending one of my favorite writers.  Yet, I tried reading the stories from the point of view of a Jew, to see, if I could to the extent that I could, what the controversy and the hot-buttons were.  I failed not because I am not sensitive to the concerns of those who brought forth the charges of anti-Semitism against Roth, but I think there's a disconnect to the cultural and religious climate of 1959-1960, and with that disconnect (and in our post 9-11 world) it is impossible for us to see the reality of this fiction being NOT critical, but rather looking at these topics at a microscopic level.  "The Conversion of the Jews" in particular strikes me as just that, a satire of that very absurd understanding of what it means to follow religion and dogma.

Throughout the criticism and the "hard years," Philip Roth endured.  He announced his retirement from fiction writing not too long ago, and, while I knew I still had some of his books to read, I made a note of those I am still missing in order to keep them flowing at snail pace, to enjoy every drip of masterful writing and down-right genius.  Aside from his fiction, I read whatever he publishes by way of book reviews or social/political commentary.  I think Philip Roth is, like a handful of others I admire, a national treasure.  My next one is "American Pastoral" and I can't wait to delve into it with all I've got.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

"The Strange Library" by Haruki Murakami

"The Strange Library" by Haruki Murakami is one of those little books that borders between short-story, novella or something else, and is, most of all, indicative of Murakami's vast genius.  The slim volume reminds me of "Pinball 1973" and "Hear the Wind Sing," both of which I have in the original Kodansha English editions (now collectors' items, Amazon.com lists Pinball 1973 at $249).  Recently, I read a report about "Pinball 1973" being "retranslated" and publish vastly by his new publishers.  I am sure those who enjoyed Murakami's most recent surrealist fiction (1Q84) will love both of these early works.

"The Strange Library" is surrealist to the max.  I have described Murakami's surrealist style as sort of walking into a Salvador Dali painting, and nothing proves that point more clearly than this story.  A young man is bamboozled into the cavernous bowels of a library in Tokyo by a shady old man.  There is nothing much menacing about the old man other than his ability to dispense guilt in order to get others to do his bidding.  The young man suffers imprisonment but the narrative is cast between the borders of some dream-like state and realism and his concern for his worrying mother (not making it back home for dinner time, etc.) dissipates in the face of unpredictable actions in the plot.  There are few characters but those that are there echo back to Murakami's early surrealism.  There is a sheep man, and a young lady of incomparable beauty, and both help the young man escape.

Once the plot begins to sail under the eyes of the reader, the story ends.  I am certain it was designed in such way.  The illustrations are excellent and the typeset is Typewriter and enlarged to the point where it almost feels like a children's book.  I don't think this was done with any intention of creating a novella out of a short story to turn into book form, but the enterprise almost feels like a tease to something larger... perhaps we can expect a 800 page novel some time this year?  We can only pray and hope.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"We All Went to Paris: Americans in the City of Lights" by Stephen Longstreet

There are only a few bad reviews on this blog.  These are books I couldn't find a single positive thing to write about.  Some people say it is dishonest to try and "force" yourself to say something "good" about a "bad" book.  I'm not quite sure I agree with that.  While I was teaching, I used to give at least some partial credit (very low at that) to dismally written papers--an "effort grade" as opposed to a "real" grade.  Despite the fact that I have been out of academia for four years, I believe the tradition has continued unto this blog.  Of course, there will always be "those" books that break the mold, and authors who defy and challenge the most basic idea of literary decency.

I don't want to dwell too much on this book because since I have nothing (literally nothing) good to say about it, I will make it as brief as possible.  I didn't know who Stephen Longstreet was before I picked up this book years ago.  It has been on my list for a while, but I neglected over the course of a year or two to pick it up.  The volume is part of a "re-print" series by Barnes & Noble books titled "Barnes & Nobles Rediscoveries."  I am always open to suggestions, even the commercially driven ones by mega-bookstores, but this book in particular makes me wonder about that single person in that perhaps "under-populated" committee that went about selecting titles for this series.  At any rate, "We All Went to Paris" suffers from a distinct lack of coherence, both narrative and chronological.  Stephen Longstreet strikes the reader as Nick Carraway's self-description during the opening chapter of "The Great Gatsby" when in an effort to justify his activities and his move to the "big city" he calls himself "that most limited of all specimens: the well-rounded man."  Longstreet is just that--he changed his names numerous times (he was born with Chauncey as his last name, later changed to Weiner, Wiener, plus others) landing on Longstreet finally.  He had success as a screenwriter, an artist and a writer.  The Broadway musical "High Button Shoes" is based loosely on his autobiography.  Being multi-talented is not the issue here; the problem stems specifically from the way "We All Went to Paris" was written.  First, the book is not listed or credited to him on the various bio pages found during a quick Google search.  There's another volume titled "The Young Men of Paris" and I suspect that "We All Went to Paris" was a late "rehashing" of this original title.  If someone out there would like to put me in my place about this, please leave a comment and I'll correct the entry.

Americans have been traveling and enjoying the city of Paris since long before 1776.  I think the cut-off date of 1776 was a way to declare the title "American" as distinctly political--a tactic that allows Longstreet to begin with clarity and with a strong premise about who exactly he is writing about.  The book's chronology is lineal enough during the first 2/3rds of the book, but right around the period of World War I, the narrative begins a hopscotch labyrinth that is confusing and distracting.  The close reader can see through the confusion, but I must wonder about the "untrained eye."  The segments regarding aerial combat by Americans flyers during World War I doesn't seem to belong in this book (since most of the action does not take place in Paris) and one has to wonder whether it was pasted here from another volume.  Stephen Longstreet writes about his friendship with William Faulkner, and I wonder if this part of the book is not included here in order to cater to that connection (more on this later).  The disjointed chronology continues for most of the 1920s and 1930s, a period which has been written about extensively.  It appears Longstreet tried some type of experimental chronology, a classic case of "remember-this-because-it-is-going-to-show-up-later-and-without-the-reference-you-will-be-lost."  The problems is that he does not allow for enough cultural references to indicate to the reader where the narrative is going next.  Again, the segment on World War I aerial combat is the most clear example of this.

Stephen Longstreet preaches quite a bit on this book, and this preaching takes away from both the credibility and the enjoyment of the narrative.  Early on in the book, he writes about the horrors of war (during the Revolutionary War), injecting some quick Vietnam era "anti-war" lines that are unnecessary and misleading (the book was published in 1972).  He writes about the torment of napalm, of the massacre at My Lai, of how humanity continually fails to learn, etc., etc.  It immediately discloses to the reader that the bulk of the writing of this book was conducted during the late 1960s (all the while he's writing about Benjamin Franklin in Paris).  I am certain this kind and good message has a place in both our history and our literature; I am uncertain that it is here.

One cannot write about Paris without writing about sex.  In fact, one cannot write about anything in particular nowadays without writing about sex.  Longstreet varies between the very explicit and the very censored, and in those passages where his explicitness gives way to pseudo-pornography, one has to wonder whether this particular act or that particular escapade being so clearly detailed is not part of the author's own sexual preferences.  This is not troubling, really, but the fact that the reader can read through it as clearly as that (and I confess NOT to be such a close reader, really) is like opening the drawers of Longstreet's dark cabinet.  I don't want to go there, and I suspect neither does the general reader.  He writes a great deal about lesbianism in Paris in the 1920s but does so from the perspective of someone intrigued by it in a "laboratory rat" way--sort of as in "I wonder why Sylvia Beach and Gertrude Stein never went to be together, or while Alice and Sylvia and their partners didn't do a foursome."  He doesn't detail it that way in the book, but the suggestions and darkness of his assessments regarding lesbians are down-right eerie.

"The Lost Generation" of American expatriates what went to Paris in the 1920s should provide enough material here to yield a good account.  Longstreet manages to foul this part of the book as well.  First, it is during this part of the book that the chronology becomes confusing.  Secondly, Longstreet lashes out against the previous biographers of this era as overly-romanticizing it.  When not romanticizing it, he writes, then academics in their tall ivory towers ruin it by their pedantic, unwarranted ownership of the era and their characters.  This sounds a little too self-serving to me, personally.  Longstreet's long stretch of criticism of other biographers of "The Lost Generation" is childish and irrelevant.  He proceeds, without much caution or dissimulation, to do exactly the same thing in his writing that he blames others are doing in theirs.  The writing about Gertrude Stein is full of holes and misrepresentations taken from books and sources he previously criticized as unreliable.  He surrenders his objectivity to the "academic criticism du jour" of bashing Ernest Hemingway as too macho, too much a liar, too mean and ugly and drunk and (imagine that) not as big a talent as everyone claims he was.  I tried very hard to overlook this childish, schoolyard recess attack because I did want to continue reading the book.  Ernest Hemingway to me is a writer, just that... I am not a fan, or a cult follower, but this type of criticism is not based on objective reading or characterization.  I heard and was expose to a lot of it while in college and especially graduate school.  Longstreet really sounds like the bitter competitor who didn't grow as famous or known as his competition.  Again, this is very childish and down-right idiotic.  He also dedicates a chapter to F. Scott Fitzgerald in which he writes very little about Fitzgerald.  His bitterness shines through in such a poor way it is nearly impossible to tolerate.  Also, the mention of Ezra Pound is so little that if the reader blinks at the wrong moment, he/she might miss it.

The art/sketches that are spread throughout the book are his, I am sure, and just like the epigrams at the start of each chapter they don't seem to belong where they are placed.  The epigrams (often one-liners) have absolutely nothing to do with the chapter that follow it.  Again, if this was Longstreet's way of being experimental, then I'll have to say that it sadly does not work.

Finally, there's a long epilogue where Longstreet quotes extensively from William Faulkner.  The epilogue aims to answer the question, well, "why did we all go to Paris?"  If this is constructed from simple notes on the conversation, then I am (being sarcastically mean here) impressed by Longstreet's ability to reconstruct a conversation at such length.  The impression one gets is that either 1) there was a voice recorder on during the meeting which Longstreet later transcribed, or 2) he made up most of it (a tactic he blasts all of "The Lost Generation" expatriates for engaging in).  I wonder if Faulker (a failed World War I flyer) wasn't the source behind Longstreet's inclusion of the misplaced historical chapters.

"We All Went to Paris" simply fails to deliver, and, as entertaining as many parts of it are, I cannot recommend it as worthwhile.  Sorry.

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Saturday, October 18, 2014

"Existentialism and Human Emotions" by Jean Paul Sartre

"Existentialism and Human Emotions" by Jean Paul Sartre is not a beginner's introduction to the philosophy.  I think it is at times confused by many as an "easy read" because its slim appearance.  Nothing is ever easy with Sartre.  The book is divided into six parts (seven if you count "The Desire to be God" for two since it is divided into segments), and offers a view into Existentialism directly from the horse's mouth.

The book might be misleading as to its readability (to the uninitiated) because Sartre begins with an explanation of what Existentialism is and is not.  He tackles three major misconceptions/criticisms by both the religious and the secular, and delineates clearly that Existentialism as he advocates it drives at the core of the philosophy itself.  That is to say, as he postulates it, Existentialism is the reality of man, a reality based of an incorruptible drive to be free.  The corruption is done by others, of course, because at the core of this drive, things are exactly what they are and behind them is absolutely nothing.  It all becomes muddled and infested when elements of the artistic or the religious infect human existence.  Man is driven to definitions, Sartre explains, without realizing the answers are in front of him if only he would accept them as they are and not flock to the meaningless.  As a result, we see Existentialism differently from what the general public makes of it even today.  The religious in particular, charges Sartre, have given Existentialism a negative connotation.  He dismisses the additional charge or claim that since one has to accept what is in front of us, that Existentialism is then a philosophy of inaction.  On the contrary, Sartre illustrates that the drive for definition is a drive to become free, and that our own personal freedom accentuates the freedom of others.

The rest of the book is more complicated and takes a greater amount of background information to know and make the connections necessary to understand fully.  Sartre challenges the religious principle because it denies the freedom for man to actively pursue his reality.  This seems contradictory to the common eye, but there's more to the idea than just a counter-argument against religion.  He illustrates the principle that it is actually religion that leaves man to inaction, since the acceptance of fate in the religious what leads to that inaction.  The charge that "if there is no God, then everything is permissible" is a flawed argument, since Existentialism does not advocates the rights on one individual over the rights of another.  This is, I believe, comparable to the culture wars in the United States today.  To not agree with a specific view of the world today seems to automatically categorize certain people to being hate-filled or intolerant.  Sartre presents Existentialism here as a model of tolerance; he is an atheist who challenges the idea of religion without wanting to ban religion.  The core of the argument is not, however, as simplistic as that.  The nature of religion and how it clashes against the secular philosophy and its principles is incompatible with Existentialism.  Sartre sounds conciliatory, but the truth behind these principles is that man cannot be free as long as he is exposed to the "mythologies" of religion, since they adhere to diametrically opposing premises.

There is much complication in "Existentialist Psychoanalysis," but this is not because Sartre obfuscates the matter.  Psychoanalysis is complicated to begin with, and Sartre proposes that Existentialism can break psychoanalysis' dependence on "deconstruction" and rather espouses the capacity for the individual to rationally see what's in front of him, assess it, and choose his own path of action.  On the surface, this part of the book seems unreadable, but a caution-driven reading concentrating on the definition of the terms used and Sartre's own didactic sermonizing can offer clarity.  Sartre is not so much dismissive or critical of Freudian principles as he is like a surgeon, cutting deep in order to make these premises palpable.  "The Hole" is connected to the principles of psychoanalysis, and much sexual-driven counter-arguments are made here.

"Existentialism and Human Emotions" has much to offer today.  In fact, I wanted to title this post "Understanding the Mess We're In: An Existential Approach."  Recently, it seems like every aspect of American life has reached critical mass at the same time.  In other times, issues of race, gender, religion, economic inequality, education and identity moved in and out of the center spot with regularity.  The pendulum always seemed to follow its left-right, liberal-conservative swing driven by the consciousness of the population.  It doesn't seem that way anymore.  Americans need to reassess what it means to seek an individual freedom.  As per Sartre, the freedom we seek for ourselves adds to the freedom of others.  For as much as Americans speak of freedom and liberty, they presently seem to be missing the point entirely.  We must see things exactly as they appear before us and accept our own part in the world.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

"Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America and the New Face of American War" by Evan Wright

I just recently posted a review on my re-reading of "Dispatches" by Michael Herr, far considered as the best book about war by a correspondent.  In the interest of full disclosure, I will make the following confessions.  My coming to "Generation Kill" with an open mind and a "detached" reader attitude was down-right impossible.  One of the negative/positive attributes about having been a U.S. Marine is that one never really stops being one.  Because of this, one is simply incapable of offering objective criticism; the love of Corps far outweighs objectivity or logic and any criticism offered by an "outsider" is like the criticism a teacher might offer you about your first born... one really wants to listen and take it to heart but ultimately it comes down to the proverbial "thanks, but no thanks... we're just fine the way we are."  Having said that, I commend Evan Wright for his portrayal of the United States Marine Corps.  There are many positives to this book, and the narrative is one that gives an honest and compelling look into the life of the "Grunt."  There are many painful truths here that should be required reading to both newscast "experts" and political pundits alike.  The story is told in one big continuous sweep (seamless even between chapters).  In terms of style, this not only adds to the readability, but it also embodies the furious charge the Marines and Wright were engaged in during the opening salvo of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The book is written with brutal tone that brings the conflict to life with every passing page.  Wright also captures the idiosyncrasies and peccadillos of individual Marines both while in action and during down time, although I think some of the dynamics are overplayed and non-constructive from a critical point of view.   The humor, of course, is another thing altogether.  It is impossible for outsiders to know with certainty what exactly Marines mean with their vicious language and over-the-top brutality.  Boiling it down to the mere action of men engaged in a job seems to take the whole meaning of Spirit de Corps out of focus.  There's much passion in a job that requires risking one's life, looking out for the lives of those around you, all the while dodging bullets, rocket propelled grenades, etc., and this is where I think books by war correspondents lack the "juice" that would make an active duty Marine (or a retired one) nod his head in approval.  This is very difficult to explain.  The best example of what I mean here is what most D-Day veterans of World War II felt when "Saving Private Ryan" came out to the theaters.  I remember watching an interview with a group of veterans regarding the opening scenes at Utah and Omaha beaches, and how all of them agreed someone had finally gotten it right down to the sounds and all of the sensory elements.  "Short of being there," one of them said, "this is the close you'd ever get to that abattoir."

I think over all Evan Wright achieves a level of credibility that digs deep and scratches the authenticity of the experience.  The voices are all there, the sounds and the visuals are outstanding in their descriptive weight.  The effort to bring life to the personalities concentrates a bit too much on the bickering between trustworthy/non-trustworthy officers and distrusting/trusting non-commissioned/enlisted men.  While that has been a part of the war narrative since the beginning of armed conflict, "Generation Kill" is fueled too much from the chemistry of these clashes and ultimately dooms the objective point of view.  Writing about this book has been a challenge for me.  I didn't want to come across as the bitter veteran who dislikes and mistrusts journalists and scream "bullshit" when anyone outside the Marine Corps tries to write about the experience of grunts at war.  I had the same experience with Anthony Swafford's book "Jarhead," even though it was written by a brother Marine because it was preachy and pushy in a way books about war need not be.

I enjoyed "Generation Kill" tremendously.  Some things were there, some others were missing.... some things remain incommunicable no matter what.

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