Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Half-Year Half-Assed Reviews

To think that yellow pancakeeating excrement can get a good job, he said at length, and I have to smoke cheap cigarettes!

     --James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man

The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan.   While many of the issues raised when this book first appeared in the '50s seem thankfully antiquated, many others remain unresolved.  For instance, although most people find nothing scandalous about a woman nowadays having a career & a family, those career women often find themselves working for lower pay than their male counterparts. Equality proves, time & time again, to be a question of economic equality & until we as a society acheieve some semblance of economic equity, we can't expect to solve discriminatory practices in general. At one point, Friedan lists common topics for articles that appear in women's magazines in the '50s--they dealt almostly exclusively with child-rearing, cooking, household tips, celebrity interviews & clothing styles--to indicate what publishers & editors, almost exclusively male, saw as of interest to women. Sadly, I'm not sure this has changed dramatically, other than the media in which we are taught gender roles. TV ads almost inevitably depict women as responsible for child care.  Products tout seemingly harmless, gender-biased slogans such as "Kid Tested, Mother Approved" or "Choosy Moms Choose Jif."  When I became a single custodial parent in the '90s, I became acutely aware of such subtle techniques of propagating gender roles via popular media. Movies such as Mr. Mom & Daddy Day Care depicted men's comic--kaff, kaff--inability to grasp domestic duties--as if the capacity to do household chores is innate--while ostensibly intending to give a positive spin to traditonal gender role reversal. However, if we deconstruct, their very titles seem to make the unfortunate suggestion that child-rearing is women's work. My point is, as Friedan herself concludes, that gender equality is not about women only, but both women & men, who must work together to dispel sexist stereotypes & discrimination. To that I'll add, as is my wont to do, there can be no equality without economic equality.  To quote Helen Keller:  "The country is governed for the richest, for the corporations, the bankers, the land speculators & the exploiters of labor.  The majority of mankind are working people.  So long as their fair demands--the ownership & control of their livelihoods--are set at naught, we can neither have men's rights or women's rights.  The majority of mankind is ground down by industrial oppression in order that the small remnant may live in ease."        

Walden/Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau.  I've had this book around since high school days, but had never read it in its entirety.  I'd read Civil Disobedience, but Walden, oy, as a young man, I thought it was like reading a ledger.  Now that I'm older I've come to realize that it actually is a ledger.  In an oft told, likely apocryphal literary anecdote, Emerson asks Thoreau why he is in jail & the latter replies with the wisdom of Socrates by asking Emerson why he is not.  What most people don't know is that Emerson, doubling over with laughter, never heard Thoreau's classic rejoinder. 

The Dog of the South, Charles Portis.  If this book were a blog entry, I'd check all three tabs--funny, interesting, cool--even though it seems to meander aimlessly on at times & is a bit unduly on the longish side, but still a good read.   Not to single out Portis, for he's hardly alone in this respect, but what is it about Southern writers--Faulkner & O'Connor, for instance--that makes them feel compelled to include bigots as primary characters?  Wait–I may have answered my own question!  No, all kidding aside–or at least much–I understand the thought behind the old "art is a mirror" saw, though I personally prefer Mayakovsky’s idea that "Art is not mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it."  That said, I hope to read other Portis books. Norwood, maybe?

Ball Four:  The Final Pitch, Jim Bouton.  When I first read the original Ball Four, I was 12 years old, playing in my last year of Little League & I laughed my ass off at Bouton's behind the scenes look at Major League Baseball.  Re-reading it now, most of the stories have lost their sensational value--these sorts of exposes are rather commonplace--though I enjoyed the trip down memory lane with baseball players of my youth.  This edition also includes the various editions' updates on Bouton's personal life & his bitter battle to find acceptance from the sport that felt he'd betrayed it.

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, Carson McCullers.  To say I was disappointed with this novella would gloss over how bad the writing is. The characters are more like caricatures--supposedly part of the charm--archetypes rendered to progress the plot, though even here they fail. Worse was the oversentimentalization that reared its shmaltzy head in the repeated phrase "so precious."  Worse still, it drove me coconut bananas that the narrator, an unnamed townsperson of this small southern town, kept tipping his/her hand by summarizing the episode to be told before telling it.  Sheesh, I learned not to do that in seventh grade English--thanks, Ms. Kyle! I am reminded of an SCTV skit that faults T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral because the title gives away the ending.  The rest of the short stories in this collection are enjoyable, though. 

All the Odes, Pablo Neruda, ed. Ilan Stavans.  While I'm glad that each of the elemental odes is available in translation, I'm sorry that it wasn't my son who, currently working on just such a project, completed this task first. Nevertheless, Stavans & the other translators, from what I can tell, have rendered Neruda's odes into English admirably.  However, I have a criticism of this collection. I wish Stavans had divided the volume into three books--Odas elementales (Elemental Odes), 1954; Nuevas odas elementales (New Elemental Odes),1956; Tercer libro de las odas (Third Book of the Odes), 1957--or four if you count Navegaciones y regresos (Navigations & Returns), 1959--one for each of the book of odes that Neruda produced. While I don't know much about the accuracy of these translations per se, I have come to understand that one concern most translators share is conveying the mood or tone of the original. Not keeping the individual books together would tend, I assume, to lose some of the original flavor, just as a selected poems collection of any author fails to convey the arc of each individual book from which the poems are taken. Likewise, I don't understand why Stavans chose to order the poems alphabetically in English instead of Spanish--you know, the way Neruda did--especially given that the Spanish version of each ode appears side by side with the English translation.  It should be noted that when Neruda compiled the odes in a single volume, Libro de las odas (Book of the Odes)in 1972, he appeared to arrange all the odes from the four previously mentioned books in the manner suggested above.

The Story of Philosophy, Will Durant.  Having read Bertand Russell's A History of Western Philosophy recently, I thought I may as well read Durant's history of philosophy--& so I did. Not long into the book--probably at the time when he described Plato as a communist--I began to doubt Durant's reliability. (Without plunging into any in-depth analysis, briefly put, Plato's Republic proposes a government based upon a class system, which clearly contradicts the very essense of the ideal society that Marx proposed centuries later.)  As I read on, I detected a pattern: it seemed that Durant dubbed any authoritarian political theory "communism," regardless of all else. Durant also shows a tendency to psychoanalyze philosophers.  For instance, the estranged relationship between philosopher & mother, Durant contends, caused Schopenhauer's pessimism, which could only result from a boy denied a mother's love. To which Freud was heard to say, "Beat it, buddy. I'm working this side of the street!"  At one point, Durant suggests that Santayana's philosophy owed to his being part Spaniard, which, in retrospect, doesn't sound like psychoanalysis as much as it does racism. Well, maybe not racism precisely, but you see my point. Later, Durant criticizes Russell, not only dismissing a philosophy based upon mathematics as a parlor game, but also suggesting both openly & through the use of overtly allusive language that Russell used socialism as a substitute for the religion he rejected.  Ever the optimist, though, Durant cheerfully hopes that Russell would eventually return to the fold. Fingers crossed!

Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley.  I don't have much to say about this book except that I enjoyed the hell out of it.  I'm not one for genre fiction or book series, but if the next Easy Rawlins mystery's as likeable, well, know knows?

Lunch Poems, Frank O'Hara.  I re-read this book every now & again.  It takes me back to my undergraduate days when I first became acquainted with O'Hara & the New York School.  The first poem I ever read of O'Hara's was his much anthologized "Poem (Lana Turner has collapsed)" in, not surprisingly, a poetry anthology for a class. My appetite whetted, I was lucky enough to find Lunch Poems at the campus bookstore--which is really surprising given how little poetry it carried--& went home to devour it. Here's an idea: City Lights should release a new edition of Lunch Poems so that the book resembles a deli menu with the table of contents presented as items from the menu. "A generous helping of humor sprinkled over layers of literary allusions & pop culture references, all served atop fresh homemade poetry bread" is what I might write for the blurb if asked. Since it's my idea, I should be asked. Another idea: a literary diner in which you could order a Frankfurter O'Hara with a cherry Kenneth Koch--for lunch, natch.

Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut.  As I've said many times, Vonnegut is a highly imaginative storyteller, whose novels, without a doubt, deserve to be read--hell, I've read about a dozen of his books myself--but his terse prose can be as dull as reading instructions for assembling a bookcase. I often joke that even Hemingway's dead-drunk, gray-bearded ghost has told him to stop being a putz & combine a few sentences every now & again.  Admittedly, it's funnier when I say it in person. Most annoying is Vonnegut's dialog, which often runs the following pattern:

            "Last night?" he said.
            "Any night," I said.
            "Last night it was women," he said.  "Two names you said over and over."
            "What were they?" I said.
            "Helga was one," he said.
            "My wife," I said.
            "The other was Resi," he said.
            "My wife's younger sister," I said. "Just their names--that's all."
            "You said 'Goodbye,'" he said.
            "Goodbye," I echoed . . .

"Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrggggghhhhhh!" I said.  Stricken tone-deaf, I read on. Beyond such strains & refrains of blasé writing, however, lies the satiric, darkly funny, thought-provoking story of Howard Campbell, Jr., infamous Nazi propagandaist & unbeknownst undercover American spy.  If I sound overly critical of Vonnegut, please know that with the notable exception of his short story collection, Welcome to the Monkey House, which, I'm sorry to report, blows blue baboon balls, I generally enjoy his work. Nevertheless, I find him stylistically annoying at times & therefore must stand by my previous quote: "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrggggghhhhhh!"

Eugene Onegin, Alexander Pushkin, trans. James E. Falen. The ease of reading this novel in verse embarrasses me that I'd not read it before.  Seeing it among my son's old college books reminded me that I'd not read it.  Sure, I'd picked it up at the bookstore & read bits & pieces to see the celebrated Pushkin sonnet, but as to plowing through all 200 pages, I thought, OK, someday I'll do that, then ordered another cappuccino.  I'm not saying it's the greatest thing ever--that'd be frappuccino--but Onegin's fun & clever, not theme-wise, but Pushkin's poetic process, absolutely.  If you haven't read Eugene Onegin, then don't wait like me until you're old & gray--unless, of course, you're already old & gray, at which point, well, let's face it, you're pretty much fucked whatever you do.

One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, Kenneth Rexroth.  From what I gather, these poems are more interpretations than translations.  Rexroth hoped to make the poems relevant to the modern reader by omitting, for instance, historical & political allusions that today's readers would most likely not understand. With that in mind, I wonder how close these poems come to the originals, but such questions aside--since like the thing-in-itself, I'll undoubtedly never know--I like this book a lot. In fact, I first reviewed it here.

Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol, trans., D.J. Hogarth.  To be honest, I don't know precisely what to make of this book, but it's funny. I expected the purchase of dead souls to lead to some sort of Twain-like religious satire, but--spoiler alert--not so much. Gogol's masterful depiction of the novel's assortment of comic characters serves to make the outlandish plot almost plausible.  However, what appealed to me most was the novel's unfinished condition. I found the sporadic insertions of "[Here from the original two pages are missing]," "[At this point there is a long hiatus in the original]" or "[Here the manuscript of the original comes abruptly to an end]" especially amusing, if viewed with an eye toward metafiction.

The Color Purple, Alice Walker.  I'd tried reading Walker's most famous work many, many years ago, but perhaps because I'm a son of Appalachia, who, as a result of being inundated with grit lit stories meant to depict the speech of the region, cringes at writing that uses dialects; or perhaps because of my "religious" views, I was put off when the book begins "Dear God"; or perhaps because of Speilberg's movie based on the book & my general skepticism of all things popular & my specific distaste for Speilberg's shmaltzy shmaltz, I never finished the novel until now when, in solidarity with Walker's political activism, I decided I'd give it a second chance. Walker creates memorable characters & spins a good yarn, though I don't think the artifice of letters, which she uses as a vehicle for stream-of-consciousness, works particularly well given the length of the novel. Nor is it necessary. Nevertheless, Purple's a good read & if you haven't read it, you should.

On the Road: The Original Scroll, Jack Kerouac.  Discovered by a gone group of savvy, saintly, streetwise spelunkers half-baked on holy hash, digging down to the deep, devout, divine bacchanal Buddha soul of wild, mad, wonderful Carlsbad Cavern, On the Road: The Original Scroll presents Kerouac's famed work the way he purportedly wrote it: all fucked up.  Gone are the transparent pseudonyms Dean Moriarty, Sal Paradise, et al., as well as other (ahem) "novel" aspects of Kerouac's much ballyhooed beat classic & in their place, something more genuine. In spite of his ignominious Mexican road trip--wrong for myriad reasons--I d-i-g the book more as a memoir than I ever did as a so-called work of fiction. The faults I find with Kerouac remain ever abundant--his abuse of adjectives, his spurious spiritualism, his specious speculations & philosophizing, his repeatedly repetitive redundancies--but such deficiencies seem less deficient when I compare his work to other memoirs I've read--to be fair, I haven't read that many--rather than to novels, especially great novels. As a result, The Original Scroll has given me a higher opinion of Kerouac as a writer than I'd previously held; I'm even considering reading the sequel, On the Road Again, co-authored by Willie Nelson. However, that doesn't mean I don't still believe that one horrific circle of Dante's recently re-envisioned hell overflows like an enormous ashtray freely fashioned from the long-lost hubcap off the unrighteous wreck of sullen Satan's hopped-up anti-Chrysler 300, crashed in a monolithic ditch, with the half-smoked, half-smashed, smoldering, lipstick-stained Beelze-butts & insignificant, insufficient, Kafka-esque roaches of vain, bespectacled, pseudo-intellectual, hophead, hipster, literary posers forced to read The Dharma Bums to the dark, dimwitted prince over & over again & again for the unholy whole of their inevitable, terrible eternity. Yes, yes.    

Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon.  If I'd remembered that this novel dealt with 9-11--that's not its primary focus, for which I'm grateful--I probably wouldn't have read it.  Not that I wasn't horrified & saddened by the tragedy, but I hated how it was shortly appropriated for political reasons. The Patriot Act & the Iraq invasion leap cat-like to mind. In fact, not just the government, but businesses & people in general began employing the 9-11 tragedy as a default theory of everything. Didn't get your onion rings at BK? Double-billed by Verizon? Supervisor never read your email about a conflict in your schedule? Date stand you up? All these seemingly unrelated incidents were easily explained away with the sweeping, "Well, you know, since 9-11 . . ." But I digress. Point is, I really enjoyed Bleeding Edge. It reminds me of Inherent Vice, which is LOL funny. Not only LOL, but ROFL if not LMFAO funny. OK, to be fair, the adventures of a fraud investigator aren't as "inherently" funny as a stoner P.I. story, but if Inherent Vice & The Crying of Lot 49 hooked up, Bleeding Edge would be their ever clever lovechild. 

Selected Poems, Lucien Stryk.  Is it Lou-seen or Lou-shun?  Strick or Strike?  Regardless of how you say it, Stryk's a considerable poetic craftsman. A Zen Buddhist & teacher of Asian literature during his days among the living at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb--if you call that among the living, though who am I to talk--Stryk shows the influence of Japanese & Chinese poetics in a number of ways, including writing syllabically rather than metrically, yet inexplicably he avoids becoming--ahem--"arbitrary." A tad predictable, but at his best, Stryk is accessible, lyrical & at times political. Some of the poems I enjoy include . . .

[Here the manuscript of the original comes abruptly to a close.]

Want more?  See The Quarterly Review, Spring 2014.