Friday, April 30, 2010

Review of : White Noise by Don DeLillo

Some time ago, maybe five years now, after I had just finished Underworld, I said to myself, I am going to read every book Don DeLillo has written and will write. And for some reason I hadn't gotten around to reading White Noise until now, arguably his most well known work. So here we are, the 11th book I've read by Mr. DeLillo.

Though DeLillo is very much a part of the "literary establishment" and has garnered all sorts of awards and praise throughout his career, there is a large faction of readers who think his work is "cold", "bullshit", "terrible", "boring", "pseudo intellectual", "pretentious", "unrealistic dialogue", etc. Sure. Why not. I understand all that criticism. That's fine. But I think a lot of the anger toward his work comes from certain expectations some might have of the author and the narrative, expectations that are clearly not being met when reading DeLillo. The reader needs to buy into DeLillo's mindset and be comfortable with him using his character's as a mouth piece, essentially. Because yes, all his characters tend to sound the same. But why is that? Is that because DeLillo isn't a good enough writer to make them sound different? Or is he trying to communicate something to the reader? Trying to display a kind of universal consciousness that we all might share? An ultimate language? I don't know. Maybe. Think whatever you want. I'm not even totally convinced of what I said, I was just throwing it out there.

Ya know, it's been interesting reading an entire author's listed works, because they start to blend together, especially with someone like DeLillo who loves reusing images and ideas, so it gets harder and harder to get psyched about each book. But also, it's interesting to see how his style has developed and evolved.

Concerning White Noise: I won't even waste the space to summarize plot, but the last half of the book was darkly magical, in a way that I'm not sure I could properly explain. Reading DeLillo has always been more of a spiritual experience for me, rather than a traditional narrative experience. Spiritual in the way that maybe I don't quite understand. But now I just sound like a pseudo-intellectual-spiritualist. Also, he mentions "Star Trek needlepoint" (Sten, remember you and your needlepoint!) and that alone will earn him a place on my bookshelf forever. I think I'll read Point Omega very soon, just to kinda do a Then and Now type dealy. I'm sure you all care.

Read these:

"He'd once told me that the art of getting ahead in New York was based on learning how to express dissatisfaction in an interesting way."

"The power of the dead is that we think they see us all the time. The dead have a presence." pg.97

"No sense of irony of human existence, that we are the highest form of life on earth and yet ineffably sad because we know what no other animal knows, that we must die." pg.99

"These things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas. Society is set up in such a way that it's the poor and the uneducated who suffer the main impact of natural and man-made disasters...I'm a college professor. Did you ever see a college professor rowing a boat down his own street in one of those TV floods?" pg.112

"In a crisis the true facts are whatever other people say they are. No one's knowledge is less secure than your own." pg.118

"We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. You are sure that you are right but you don't want everyone to think as you do. There is no truth without fools. We are your fools, your madwomen, rising at dawn to pray, lighting candles, asking statues for good health, long life." pg.304

Review of : Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco

This book primarily focuses on one event in November of 1956, in a town in the Gaza Strip called Rafah. In this particular event, hundreds of young, unarmed men, mostly of military age, were rounded up in a local school yard by the Israeli army. Most were severely beaten on the head as they entered the yard. They were questioned. Held all day, they were made to sit in their own piss. Some rubbed sand in their wounds to stop the bleeding. Suspected soldiers were imprisoned or killed on the spot. After all the soldiers had been weeded out, the rest were released, sent home. Later, families ran into the night, looking for their husbands, their fathers, their brothers, their sons. They found them dead in the streets, slumped against walls, face down in the dirt, or piled with others on the outskirts of town. 50. 60. 70 corpses, tossed together like fish. The families carried them off using blankets. They brought them to the local cemetery, buried five, six bodies in preexisting graves. They had no time. They were already breaking curfew.

So this is the terrible subject of Sacco's book but he finds it hard to stay on topic, as he is researching in present day Rafah and present day Rafah is an exceedingly violent area. Every day something new is happening. Every day, Palestinian homes are being bulldozed by the IDF (Israeli Defense Force). The IDF claims they are being fired upon by these houses, snipers on the rooftops. Possibly, though not likely, and hardly a reason to bulldoze someones home, displacing an entire family. But such is the power of the IDF, whose power is all but total in Palestine.

So we call Palestinians terrorists. They hate America. They loved Saddam Hussein. They hate Jews. But what if we step back for a second and examine why we think these things. Well, most of it has to do with because that is what the US government and the Israeli government and the media want us to think. But think about it this way, with a little empathy.

We have tanks and high powered rifles and night vision and Kevlar and helicopters and jets and bulldozers and jeeps and uniforms and money and power and we call ourselves an army of soldiers. They have few guns and fewer soldiers and fewer weapons and virtually no money and we call them terrorists. We call them terrorists because...they use suicide bombers, killing untold amounts of innocent victims? No one can support that. I do not support terrorism. What is the difference between terroism and the army? Isn't the IDF guilty of atrocities perpetrated against innocent Palestinians? But all Palestinians are terrorists so it doesn't matter, right? What I'm saying, if we think about it a little differently and think, well what is the alternative? How else are the Palestinians to defend themselves? And at this point, it's a quagmire, it's just eye for an eye stuff. 5 Palestinians killed one day, 3 Israelis killed as retaliation. And on and on and on.

But do Americans understand any of this, question any of this? Do we know about this displacement, these bulldozed homes? What if you lived in an area where at any moment, your home could be bulldozed by the government? Living under curfew, sniped at from towers at night? Do we understand this type of life? If we were faced with death, every day, faced with displacement, every day, what would we be compelled to do? Would you hate your oppressor? Would you cheer those that helped you? Curse those that funded your enemy? So then, how can we judge what we don't know for certain. How can we judge what we do not understand?

Everything is gray.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Review of : Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky

Full Disclosure: I am a huge DFW fan, so, ya know, there was very little chance I wasn't going to like this "book".

I say "book" because it's not really a book in the traditional sense, more just a 310 page interview with David Foster Wallace during the last leg of his Infinite Jest book tour in 1996. A lot of what DFW talks about, as far as certain ideas about television, technology, entertainment, addiction, America, etc, I'd already read in other interviews (the best interview I've read with is with Dalkey Archive Press), though the things DFW had to say in this interview were still very awesome.

What DFW fans will find most enjoyable, as I did anyway, is just the little things that are revealed. His odd soda drinking habit (12 cans a day), his musical tastes (infatuated with Alanis Morissette...remember, this is 1996), and a myriad of other things that won't be listed here.

Of course, the book is also incredibly sad (but also laugh out loud funny...seriously, I was reading this in bed late one night, my lady next to me sleeping, and I literally had to laugh into my pillow to keep from waking her up) because the whole time Lipsky is trying to convince DFW that all this attention and praise must feel really good and must be just the best thing ever and the whole time DFW is not on board with it at all. The book tour and all the attention is plainly painful for him most of the time because he acknowledges that all the press he's getting (such as this Rolling Stone writer following him around for five days) is more about all the hype and attention he's getting than it is about Infinite Jest. Because at that point, as DFW points out several times, there's just no way that most of these people could have even read and digested the book. Like the book tour literally started the day after publication. So if you've read any of DFW's nonfiction stuff, you can imagine how he would react to massive amounts of attention and praise...ultimately it just made him uncomfortable and sad.

Another thing that struck me was just the kind of frenzy the publishing and reading world got itself into over Infinite Jest and DFW. I was maybe 12 or 13 when Infinite Jest was published, living in Small Town New Hampshire so of course I have no recollection of any of it, it wasn't even close to being on my radar. But what Lipsky keeps pointing out to Wallace is that all this attention and adulation was unprecedented, especially for a writer as young as he was (34 at the time). Which is another thing that was crazy that I keep forgetting is that Wallace started writing Infinite Jest in like '91/'92, when he was like 29 or 30, which to me is just insane. To create this masterpiece at that age just blows me away. And to think about the stuff that was probably being written around that time, and the kind of art that was around...It just seems that much crazier. I read Infinite Jest in 2005...I can't imagine what it must have been like to read it in 1996. Ok, I'm just rambling now.

"I'm talking about the number of privileged, highly intelligent, motivated career-track people that I know, from high school or college, who are, if you look into their eyes, empty and miserable. You know? And who don't believe in politics, and don't believe in religion. And believe that civic movements or political activism are either a farce or some way to get power for the people who are in control of it. Who don't believe in anything. Who know fantastic reasons not to believe in stuff, and are terrific ironists and pokers of holes. And there's nothing wrong with that, it's just, it doesn't seem to me that there's just a whole lot else." pg.160

"I don't think I'm quite as smart, one-on-one, with people, when I'm self-conscious, and I'm really really confused. And it's why like, my dream would be for you to write this up, and then to send it to me, and I get to rewrite all my quotes to you...I know that I'm a lot more talented alone, when I've got time, than I am in the back and forth of this." pg.218-219

"I mean, I decided that I wanted to think of myself as a writer, which meant whether this [Infinite Jest:] got published or not, I was gonna write it." pg.252

"I think the reason why people behave in an ugly manner is that it's really scary to be alive and to be human, and people are really really afraid...but the fact of the matter is that the job that we're here to do is to learn how to live in a way that we're not terrified all the time." pg.291-292

"...And expectations of ourselves are a very fine line. Because up to a certain point, they can be motivating, and inspiring, and can be kind of a flame thrower held to our ass, get us moving. And past that point they're toxic and paralyzing." pg.299

Review of : About A Mountain by John D'Agata

It seems like most reviewers tore through book, just as I did, and I think that is a testament to D'Agata's style, which is tight and lyrical.

The main topic of this book is about the US government looking to use Yucca Mountain, located just outside of Las Vegas, as a storage facility for our nations plentiful nuclear waste. This topic, interesting enough on its own, then spiderwebs itself into tangentially related topics such as linguistics, the strange, modern fantasy that is Las V...more It seems like most reviewers tore through book, just as I did, and I think that is a testament to D'Agata's style, which is tight and lyrical.

The main topic of this book is about the US government looking to use Yucca Mountain, located just outside of Las Vegas, as a storage facility for our nations plentiful nuclear waste. This topic, interesting enough on its own, then spiderwebs itself into tangentially related topics such as linguistics, the strange, modern fantasy that is Las Vegas, ridiculous politics, suicide, Edvard's Munch's The Scream, our moral obligation towards future generations (if there is any), and what the world as we know it will look like in 10,000 years (for starters, it's gonna be 50 degrees colder because the planet's axis is gradually tilting).

This is not your normal non fiction reading experience. D'Agata seems intent on reshaping the modern essay. It can probably be lumped in with 'new journalism' or 'literary non fiction' or whatever you want to call it. One of the things I found most interesting was his bibliography at the end of the book, which were occasionally coupled with little notes from D'Agata, explaining certain sources, and in some cases, plainly stating that this particular piece of information that was used in the book was wrong and that he had misremembered it. But then why didn't he just correct it in the final text? Why leave the misremembered information in the main text? And he did this a few times in the bibliography, stating that "Oh, well this isn't exactly true," or "I thought this was the case but I learned later...".

I am not pointing this out as "Look at what a bad journalist he is." I'm pointing this out to say, "This is interesting, why did he do it this way? What is he trying to tell the reader?" I think it is linked with some of his ruminations of knowledge vs. wisdom, though I'm not quite sure. Or it's kinda like he tried to see if he could do a investigative research project while relying heavily on his own perceptions, experiences, and memories to carry the book. And he even mentions in the book at one point when someone says he's "Press" and he says he's not "Press" and they ask what exactly he's doing and he responds that he's not sure exactly. Which could seem kinda silly but make no mistake, this thing is well researched and drenched in mind-blowing information. This all sounds like an oxymoron but it works and it's interesting and you should read it. This is the type of book you want your friends to read so you can talk it out afterward.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Review of : Television by Jean-Philippe Toussaint

An academic acquires a grant to write a book on the painter Titian in Berlin for the summer, while his wife and son vacation in Italy. Early on in his time in Berlin, he decides that television has become too distracting and he swears it off while he works on his book (If this doesn't sound like a pretentious plot, I don't know what does). This proves more difficult than he expected and instead of being distracted by television, our academic quickly finds other ways to procrastinate: swimming...more An academic acquires a grant to write a book on the painter Titian in Berlin for the summer, while his wife and son vacation in Italy. Early on in his time in Berlin, he decides that television has become too distracting and he swears it off while he works on his book (If this doesn't sound like a pretentious plot, I don't know what does). This proves more difficult than he expected and instead of being distracted by television, our academic quickly finds other ways to procrastinate: swimming, museum gazing, street wandering, single engine airplane flying, etc. And this seems to be the plight of the artist, because his work is never far from his mind:
"I felt a sudden twinge of regret at the thought of having to forgo my work for the day. Truth to tell, it was always this way: the less I thought myself obligated to work, and indeed the more certain the impossibility of working, the more desire to work I felt, and the more capable of working, as if, with the prospect of work receding into the distance, the task shed all its potential torments, simultaneously draping itself in all the many promises of future accomplishment."

And this:
"For the simple reason, it seemed to me, that if you've already extracted all the pleasure from the potential joys of a project before you've begun it, there remain, by the time you get down to it, only the miseries of the act of creation, its burden, its labors."

And that seems about right. The Idea of the thing always feels and looks much better than the Act of the thing...well, sometimes anyway. And of course, the most important thing is the Act, not the Idea, when it comes to writing that is.

This book was written originally in French, circa 1997. Toussaint's views on television are of a very specific kind of television:
"...twenty-four hours a day, it seems to flow along hand in hand with time itself, aping its passage in a crude parody where no moment lasts and everything soon disappears, to the point where you might sometimes wonder where all those images go once they've been broadcast, with no one watching them or remembering them or retaining them, scarely seen at all, only momentarily skimmed by the viewer's gaze. For where books, for instance, always offer a thousand times more than they are, television offers exactly what it is, its essential immediacy, its ever-evoling, always-in-progress superficiality."

Ok, sure, fine, television can be shockingly bad and requires nothing from us as viewers. But also, television can be really friggin good, at least in the past ten years it has shown it can. And again, this was written in 1997, when television in Belgium (Toussaint's place of origin) was probably really bad, just as it was also really bad here in the U S of A. I mean, come on, 1997, what was on? And I think it's unfair of Toussaint, or his character, to compare books with television. They are two different mediums. It doesn't really work. They offer different pleasures and require different things from their audience.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Review of : Your Face Tomorrow Vol. One (Fever and Spear)

I have not read either Sebald, Proust, or Henry James. All three are frequently cited from discussing Marias.

This is the first volume of a larger novel by Marias. It's hard to say whether I'll read the other two installments. I might as well. I enjoyed this one, so why not keep going?

This is not a spy novel. At least, not yet anyway. There are elements of the spy novel and the principle character becomes engaged in spy-type interrogation (though merely as an observer and interrupter) but it's not nearly as plot driven as a spy novel, so don't think James Bond.

It's a lot of internal pondering. And really that's the best part about the narrative, though I could see why some might find that boring. And honestly, sometimes it was a little boring but Marias, somehow, kept me interested. Some passages were downright awesome, these little vignettes, stories within stories, and that is where Marias is at his best, rather than ruminating on various topics of truth, language, and silence.

"No, I should never tell anyone anything, nor hear anything either." pg. 13

"When you're young, as you know, you're in a hurry and always afraid that you're not living enough, that your experiences are not varied enough or rich enough, you feel impatient and try to accelerate events, if you can, and so you load yourself up with them, you stockpile them, the urgency of the young to accumulate scars and to forge a past, it's odd that sense of urgency." pg. 99

"Chavez led an attempted coup once, if I remember rightly. He conspired with his troops and rose up against an elected civilian government. True, it may have been a corrupt and thieving government, but then what government isn't nowadays, they handle far too much money and are more like businesses than governments, and businessmen want their profits. So he couldn't really complain if he was ousted. The Venezuelan people are another matter. They might. Except that there seem to have been quite a few complaints already about this leader whom they elected by popular acclaim. Being elected doesn't immunise a leader against becoming a dictator." pg. 199

"Everything has its moment to be believed, however unlikely or anodyne, however incredible or stupid." pg. 349

Review of : Prize Stories 1997 (The O. Henry Awards)

This was given to me a year or so ago solely because they (the person who gave it to me) knew that I am a fan of David Foster Wallace, who happened to be one of the writers on the Prize Jury, along with Thom Jones and Louise Erdrich. They assumed that I would want to read 20 stories that DFW had also read, and judged. They were correct.

It was interesting to read these if only for the how dated some of them seem now. I'd run across a subject or phrase or observation and think, "oh wait, that makes sense because this was written/published in 1997." Of course, some might say that is the mark of bad writing, lack of timelessness. Well, you're wrong, those that say that. But yeah, the cover is so 1997.

Also, a neat (yeah, I just said 'neat') thing about this collection is that each story is commented on by one or more of the judges, detailing their reactions to the stories. And then, along with each author bio, the authors give a sentence or two explaining where the idea for the story came from. Kinda cool.

The stories I enjoyed the most: The Falls by George Saunders, On with the Story by John Barth, The Royal Palms by Matthew Klam, The Balm of the Gilead Tree by Robert Morgan, Mermaids by Deborah Eisenberg, and Mirrors by Carols Shields.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Review of : Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

"Only the truth has real value, but the truth about war is that it contains nearly unbearable levels of repetition, boredom, and meaninglessness."

The above quote is taken from Sebastian Junger's review of Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, a Vietnam War novel 30 years in the making. I think it applies beautifully to Johnson's Tree of Smoke, a novel also about the Vietnam War, though I imagine it differs largely from Marlante's vision.

Tree of Smoke has been called both a "masterpiece" and "terrible". About half way through the novel, I pretty much thought both those things to be true, that it was at once an incredibly enjoyable reading experience but also kind of exhausting. But not necessarily in a bad way. It's almost as if Johnson was trying to mimic the experience of war in Vietnam, or maybe war in general, that the purpose is not always clear, the "mission" is shrouded in politics and rumor, everything is connected, nothing is connected, waiting, waiting, brief violence, death, waiting, and then the war just fades, not really won, not really lost.

The book is principally concerned with one William "Skip" Sands, a spy in training for the CIA, working on a Psy Ops mission for his uncle, The Colonel, a veteran of the CIA and somewhat of a mythical figure throughout the novel. That is the main thrust of the novel, with other plot lines juxtaposed with Skip, that of two brothers, infantryman who ebb and flow out of Vietnam and provide a more "traditional" viewpoint of the war. Kathy Jones, a relief aid nurse working in South East Asia who briefly becomes romantically involved with Skip Sands, is the only female narrative, so ya know, do whatever you want with that piece of information. And I don't really want to talk about the Middle Aged White Male Writes His Big Book.

I lean towards calling this a masterpiece, or at least Denis Johnson's masterpiece, which is a unique thing. And Johnson's masterpiece is not going to align with a lot of people's idea of masterpiece. It is flawed...though again, I'm not sure if that's a bad thing. When critics, or readers, say masterpiece I think they often want perfection. And this novel is not perfect. It is Johnson's idea of perfection, which is not a shining gem of a book, but more of a smooth stone on a river bed. I don't know if that makes sense or is just a bullshit image, but it feels right.

Even if I found the plot confusing and meandering at times, or even downright boring, I still found myself transfixed by the prose and dialogue alone. It's poetic stuff, really. I've said this before, how I'm more attracted to style and execution and voice rather than plot, or even character development. I'm not quite sure why and in the end, it might make me a bad writer, in the traditional sense, and certainly that is a chief complaint about this novel, that the plot and characters are lackluster. I didn't find it as big of a problem.

Here are some notes I took while reading the book that really won't make any sense, unless of course you've read the book and maybe not even then: One God many administrations, palm trees of smoke, mushroom cloud? dreaded possibility in the mind of Uncle Ho, the Enemy King, war is always just off stage, doesn't seem to even exist in this novel, reoccurring images of the Bible, Judas, Calvinism, Catholicism, betrayal, distrust, "the land is their myth," "the gods move slow, but they never stop moving."

"What do we really know about anyone in this hall of mirrors?" pg. 337

"The war itself- folly on folly." pg. 346

"Aren't we all fat and sweaty and confused?" pg. 409

"No. The Americans can't win. They're not fighting for their homeland." pg. 175

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Girl With Curious Hair Reading Group

The good people at The Howling Fantods are spearheading a reading group this Spring for Girl With Curious Hair by, of course, David Foster Wallace.

Review of : True Grit by Charles Portis

I read that the Coen Brothers are doing a re-make of this classic John Wayne movie (of which I have not seen) or rather, they are doing their own version of the classic book. Their rendition is supposed to be "more true" to the book, so I guess we'll see.

Plot: Father gets gunned down by loathsome outlaw. Percocious 14 year old daughter seeks vengence, employs the expertise (and "true grit") of one Rooster Cogburn, a fat, one-eyed U.S. marshal with a penchant for killing. They set out, along with a Texas Ranger, to capture the criminal. Adventure and violence ensues.

It was strange reading though because I couldn't help but think about its naturally cinematic qualities and wonder what the Coen Brothers would do with the story and at some points, I could plainly see what they would do with it and how they would shoot it, etc. So it added another layer to the reading experience because I was using my imagination to picture each scene and its characters but I was also using the Coen Brothers cinematic imagination and it all kinda melded into this rich, satisfying romp of a western. Also, a quick read, well paced, surprisingly funny, and like all good westerns, casually violent.

True Grit by Charles Portis
256 pages
Overlook Press

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Review of : Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower

I guess there was hype surrounding this collection, as everyone keeps mentioning in their reviews (so I'll mention it too!). I don't remember there being that much publishing hoop-la over more than other books anyway.

I think, for the most part, Mr. Tower deserves whatever praise he gets. He is a hell of a short story writer. Some stand outs include The Brown Coast, Retreat, Executors of Important Energies, Down Through the Valley, On the Show, and Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.

"It was much hotter now, and the sun glared down through the sky like a flashlight behind a sheet." pg. 11

"Bob glimpsed the melancholy little change purse he had between his legs, and looked away." pg.17

"He'd tell me love was like chickenpox, a thing to get through early because it could really kill you in later years." pg.68

"I was hoping I could sell the patent for a hundred thousand or so and then hurry to the Gulf Coast to cram a pontoon boat and a big-titted stranger into the hollow places in my heart." pg.70