America

Books We Need to Read in Trump’s

In light of the inauguration of an American president with a now-indisputable fascist bent, I’ve put together a reading list for a Trump presidency. These books are either lesser-known or often pigeonholed in other niches -there are a few of these kinds of lists going around, so I’m trying to offer some suggestions that might be a bit more novel.
Abolition Democracy: Angela Davis’s very long-form interview. A manifesto for most political realities, especially relevant now.

Bad Feminist: Roxane Gay’s essay collection, dealing with race and gender and the intersection of the two.

Notorious RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a stone cold bad ass.

Long Way Gone: The memoir of a former child soldier from Sierra Leone, a story that speaks to the physical and psychological realities faced by children living in constant war.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Why families migrate, how they seek to survive in extreme poverty and in adverse surroundings.

Notes From No Man’s Land: Essays on how America has handled race, on NAFTA, and one absolutely brutal essay I’ve taught many times about lynching and telephone poles.

Fun Home: One of the best graphic memoirs I’ve read, addressing gender, sexuality, suicide and mental health, and how all of that shit mixes together in the USA

Play It As It Lays: Joan Didion’s crushing novel on the experience of a woman who is tired of living in a certain kind of male reality.

The Bell Jar: A good poet’s excellent novel. Gender, femininity, mental health, and a seemingly intractable fortresses of sexism.

The Demon-Haunted World: The King of Nerds explains why we all need to science way harder.

MAUS: Because this shit has happened before.

Slaughterhouse-Five: Because war sucks, and children wind up with the heaviest shit piled on them.

The Pillowman: A Fascist police state that pretends to care about children and tries to censor artistic expression. Imagine that.

Animal Farm: A pig that superficially resembles a human fucks everyone over in order to obtain an unprecedented and obscene amount of power, then continues to fuck over everyone, especially those who have worked very hard in his service, so as to make himself more comfortable and to further cement his power.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano and Grading Debut Novels on a Curve

image via Goodreads.com

Debut novels are interesting. I’m a big Vonnegut fan. I’m planning to read all of his novels and then get a tattoo of the asshole he drew in Breakfast of Champions (that is not a joke, and please don’t tell my mom). Player Piano is an instructive look into the early thoughts of one of my favorite authors, but it’s definitely one of his weaker books.

Vonnegut’s short stories have been justly criticized. Most of them are phoned-in moneymakers, sad relics of the (woefully?) bygone era when short stories were still literary commodities of financial importance. Player Piano does not suffer from that particular failing, at least. It’s just really damn preachy. The novel describes a sad utopia where machines have made all but the very brightest human engineers obsolete, regulated to busy-work and menial, unfulfilled drudgery. Vonnegut makes that unfortunate mistake of many young novelists, that of both writing a book around a narrow philosophical treatise (humans are dehumanized without meaningful work) and then spitting that thesis out of his/her characters’ mouths. He’s not stooping to Ayn Rand levels here, but there’s a lot of it, and it’s pretty painful.

This major flaw certainly weakens the book quite a bit, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it spoils the thing completely. It’s still damn funny, and the earnestness that manifests itself badly in the form of a harping philosophical soapbox in narrative dress finds a much happier outlet in both touching moments of human unease and in the kind of black comedy that drew me to Vonnegut as a younger reader. It’s a strong, albeit deeply flawed, first effort, and it points at all the interesting places Vonnegut went as he strengthened his craft and sense of subtlety.

Recommendation: Read Slaughterhouse-Five or Cat’s Cradle instead, unless you’re dead set on really getting into Vonnegut’s back catalog.

Reading Log: Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There

My girlfriend picked this up, read it in a day or two, then passed it on to me. I’d never heard of it (or seen the Academy Award-winning movie) and I thoroughly enjoyed the read. It’s 140 pages, but an incredibly easy and short read that wouldn’t be difficult to finish in a single day. I was fortunate enough to go into it knowing only that it was in some way a satire of life in the 60s, and it’s always refreshing (and rather rare) to begin reading something in near-total ignorance.

I understand how this book became a film. It’s extremely cinematic and plotted out simply, in distinct scenes. The prose is understated, but very good, getting out of the way and communicating everything we need to know with brevity and precision. It all flows so incredibly quickly; even though the entire book remains firmly in the realm of satire it never even begins to approach the limits of credulity -no easy task. Kosinski plays with the line between true idiotic simple-mindedness and the affected simplicity of the powerful and articulate (himself included, perhaps). Minimalism can be an obfuscation, rather than a paring-away into revelation. This ties in with his pervasive meditation on the nature of the self as an image of oneself- distinct as a character, made possible by the advent and mass dissemination of television.

It’s a damn good book, and it’s just as relevant now as it was in 1970. Give it a read.

 

Being There
by Jerzy N. Kosinski
Powells.com

Reading Log: Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley

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At 58, John Steinbeck drove across America for a little over three months in a camper pickup with his elderly French poodle, Charley. The dog was not only a companion, but serves as a useful focal point around which Steinbeck structures his narrative. It’s 1960 and his trip begins just before JFK’s election. Steinbeck -a man born at the kickoff of the 20th century- is trying to get an idea of the nature of mainstream America as it enters the 60s and he’s trying his best to avoid getting soft. Being a renowned and financially successful novelist has its perks; Steinbeck’s vehicle is made-to-order for this trip specifically, offering all the accommodations one might desire, he is free to stop at hotels whenever he wants a hot shower or a different bed to sleep in.

Steinbeck’s narrative prose is refreshing and direct. He’s clearly intelligent and insightful but chooses to put down his observations in the most linear and direct form available. As much as I enjoy his fiction, I wish he had written more work like this. He communicates the essence of the people he meets in mere paragraphs, never resorting to caricature or stereotypes. Yes, rich Texans buy ranches with their oil money to play cowboy, but those jeans are worn pale blue from the leather of a saddle, not a heated Lexus seat.

This was written two years before Steinbeck flew to Sweden to accept his Nobel prize. He is -to use a phrase rendered rather trite by overly-enthused marketing copy- at the height of his literary power. He’s still hungry, challenging himself with a new kind of project, but with enough experience to know when to try a different approach. It’s a fantastic book, my favorite piece of nonfiction this year (so far).

Recommendation: Buy, read, write in margins. Read again later.

2014 Revisited, with Metadata!

Photo courtesy of Vogue.com

Photo courtesy of Vogue.com

I decided to go through the list of books I read last year, compiling data. I used the incredibly scientific method of thinking up some interesting categories on the drive back from a day trip to the coast and putting books into those categories as I saw fit. The results?

Total Books Read: 51
Novels: 24
Written by American White Guys: 29
Short Story Collections: 6 (I also read or listened to around 100 additional short stories)
Poetry Collections: 2
Translated Books: 6
Written by Women: 3(ouch)
Non-Fiction: 12
Plays: 5
Essays or Essay Collections: 5

 

 

Illuminating. Before collecting this data, I figured I needed to read mainly more nonfiction and works in translation. The fact that only 5.8% of the books I read last year were written by women totally escaped my notice (although one of my big goals for reading last year was to get up-to-speed on my knowledge of the American literary canon, so…).

2015 will see me seeking out more:
Female authors, especially in translation.
Poetry.
Books in translation.
Books published in the last 10-15 years.

Happy reading, everybody!

Cowboy Bebop

cowboybebop

I promise, I promise: the next post will be about a book.

I’ve never cared for anime. I ate lunch with a bunch of IT/CompSci guys during my first year of college and although they tried to convert me I had no patience for the childish aspects of the form: the jarring jumps between cartoon slapstick and saccharine melodramatic angst, the hyper-femininity and hypersexualization of young female characters, the obsession with classifying and naming levels of strength, attacks and techniques. On the recommendation of a friend I started watching the more recent Soul Eater but gave up, disappointed, five episodes in. I decided to give the medium one more shot before writing it off. There’s nothing that points to a dull mind faster than the casual dismissal of an entire form (don’t ever be the guy who says “I like all kinds of music, except Country/Rap/Metal/Opera”). On paper, Cowboy Bebop didn’t look good. It’s set in the year 2071, following a group of bounty hunters (cowboys) in space, who watch a kitschy cowboy-themed version of America’s Most Wanted produced for bounty hunters. The promotional art leaned heavily on what I could only assume to be more hypersexualized female characters. It was made in the 90’s and the wardrobe/aesthetic seemed to reflect that fact, with lots of turned-up collars and Future-Armani suit jackets.  I watched all 26 episodes, each about 23 minutes long. I fucking loved it.

The show is a love letter to America and Americana, the kind of thing that only works well written in the voice and clear perspective of an outsider. Bebop is visually stunning and it’s impossible to avoid phrases like “beautifully shot” because the animation is so clearly beholden to a fictional camera (one borrowed from the golden age of American cinema). The series is a sendup of Miles Davis, Isaac Asimov, Joan Didion, John Wayne, Raymond Chandler, Steve McQueen, John Coltrane and the immigrant-as-American Bruce Lee. It’s obsessive in it’s imitation and it co-opts the central aesthetic of that inspiration in a manner reminiscent of the Japanese fashion labels that manufacture 1970’s American workwear or slavishly use the same machines as some obscure and now-defunct bourbon distillery. They know their shit and they run with it, but Cowboy Bebop pulls from such disparate themes and influences that the end result is not only unique but compelling.

The stories are fun and engaging; the characters are round, nuanced and compelling. The series ties itself together wonderfully with a deliberate arc that moves forward only as the events of the past are illuminated. It makes great use of themes that persist through narrative arcs (time, existentialism, the obsession with knowing oneself or one’s past, duty, ennui) as well as themes that are constrained to a single episode (the nature of consciousness, filial bonds, the philosophical underpinnings of Bruce Lee, entropy). The juxtaposition of science fiction and Noir provides both a gripping structure and a compelling prism. The world-creation aspect is impressive too; there’s cleary an entire universe  known only to the characters and their creators. While a few aesthetic elements feel a bit dated the show’s look is so much of a throwback affair that it holds up remarkably well. Even the “computer hacker” elements and visuals work, an impressive feat for anything coming out of the ‘90s. The music -created in concert with the show in a back-and forth between the head writer and the composer- is both a perfect companion and fantastic in it’s own right. The show has some problems; it falls back on melodrama sometimes, and it leans so heavily on some references that it breaks the illusion of the vivid, continuous dream. It’s still a great show and it’s clearly been influential. Give it a try. If you’re not a fan after the first five episodes it’s probably not for you.