Monday, May 3, 2010

Stuff I've Been Reading: April

Books Read:
-Fury, Rushdie
-Film Flam, McMurtry
-Ask The Dust John Fontaine
-Hellbound Heart, Clive Barker
-The Colour Of Magic, Terry Pratchet
-The Big Short, Michael Lewis
-Orthodoxy, Chesterson
-The Collected George Orwell, Orwell
- Batman 100

Fury, Rushide

For whatever reason, most likely dating back to an aborted attempt to read Satanic Verses at thirteen I’ve always considered, and avoided Salman Rushdie as difficult. So I was surprised and gratified to find that far from impossible Fury reads like a Chuck Palahniuk book for grown ups. A delirious vibrant rush that manages to be nearly joyful in its headlong plunge through vernaculars, emotions, and genres.

It also has the strange honor of being perhaps the final pre 9/11 New York novel any worth.

Fury follows Professor Solanka, living in New York in self imposed exile after being suddenly possessed by a murderous urge to kill his family. It’s a kaleidoscopic cut and paste vision of the city and existence, often fitfully funny despite its dark nature. Rushdie’s writing is savage and blunt, while at the same time elegant. Fury is a frankly visceral book. It gets in your guts, yet it always leaves times for the odd life giving aside, such as a dissertation on the nihilism of Panglossianism and a detailed summary of a sci fi multimedia experience the professor creates and unwittingly ends up fueling a despotic regime in the third world.

Though it juggles so many threads and styles and stories it is perhaps inevitable that Rushdie is not able to bring them all to a satisfying conclusion. The book ends anticlimactically as such mélanges tend to do.

It doesn’t matter. It’s a thrill watching him try.

Midnight’s Children is next.

Film Flam, Larry McMurtry

Another mislabeled bit of latter day McMurtry. What is purported to be a book of film criticism is really just some tiresome dishes on the behind the scenes process, with a few half assed ill considered pieces of criticism thrown in. Leaving me with nothing more to chew on then wondering just what the hell McMurtry was planning on writing his third Memoir Hollywood about. As he has already covered things pretty extensively here, My guess is city planning.

Its more or less readable, McMurtry is seldom less, but that’s depressing none the less when he can also be something more.

Its not John Fante's fault that he captured the character of the sexually confused, do little, self regarding hipster douche bag with what can only be termed astonishing precision. But capture it he has, eighty years early. Which makes the book a considerably less exciting experience then it must have been seventy years ago.

I am aware that Bandini is supposed to be a romantic figure, but when watching him make racist comments, rail against the evils of marijuana addiction and curse the world for not recognizing his genius, I was only seized by the fact that I would not want to share so much as a cup of coffee with the man.

Fante's writing has a certain flair to it of course, and his descriptions of the Long Beach quake and old LA are arresting.

Yet it is inexorably tied to a hero and a doomed love affair (He calls her a spic and a dirty beaner! She gets offended and sets his writing on fire! Its Magic!) that seem now, not tragic, but merely faintly ridiculous.

And hey while we’re talking about better in theory then in practice here’s Clive Barker. I cannot quite put my finger on why he and I fail to connect, its not for lack of trying. But it is doubtless we do not.

Hellbound Heart is the source material that Barker’s Hellraiser is based off of. Barker actually made some very smart choices in adapting his work making it one of the rare cases where the film is better then the book.

The book is a slight thing, and more obviously a Lovecraft pastiche then the movie (Lots and Lots of non Euclidian geometry.) The Cenobites appear even less then in the novel then in the film, and are hardly described (again Lovecraft) coming nowhere close to the startling imagery of the film. Barker, was smart also to shift some of the relationships in the film.

Its pretty clear that Barker pretty much doesn’t give a fuck about "normal" people. Which is a shame because he is so often obliged to write about them. The main shift the book makes is in turning the protaginist from the unlucky Frank’s would be lover, to his daughter. The reason this works so much better is that Frank himself is painted by Barker as such a drip. And as Kristy’s defining characteristic is she wants to be with Frank, we have a character who is defined by the fact that she has an all consuming passion for a man that both the audience and author find pathetic sop.

Not the strongest character trait.

Still it’s a quick read, and interesting if only for the insight it gives into Barker’s authorial development. At a hundred and fifty pages there’s not a lot to lose.

As I’ve mentioned before in my column I have a thing about starting series from the beginning, no matter how tangentally the books are linked to each other, that is almost pathological.

Which may explain why I never have really gotten into Discworld no matter how many times people have exasperatedly explained to me that it really doesn’t matter what order you read it in. I just can’t help it.

So it was a bit of providence when I came across The Colour Of Magic at the Oakland Museum rummage sale, with the bold letters across the top proclaiming “THE FIRST DISCWORLD NOVEL”

And even though I’m told it’s a weaker entry I found it a charming breezy experience, and eagerly await my return to Pratchett’s fractured fantasy world.

The Colour Of Magic follows Rincewind, the most cowardly wizard on the disk as he becomes the unmeaning steward of a “tourist” who comes to the savage area of the Disc seeking adventure and whore pits. Disaster soon strikes, more or less continuously as do the gags and asides and to get a bead on the tone try imagining your typical fantasy novel with Daffy Duck as the hero.

Of course one can’t very well write about Discworld without mentioning the tragedy that has befallen Pratchet. Afflicted with a rare form of early onset Alzheimer’s, that is frankly just heart braking even to consider. Pratchett has put on a brave optimistic face on the matter, but the idea of a mind as alive and full as his cannibalizing itself is unbearably sad to me. I can only offer my thoughts, good wishes, and prayers. Which isn’t a lot but is unfortunately the best I can do.

Writing a Batman in the future novel is kind of zero sum game, as the book on that particular subject has already been written. I believe that The Dark Knight Returns is one of the most perfect pieces of pulp fiction ever written. That’s not a misprint that’s not hyperbole, that’s fact. Nothing, not Miller’s ever increasing batshit crazy work (which I think has more merit then is given credit for. And is not so as out of line with his former work as most critics would have you believe. But that’s another essay.) not the disastrous sequel can change that.

Paul Pope seems to realize this. And sets about telling a compact, almost small scale, story of Batman in a Totalitarian future, doing what he does best. The story is a bit muddled, and though pope brings up interesting ideas (Like Batman being a V For Vendetta like construct of several people by this point) he doesn’t really explore them in any meaningful way.

Where Batman 100 really shines, is in Pope's art, which manages the uneasy task of being both hyperstylized and hyper lucid at the same time. The grace with which Pope’s artwork flows from panel to panel is difficult to articulate. It’s the kind of thing you really have to see for yourself.

Whatever Flaws Batman 100 has as a story, as a piece of art celebrating an icon that seems eternal, it’s a roaring success.

A Great read that is unfortunately also completely terrifying. Like The Smartest Guys In The Room, another tale of corporate malfeasance that happens to make a great noir film, I kept shaking my head in equal parts dismay and delight all throughout The Big Short. It would be an awesome story if only it wasn’t true.

Lewis is a canny financial writer, and he’s able to draw a clearer portrait of the financial collapse then any I’ve seen, meaning I was only unable to understand about 75% of what was said rather then 90%. But Lewis is also a great journalist, and he knows that even if the financial landscape he paints is unclear his portrait of greed, sloth and stunning willful ignorance is crystal.

The way Lewis tells it, The finacial calamity was the result of nothing less then everyone on Wall Street, Brokers, Bondsmen, CEOs, Regulators, Banks, all simotanously shoving their fingers in their ears and screaming “LALALALALALLALALALALALLALALAAAAAA!!!!” for half a decade. It’s a simply jaw dropping depiction of idiocy and corruption on a massive scale.

Lewis enginiously shows this from the side of the view people who saw what happened and in the best Wall Street Fashion decided to make some money off of it. In all fairness to Lewis’s heroes, they where trying to warn people as well. Time and time again Lewis documents conversations that go.

“You are going to lose all your money, and I am going to be the one who takes it from you unless you wake up to the fact that your entire finacial system is a sham.”

“No its not.”

“No you don’t get it. Your entire system is going to burn down in a couple of months and I’m going to be the one collecting on the fire insurance. Go get a hose. Now.”

“Nope don’t think I will.”

It’d be repetitive if it wasn’t so horrifying. If you want to know why you and your children’s children are going to be living in a bankrupt country. You owe it to yourself to read The Big Short.

Orthodoxy is arguably Chesterson’s most famous work as a Christian Apologetic. Its interesting anomaly in the genre though. While most of Apologetics focus on how the rational mind can believe the irrationality of Christianity, Orthodoxy focuses mostly on how Christianity works as philosophy. Using the contradictions that most critics point to as faults into the religion and turning it into boons. Christianity’s ability to embody two seemingly conflicting ideas and embody both fully is given a wise and interesting look.

It’s a thoughtful considered approach, that embodies Chesterson’s intelligence, warm wit, and gentle humanism.

It also more or less fully encapsulates all the things that bother people about Chesterson. His dismissal of Eastern Religions, his unwillingness to find fault in the church, the line he all too often crosses from apologetic to a man with genuine blinders on, as in one line where he seems to suggest that The Spanish Inquistion wasn’t as bad as all that. In one interesting line he compares the Christian view of nature to the pagan one, pointing that St. Francis wrote of nature as a little sister. Which gave me pause and made me think, well yes, but one is not often in the habit of raping and exploiting our little sister.

But this all goes to show that Chesterson lived in a simpler time. Mistreating nature meant building an unclean textile mill, not global warming. I have more then once wondered what Chesterson would have made of the scandal that has befallen his beloved church these days. And the answer came that I simply don’t think he would know how to handle it.

The thing about Chesterson that never fails to impress me, is how polite of an author he is. Oh he’s forceful, but keep in mind that he was a contempary and good friend of Shaw, Welles, and Wilde. That he held views diametrically opposed to them, and often called them out in his writing, mattered little, that core of friendship, and fascination held. Disagreement was an opportunity to strengthen and examine ones beliefs, not hate the other person for having him. Sadly in the era of the tea party and Fox news, perhaps nothing else marks Chesterson as so much the relic.

While Chesterson is an author I cherish, and I mean that word fully. He is an author of his time. We have to take the wisdom that we can get from him, enjoy it with the talent that he portrayed it with that never will grow old and except that we must in the end find the answers for ourselves. Take what we can and leave the rest.

The Collected Orwell, George Orwell

In speaking of which…

“Saints should be considered guilty until proven innocent,” Orwell said in one of his finer moments. He more then anyone would be horrified by the hagiography that’s been committed on his own self.

1984 and Animal Farm are both such powerful prescient work, that they tend to block out the rest of Orwell’s writings as surely as an eclipse. Disguising the more difficult and all the more satisfying author within.

Orwell is not a plaster saint. If anything his authorial voice resembles a drunk libertarian patiently explaining why everyone else in the world is an idiot. To call Orwell pendantic is not to do him justice. Take for example this segement taken from the essay “Inside The Whale and Nick Hornby’s priceless reaction to it.

First Orwell:

“To say that you accept in an age like our own is to say that you accept concentration camps, rubber truncheons, Hitler, Stalin, bombs. Aeroplanes, tinned food, machine guns, putsches, purges, slogans, Bedaux belts, gas masks, submarines, spies, probocateurs, press censorship, secret prisons, aspirins, Hollywood Films, and political murders.”

Now Hornby:

Isn’t it possible to accept, say, tinned food, Hollywood films, and asprin without accepting Stalin and Hitler? I’m afraid I am one of those cowards ho would have happily invaded Poland if it meant getting hold of a couple of pills to alleviate a hangover. And what is wrong with tinned food, that all these guys banged on about it so much? (…) It’s true of course that fresh fruit is better for you. But one would hope that, with the benefit of hindsight Orwell would conced that Belsen and the purges ranked higher up the list of the mid twentieth century horrors then a nice can of peaches.

The whole book is full of stuff like that. In his essay on Dickens Orwell seems baffled by the fact that Dickens was neither pleased by society, nor wanted to burn the entirety of it to ashes. Well yes Georgie, there’s a word for that mindset, its called a reformer. Surely you must have come across the word at some point?

And yet it is precisely these contradictions that depth of feeling. That unwillingness to grade the horrors of Belsin over the indignities of a can of peaches that make Orwell such a fascinating and vital writer still. He may have some wrong headed ideas, true he seems to genuinely believe that machine labor can create a utopia, an idea that was out of date when HG. Welles was writing. But I, unlike Hornby, feel that he still has a great deal of influence. Its impossible to read something like Shooting The Elephant without thinking of our misadventures in Iraq and Afganistan.

And one passage of his, that has haunted me since I first read it many years ago,

“At this moment, a man presumably carrying a 
message to an officer, jumped out of the trench and ran along the top of 
the parapet in full view. He was half-dressed and was holding up his 
trousers with both hands as he ran. I refrained from shooting at him. It 
is true that I am a poor shot and unlikely to hit a running man at a 
hundred yards, and also that I was thinking chiefly about getting back to 
our trench while the Fascists had their attention fixed on the 
aeroplanes. Still, I did not shoot partly because of that detail about 
the trousers. I had come here to shoot at 'Fascists'; but a man who is 
holding up his trousers isn't a 'Fascist', he is visibly a 
fellow-creature, similar to yourself, and you don't feel like shooting at 

If that one ever loses its truth we are all good and fucked.


Scare Sarah said...

Wow you read a lot! Never get bored of Batman artwork.

Simon said...

I'm lucky to get through two bucks a month. Good for you, keeping the literary business alive!

George Orwell equals awesome, okay?

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