Saturday, July 31, 2010

George is in Romania.

God I hate cold openings, don't you? Now I have to explain: George is a good friend of the family who happens to be from Romania yet hasn't visited the place since she left with her parents over a decade ago, until now. is in? I don't have time to answer that one in full, so for now just think of it as the opposite of "is out."And Romania? that's a country, I think.

She left on the 22nd and will be gone till August something-or-other. She's already been to the Black Sea, museums, camping in the mountains -- and she's going to visit Dracula's castle! I'm extremely jealous so while she's away, I've decided, I'll do a little traveling of my own, except I'll have to use my Imagination.

So I went to the library, and guess what I found! First, The Land of Green Plums by Herta Muller, the most recent winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and former member of the German-speaking minority of Romania. She set all her books during the regime of Ceausescu -- can you say bleak? -- and, I gotta say, two pages in and I'm already very confused.

I also tracked down a cookbook, Taste of Romania, which also included some other neat things, proverbs, folk tales, and a little history. As for the food... actually, there are a lot of typical, decent-sounding recipes in there -- in between the haggis and calves brains. (Yes, George, I took that from the e-mail I sent you. I do that kinda thing all the time: 90% of the stuff on this blog was lifted straight from pamphlets I found at highway rest stops)

Now, allow me to present some Romanian proverbs I found in that cookbook. The author took them from a Romanian book of eight thousand proverbs, which in turn were taken from a ten-volume (!) set. Note that some of these were split into two or more lines (here the line breaks are denoted by slashes, as is customary), apparently in verse but without obvious meter or rhyme. I can only assume that the Romanian originals had these qualities...
  1. He who steals an egg today/Will steal a cow tomorrow.
  2. Give an egg today/You will receive a cow tomorrow.
  3. Bread as fresh as can be/Wine as old as can be/Wife as young as can be.
  4. A sharp vinegar breaks its own bottle.
  5. Big fires are made even in small ovens.
  6. Even the sea has a bottom.
  7. Don't laugh at the donkey./The time will come when you will need/To mount him.
  8. The husband doesn't know/What the village knows.
  9. Water and fire cannot become friends.
  10. From the word to the deed/Is like from the earth to the sky.
  11. Don't run after the wagon that doesn't wait for you.
  12. Being lazy, he shuts his eyes and opens his mouth.
So, there you are... Some are common enough and have English/American equivalents. Some are awesomely deep ("even the sea has a bottom"), while others make you wonder where the cameras are. A few have already entered my vocabulary.

I get hints of what it means to be a Romanian from those proverbs, and I have gleaned more from encounters with George's American-based family. My impression is generally ungenerous: distrustful, stingy, ornery, paranoid (gee, I wonder why...). From my experience, Romanians are -- at risk of sounding racist -- angry little brown people who have an affinity for stuffed animals and silk shirts.

Some more "food for thought" may be in order:

Bucharest, Romania's capital and largest city, during the nineteenth century became known to some as the "Little Paris of the East," due in large part to the importation of French culture -- particularly art, architecture and food -- by the Romanian aristocracy. With this nickname we all win: the rest of Europe, and America are allowed a a crusty laugh at Romania's expense, while loyal proponents of the, uh, "Romanian Way" -- George's uncle among them, apparently -- have something to hold over the heads of neighboring backwaters -- the rest of Europe, and America among them, apparently. (It is as yet unconfirmed that maps have reached "the Tiger of Eastern Europe.")

At least one man, I read, was of the opinion that one of the happiest times in Romanian history was the approximately 200 years it spent as a Roman province, Dacia. But Rome pulled out, leaving the natives to ceaseless enemy onslaughts, often with only the Carpathian Mountains for protection.

A country that small and powerless doesn't create the waves of history but instead gets tossed about by them. Often the best plan was to ride along wherever the waves would lead. But then this strategy has sometimes necessitated joining Hitler, which lead to some 700,000 Romanian deaths just the same. And the Romanian Jewish population went from around 800,000 at the start of WW2 to just under 10,000 in 1992? Oy... but who am I to judge?

Today, the Romanians are a people of recovery and rebuilding. Out from under "communist" rule since only 1989, the country seemed to be making great progress to economic strength in the early '00s. It joined the EU in 2007 -- kinda -- and earned itself the nickname "the Tiger of Eastern Europe." Ah, but the most recent economic downturn seems to have hit Romania especially hard... Oh, well...que sera, sera -- Romanian for "let's drag our leader's body through the streets."

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Review: First Love and Other Stories, by Ivan Turgenev

First Love and Other Stories (World's Classics)My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The edition I read had just three stories: "First Love," "Spring Torrents," and "A Fire at Sea" -- a very odd trio they make. They are about 70, 140, and 10 pages respectively. If this were a muscle man competition, "Spring Torrents" would beat out the title story as a matter of sheer bulk, while the last story would have no choice but to quiver in his chair at the back of the stage, hoping beyond hope that no one sits on him.

The first two are thematically very similar: two tales of thwarted love, so obviously and painfully drawn from the author's own experience. Ah, the sweet melancholy of love unrequited or otherwise unfulfilled -- with my harsh old soul at my tender young age, it's really the only kind of love story I can take. Though I am still very new to his writing, I have reached a conclusion: this is Turgenev and I love him for it.

He was so preoccupied with this kind of tale, that his novel Fathers and Sons, really a novel of the generational gap, politics, philosophy and everything manly, found its way to a love story right quick! I can't but shake my head and smile. Even hard old hearts, hidden behind large and severe Russian beards have always been liable to melt.

"First Love" I read months ago, in another collection. Though I was largely impressed, and ate happily my first dose of the author's writings, I was rather peeved by the ending. I suppose it's one of those stories you can reread and then discover all the hints of the surprise ending hidden in plain view. But I, for my part, have not done this yet and am still convinced that the ending was jolting and disjointed.

"Spring Torrents" (or "Torrents of Spring" as I think I've seen it called) is at the other end, slow at first, with an unremarkable Italian girl for the main man's affections -- but it builds, ending unexpectedly, in a manner I feel I can be proud of.

"A Fire at Sea" is a major departure from its two older brothers and thus feels rather gruesomely tacked on. It is the autobiographical tale of a sea voyage the author took when he was about nineteen. The title spoils the premise -- it did really happen, and Turgenev freaked out, supposedly knocking aside children and women, and offering a crew member a ridiculous sum to save him. Well, that's what some other memoirs say, though Turgenev himself naturally paints a picture of more general uproar, thus shrinking and trivializing his own part...

This story could be (and probably has been) used to great effect in another, larger collection of the author's short works. It was written near the end of his life, about an event near the beginning -- an event that was always a source of embarrassment but colored his writing just the same. But here it has no place and shocks the reader out of the sharp and brooding reverie of what I now see as a pair of typical Turgenev love stories.

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Monday, July 26, 2010

Review: Low Moon, by Jason

Low MoonMy rating: 3 of 5 stars

Here's another one from that indefatigable single-named Norwegian artist and writer, Jason...Low Moon includes five stories, all featuring Jason's trademark minimalistic, undeviating art style; stiff anthropomorphic animals, mostly dogs; easy, silent movie-inspired writing; and sharp attention to detail.

The showpiece of this collection is the one on the cover. No, not "Low Moon," the title story and so-so western-style tale of a duel that is fought with chess pieces instead of guns. I mean instead "&", the story whose last panel graces the cover. First, how do you pronounce it? "and"? "ampersand"? "the artist formerly known as..."? Second, what's not to like about this story? Actually, it's two: two simultaneous stories, one told on the left page and the other on the right. Both are typical of this collection, about two protagonists who know what they want and will do anything to get it. They both see their plans through, yet both end up at a bar sitting next to a perfect stranger...

The other four stories are passable, if not outrageously successful. "Emily Says Hello" has a cool premise and a dramatic ending. "Low Moon" is, as I said, so-so, with a series of schticks that don't all shtick."Proto Film Noir" is probably the quirkiest of the bunch, and consequently my least favorite; it has an unfabulous ending, too. And lastly, "You Are Here" ends the book on a sweet note that didn't ring with me.

The art is, again, "passable, if not outrageously successful." The lines are straight as can be, and the art is generally not without a visual punchline. But I want more. I like the way this book looks -- but all his books look this way. I have read three of them and I am getting awfully tired of all these plain, single-color backgrounds! Even the layouts are uninspired: in this book we get nothing but the same four-paneled pages throughout.

Mind you, I get it: the simple style, besides being worthy on its own account, also allows Jason to comfortably produce one or two good sized books each year. There's something to be said about that method, especially for the young ambitious upstart, but surely Jason is past that. Surely he can afford to slow down, to elaborate on and fill in his well-established style.

What I like most about Jason's books are their unpretentiousness. Reading his books always makes me think, "Oh yeah, this is what the kids are reading!" but that doesn't discourage me. His books are hip, it seems, but they never lose track of telling a story, of entertaining. There's no impenetrable art house gunk in here -- or if there is, it doesn't clog up the machinery.

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Friday, July 23, 2010

"My Aunt Makes Up Her Mind About Me"

Thus I began my new life, in a new name, and with everything new about me. Now that the state of doubt was over, I felt, for many days, like one in a dream. I never thought that I had a curious couple of guardians, in my aunt and Mr. Dick. I never thought of anything about myself, distinctly. The two things clearest in my mind were, that a remoteness had come upon the old Blunderstone life - which seemed to lie in the haze of an immeasurable distance; and that a curtain had for ever fallen on my life at Murdstone and Grinby's. No one has ever raised that curtain since. I have lifted it for a moment, even in this narrative, with a reluctant hand, and dropped it gladly. The remembrance of that life is fraught with so much pain to me, with so much mental suffering and want of hope, that I have never had the courage even to examine how long I was doomed to lead it. Whether it lasted for a year, or more, or less, I do not know. I only know that it was, and ceased to be; and that I have written, and there I leave it.
A passage like that ought to make even the most thickheaded reader (Hi, how's it going?) stand up and take notice. Personally, I crinkled my nose, played thoughtfully with my beard and said: "I should write a blog post now!"

The above-quoted passage is the very last paragraph of chapter 14 of Charles Dickens by David Copperfield, or vice versa. The young Charley/Davy has run away from his drudge job at his stepfather's warehouse to take refuge with his eccentric Aunt Betsey. The two "met" only once before, when David was a very small, posthumous child. She, shocked and disappointed at his being a boy not a girl, quickly fled from his life and formed a new quiet life for herself in a small cottage of those towns with an Englishy name.

Some years later --maybe 6 to 8 years-- when David flees to her, he finds his aunt to be nice enough, despite being a bit "sharp" and possessing more than a few idiosyncrasies. And, with a penniless, exhausted, filthy nephew at her door, she proves her mettle by taking him in and defending him against the vile Mister and Miss Murdstone, the stepfather and his sister. "My aunt makes up her mind about me"...well, I think I've already gone and spoiled the result of that chapter!

Still, the above paragraph puts to an end one of the most fiery and intriguing passages I have read in a long time (too long to put here but well worth reading). The tongue lashing Aunt Betsey gives Mr. Murdstone, combined with her effective shutting down of Ms. Murdstone's 'picky little comments, render entirely impotent the until now most terrible and powerful influences of David's young life. So impotent for so long, David finally finds a sane and confident guardian -- an eccentric, proto-feminist, hermit lady -- to defend him and look after his future.

It is a new era for David -- a happy time for him, the author, and the reader. All three of us are now set free from youth-stealing drudgery in some anonymous warehouse along the river Thames and are now free to roam among the endearing oddballs of Victorian society.

But we can never forget the events of the previous chapters, particularly Chapter 11, "I Begin Life on My Own Account, and Don't Like It," epitomized by a title so sadly understated --whether on account of bravado or pain or plain English stuffiness, I don't know -- yet so full of grim foreboding towards the chapter it heads up. Charles Dickens never forgot his own two years at a boot-blacking factory, as evidenced by this and so many other books, characters, passages. His experiences at one of the lowest rungs of society at an awfully young age no doubt, the scholar will say, made him a more well-rounded author in future years, made him "worldly" (without lasting long enough to make him world weary) and, finally, created a unique character capable of creating hundreds of others that he used to populate his unique vision of the world. Pity, the things required for such gains...

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Tom Sawyer and Charles Dickens

I have recently started on my way through that worthy, well-worn tome of English literature, David Copperfield by Mr. Charles Dickens. I have seen my way through "I am born," "I am sent away from home," "I try opium and really like it," etc. and I have found everything to be to my liking. Most overwhelming are the characters: they just keep coming at you, and each of them seems ready and willing to take a comfortable seat and tell you a story of his life as long as the present volume. It seems he (the author) could not help endowing endearing interest, mystery and magic into all his characters, no matter how minor.

Take William, for example, a waiter the young David meets on his way to boarding school. While dining at an inn along his way, and blushing all over from the grand attention shown him, the young master is easily taken in by this William. The ale in little Davey's half-pint, it turns out, is poisonous -- why, it already killed a "Mr. Topsawyer" about a week ago. And since the inn management does not like to see anything wasted, the only possibility is for William to drink it instead. He soon grows queasy -- or says he does -- but no matter: David is having chops and potatoes, the only thing in the world that can cure this kind of poisoning... Things continue in this manner until William is quite satiated with his meal and the reader likewise with this little bit of parlor trickery.

What caught my eye was the name: Mr. Topsawyer. Sounds an awful like Tom Sawyer, doesn't it? And William's little bit of trickery fit nicely into the mold now so epitomized by Twain's boyish rogue, especially his little turn with whitewashing the fence... I had to know more so I put on my "Junior History Detective" badge and dove into the Net.

First things first: David Copperfield, originally published in 1850, preceded Tom Sawyer by 26 years. The lives of Mr. Twain and Mr. Dickens over-lapped approximately 35 years, and most of those saw the (presumably eternally mustachioed) younger writer still in literary diapers. The two met exactly once -- and "met" is hardly the word I'd consider best: "Twain, writing as a special correspondent of the San Francisco Alta California in January 1868, filed this report after seeing a public reading by Dickens at the Steinway Hall in New York. Twain was 32 years old at the time, Dickens a very old 55." This bit of writing is certainly not Twain's best, but his obvious reverence for the older man -- seen through the playful mockery and only natural hero defacement -- leaves within the realm of the possible the idea that Twain based his character at least in part on Dickens's work.

The origin of Topsawyer: As is common enough knowledge, sawyer is another, more archaic name for a woodcutter. This old-fashioned profession went hand-in-band with the sawpit, "a pit over which lumber is positioned to be sawed with a long two-handled saw by two men, one standing above the timber and the other below." I am given to believe that the man standing in the pit was known as the bottom-sawyer and the one standing on the log was the top-sawyer. The top-sawyer seems to have had the nicer, much less dangerous position -- the phrase having the upper hand comes to mind -- which, by extension, he may have acquired through conniving means.

If this does not suit you, I have another lead. A note from an Oxford World's Classics edition of Nicholas Nickelby has this to say about the term top-sawyer: "Norfolk slang for a skilled timber man, who may earn double the wages of other workers; by extension a 'top-sawyer' refers to a master genius in any profession." And as Sawyer became a fairly common occupational surname in England and its former colonies, it is not difficult to imagine some of the best of these men earning the surname Topsawyer... Then, it is not hard to imagine Twain separating the name into two and changing one measly letter

The "real" Tom Sawyer: My research was further complicated by the discovery of the existence of the handsome bloke on the left. What you might call the "real" Tom Sawyer, this man is most remembered for having an adventurous life, as well as the good fortune of becoming acquainted with the great Mississippi author.

A typical wandering, Westward soul, Tom tried his hand at gold prospecting, and distinguished himself as a hero -- rescuing some ninety people from a burning ship just off the "Southern coast" -- before turning out a successful career as a fireman.

Certainly, this Tom seems the sort liable to be of interest to Mr. Twain -- and, one fancies, perhaps his name had just the right ring to it. But we can't be sure: "Twain scholars, including Barbara Schmidt of Tarleton University have been unable to verify any claim that Mark Twain named his book for this particular Tom Sawyer."

We can't be sure is the operative phrase for all of this. I am merely a junior detective, remember -- and, you can't forget, even top-sawyers make mistakes. This web could very well be entirely of my own making, constructed more out of willing than waying. So, please admire the art work -- but don't touch. Works of art like this are so very terribly fragile.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Harvey Pekar... Part 2

A lot of things happen when a person dies -- but, mostly, nothing happens. Harvey Pekar has been remembered, his life recounted in dozens of newspapers, yet no one has actually done anything about it.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer gave him a front page story, which lacked anything remarkable except for occurring in the only daily paper of the city Pekar lived and knew. (I was going to take the time to electronically scan the newspaper but luckily these days so many newspaper articles have an online counterpart.) This article is the headpiece, in my mind, for a long series occurring in papers about the world, telling the same basic story. Ha. Obits...

Below, I have collected a few more articles of more interest than the average obituary.

Jacob Heibrunn of The Huffington Post wrote an inspired piece, "The Collapse of Cleveland," in which he pulled together three seemingly unrelated events -- Pekar's death; the death of George Steinbrenner, Yankees owner and one-time Cleveland shipping magnate; and the exit of Lebron James, former Cavalier all-star and supposed god, for another team -- as a sort of base for apocalyptic conclusions obvious from the title.

The Washington Post, in their "Comic Riffs" perennial feature, paid more appropriate tribute, gathering quotes from some of Pekar's former collaborators and fellow members of the industry. Frank Stack: "I've heard him compared to Charles Bukowski, of course. But I think he was even more like an American Chekov. " *eh*...

Splash Page,'s comic-themed blog, featured an interview with Jeff Newelt, editor of "The Pekar Project," an online comics project that saw Pekar paired with a "quartet of artists." Of course, Pekar left many projects unfinished, and others that are finished but yet to come out, among them "a bunch of" comics for the project and a graphic novel, simply entitled Cleveland, intended for release in 2011. Newelt also spoke of writing a tribute comic himself, as well as the possibility of tribute comics from other artists and writers.

It also occurred to me that, with all this talk of a "great man" and so-and-so, perhaps some are left wondering: "What's 'is stories like?" The main American Splendor series, of course, can't be missed, but below I have collected and recounted most of his non-AS graphic novels...

Our Cancer Year, with Joyce Brabner and Frank Stack - "This is a story about a year when someone was sick, about a time when it seemed that the rest of the world was sick, too." Harvey's and his wife's trials with his cancer during the early nineties are juxtaposed against larger events, particularly the escalation of the Gulf War.

American Splendor: Our Movie Year - Harvey tells us what it was like to be a celebrity, of a sort. This book documents his life leading up to, and including the release of the well-received film adaptation of American Splendor. "Can he keep his everyman persona [and good looks] in the face of an award-winning movie based on his autobiographical comic book series? Happily, the answer is 'you bet.'"

The Quitter, with Dean Haspiel - A memoir of earlier years, from the little kid days, through his short-lived college experience, to his many menial jobs and his finally settling with -- more like grasping onto for dear life -- a government file clerk position. In short, it's the story of a kid who quit at everything and later kinda fell into becoming an icon of his city.

Ego & Hubris: The Michael Malice Story, with Gary Dumm - This book follows the entire life of one Michael Malice, a semi-successful business man who attributes his success to reading Ayn Rand. From my review: " Michael Malice is a real jerk, but I loved reading about his life." and "I think I'll just stick to my indifferent attempts at altruism, thankyouverymuch."

Macedonia, with Heather Roberson and Ed Piskor - This book follows a college student who dives into the history of modern-day Macedonia in an attempt to discover more about practical peace-making work. Never read it.

Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History - The story of a radical '60s era student activist group -- never read it.

The Beats - A hodgepodge of stories and artists, memoirs and more typical nonfiction comics. It starts with lengthy graphic biographies about Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs, then breaks down into a series of smaller of comics divulging both a more general history and, sometimes, a more specific angle -- "Beatnik Chicks," for example.

Studs Terkel's Working: A Graphic Adaptation - Another hodgepodge of writers and artists -- Pekar just sorta presided. It's the perfect book for him to adapt: a series of people talking frankly about their everyday working lives.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Harvey Pekar: a great man is dead

"I’m saddened to learn of the death today of Harvey Pekar, age seventy, author for thirty-four years of the comic book American Splendor..."

So. "Here's our guy..." In the post title I have labeled him a "great man," a personal title as full of sad irony as the title of his long-running series. "Great" is an adjective I am hard pressed to use to seriously describe anyone, but I will always be ready to admit that there was something special about Harvey Pekar. He was a man inherently outside the mainstream: ugly, neurotic, anti-social, "curmudgeonly," and probably smelly too. (Don't believe that last: I never met him.) He was a guy many probably felt sorry for, and whom others laughed at, as with his infamous appearances on Letterman. I, for my part, felt there was no other route but kinship.

I never met him, as I said, yet I still feel like I know him -- a peculiar side effect of autobiography, especially the quotidian variety (Harvey, you taught me that word) Pekar's work typified. He was a man I wanted to meet. I was going to -- at some book-warming event, or a kind of gallery showing -- but plans fell through that night and I ended up reading one of his comics instead. Maybe it was for the best... we'll never know. As it is he will always occupy a tender, endearing place with me, alongside other grumpy, seemingly unapproachable people.

And he was unapproachable, at least in his stories, at least to some. Man... you think Pekar himself was ugly... his writing is what nice guys call "vigorous" or "full of 'local color'" or "true to life," while craftily avoiding words like "boring" and "stiff," never mind "finely-crafted" or, simply, "gorgeous." His writing style and his character are both hard to like, but certainly they are equally hard to hate -- probably because they are so true, so full of sincerity. There are no intentional lies between the pages of American Splendor -- just an ordinary guy attempting earnestly to tell it like it is.

About his real life -- the parts never put on paper -- I can say nothing absolutely. Working with him was probably not always easy: his unswerving attitude towards his stuff caused some head butting with his artist collaborators throughout his career. His tendency to leave his work uncut and unedited, for example, peeved both artist (Gary Dumm, one of Pekar's long-time collaborators once complained to us, "There's no room for the art!") and reader ("Hey, mac, you got anything shorter, maybe?"). But in the end, Dumm, the artist found him to be "without fail a generous and helpful friend to me..." And Abe, the reader, is in the midst of accounting for himself.

Don't believe the news anchors: "Cleveland is my hometown." Chicago was taken -- Miami, too. Pekar was -- is -- the real king of Cleveland. He deserves more recognition, from both the comparatively highbrow, and the people "from off the streets of Cleveland" -- as American Splendor was originally subtitled. As it is, we'll simply have to pretend that the Harvey Award is in honor of him as well as the late, great Harvey Kurtzman. And we'll have to hope that the four or five of his books in every local library will reach dolefully empty hands and will maybe spark a tinder in just the right imagination. And hopefully someone can be conjured up to say: "This is our guy! I'm immensely proud of him." Oh, hell -- it's already done.

May he rest in peace.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

5 Reasons Books Are Better Than Movies

There was a time, not so long ago, when an army of Internet minions was slavishly devoted to scientifically discovering the "Top 10 of..." just about anything. From "The 10 head-bangingyest metal songs of all time" to the more modest "Ten can't-miss pudding recipes" to the just plain strange "Top 10 places I've seen you, my darling" -- everyone's had the itch. But, somewhere between now and then, the collective attention span was unduly divided duly -- and half of ten is five. So, in regretful capitulation to the times here are the "5 Reasons Books Are Better Than Movies," a subject nevertheless near and dear to this blog's hearts and my own. And you'll let me know, won't you, dear Reader: is this post trite or recondite? (That's my new thing, see, meant to one day run in TV Guide alongside "Cheers and Jeers.") Please, please let me know. Now here's the list:

1 Books look good on the shelf - You can tell so much about a person, they say, from the books they have on their shelves. But what do you gain from perusing a movie collection? What, some guy has the third Godfather film but not the first two? He has the Star Wars Christmas special? Lame. Totally lame. But if he has the 60-volume set Great Books of the Western World? Class. Totally class.

2 Books burn better - All the hoopla surrounding the so-called "travesty" of book-burning is unfounded and unrealistic. Books burn at 451 degrees and humans only need 98.6 of that; so one book has the power to warm 4.574 people! Also: I can't help but think that the protagonist of the Jack London short story "To Build a Fire" would have been a-okay if he'd just had a copy of his own harrowing story within reach.

3 Some books are dangerous - I suppose you can kill someone with just about anything, but there is something beautifully appropriate about smashing a faceless enemy's face in with the complete works of Freud. I keep the standard two-volume set of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on the bedside table at all times just in case -- just in case I get an opportunity to crash a burglar's head between those two meaty cymbals and finally prove the relevance of Roman history.

4 Some books are harmless - Sure, the books of #3 contain dangerous ideas, and are big and heavy to boot, but there is another breed. Surely there can be no harm in a good (or awful) paperback presented to the inmates of our prison system. A paperback is nearly useless as a blunt weapon, and paper is a poor material choice for building a shiv, while to many a DVD or VHS tape is just so much sharp and pointed plastic. If nothing else, there's always item #2.

5 Books sometimes smell good - This just in: "" is still available!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

An excerpt from my notebook

Note: Below, an excerpt from my notebook, taken from the entry for today. --Did I really write this today? it seems so long ago... I also find it hard to believe that this came from a journal or a diary so I called it a notebook instead. Yet it is appropriately self centered; I considered calling this post "I Want."

Also: "Diaries and journals are the lowest form of literary output."-- Mr. Nabbie Cough. (Don't trust writers: they are rotten, liars.)

Richard Wright wanted to write in a way that would make his words disappear. I want something like that: to write with such conviction and solid strength that my essence is always preserved, even after translation, even after a catastrophe or Time's slow decay burn large parts of the manuscript. I want to say what I mean, mean what I say. I want to write tight, finally (sic!) crafted fiction. I want to create my own little world.

A stumbling block for me has always been the idea that each new story requires a new world. This is not what Chekhov did. He created his world -- his own private vision of Russia -- and used it over and over. It is not hard to imagine the lady with the dog sitting next to Gusev, the sick sailor on a homeward bound ship, or with what's-his-name, the little apprentice who wants to return to his Grandpa. I can see them all laid out in a fanboy collage, the way they do with Marvel and Simpsons characters. This would be more tasteful...

I want to write stories that are stories, not pieces of art. I am reminded of a sculpture I saw recently in the Modern Art exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art. An irregularly shaped, many-cornered wooden base rising some six inches above the floor supported, first, a naked human figure bending over to touch its toes, and second, a careful network of wound metal chain laid across the platform, projecting out from about half of the human figure. Is the chain, I wondered, secured to the base? Is the sculpture exactly as it was when it rolled off the assembly line? What would happen if I reached down and pushed a chunk of the chain even just an inch? What if, heaven forbid, a strong wind -- but I guess they don't many of those at the core of a museum.

My point: art, at least the stuff at a museum, is die on wool, paint on canvas, carve on stone. Sometimes, they say, great artists would prepare for the future, painting things intended to shine for centuries, even if they became very black from soot or very faded from overexposure to light. Now, too few works are created for a realistic future. Even public sculptures and so-called installation art are terribly confined to the artist's view -- "Pigeon shit on sculpture makes local artist cry 'Fowl'". There is, still, an idea of immortality through art -- ars longa, vita brevis -- but nothing lasts as long as we'd like... Better to give your art up to bigger and brighter heads rather than let it languish, after you're gone, in a hopeless struggle for relevance in a future you can't possibly imagine.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Review: The Comfort of Strangers, by Ian McEwan

The Comfort of Strangers My rating: 2 of 5 stars
So... this is it, then? This is "Postmodernism," this is what our current generation has to show for itself. This kind of book is, somehow, going to be held up in the near future as representative of these, our modern days... "I don't know, man. I think you'd piss a lot of people off..."

The Company of Strangers by Ian McEwan is of a breed with which, I must admit, I am mostly unacquainted. My only other experience in this realm has been White Noise by Don Dellilo. (Listening in on a modern lit. university class taught me, if nothing else, that it's de-LIH-loh, not de-LAE-loh.) That book left me with the same marked ambivalence I have here now. It goes without saying that I've had trouble even with forming an opinion -- then, when it comes, it sits there on the fence, an impenetrable, frustrating, and ugly blob of gray.

Mary and Colin are on vacation (or "on holiday" as someone named Ian McEwan invariably puts it). Mary and Colin are a young unmarried couple who have become disillusioned and dulled by their seven long years of shared experience. Colin is a "girly man" with an apparently "perfect" physique and no discernible personality. I have never seen him naked, but then Mary and Ian keep telling me he's perfect. Ian and Colin, however, are fairly mum on Mary, so she has left no impression at all.

The on-page couple spends the first third of their 127 pages despondently wandering around the neighborhood. Then they meet a guy, Robert, as if by accident. (BUT IT TURNS OUT IT WASN'T AN ACCIDENT!!!! DUM! DUM! DUM!!! ). And he, uh...he takes the pair to a bar and, for some reason, reveals his early years as a daddy's boy, including one ridiculous yet very memorable anecdote (Remember kids: don't snitch on your older sisters). This meeting, as the inside flap discovers to us, THROWS THEIR WORLD UPSIDE DOWN.

I hear this is a tale of violent masculinity, all wrapped up in a quirky suspense/mystery/thriller tale that ends... well, I guess the dweeby, sensitive type finally gets the sand kicked in his face that he always deserved, and that we always knew was coming. I hear the story shambling along, sometimes rambling, but never losing track of its inevitable, obvious conclusion. Suspense -- yes it does exist in this book, but I could never muster the suspense to care.

Like that Delillo book I read, The Company of Strangers created no likable characters and placed them in a totally anonymous location which you might call "Everyville" but which I call "Who-gives-a-rat's-ass-ville" (est. 1945). I kid (at least about the date: we can never be sure when, exactly, "literature" and its Cultural brethren, went to total shit). We are definitely overdue for a resurgence -- something crisp and sexy, not dull and unrelatable.

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