Friday, January 1, 2016

Fistful of Comments about a Few Books I Read This, Er, Last Year

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway.  In those long ago days when I first read this Hemingway yarn, I played a lot of guitar--all six strings, well, sometimes four or five if some broke--& wrote songs about anything & everything.  This novel inspired two songs, "My Baby Maria" (You're so funny honey / twice as sweet & good as money / I don't know you might be / the Easter Bunny) & "Big Hotel" (Staying in a big hotel / Baby it's okay yeah), the latter supposedly an allusion to plans that Robert Jordan made with Maria.  While these songs are an obscenity in the milk of your mother, this novel may be Hemingway's best.

Here, Stephen Berg.  Since I retain aspirations of my poetry appearing in American Poetry Review, I'm loath to make negative comments about Berg, not only a co-founder of APR but also the author of "several important collections of poetry," according to the book's bio note, though given my reluctance to pay reading fees for magazine submissions, it's probably a moot point, regardless of whatever I might say here about Here, such as Two poems about dogshit. Really?

Gulf Music, Robert Pinsky. Similarly, since I still aspire to gain recognition in poetry circles, I consider it imprudent to criticize, potentially antagonize Pinsky, a former U.S. poet laureate & by all accounts, a wonderful human being, but I have an ever so tiny bit of criticism about the Thing section of the book.  First, why the page long definition & etymology of the word thing?  It seems maybe just a touch condescending, or at best unnecessary, but gracious as Jesus with a bad haircut, I forgive & move to "First Thing to Hand," subsection 6, "The Other Hand," in which Pinsky says, "this . . . one too has felt a breast, a thigh, / Clasped an ankle or most intimate / Of all, the fingers of a hand."  (Note: The phrase "the fingers of a hand" seems like line padding. Where else would the fingers be? Well, er, I mean . . .) While I understand the reasoning that, to a sentient hand, fingers might be particularly intimate, this progression sets off my bullshit detector. It reminds me of the bad comic who describes a woman as having the most enormous pair of--pausing for effect, he sips his water then concludes--eyes. Likewise, following a list of breast, thigh, ankle, the logical next step isn't fingers unless the aim were humor, which it's clearly not. It simply rings false. It's the kind of shmaltz that a shmuck poet spews--no, not Pinsky, who, let's remember, is a decent sort, but rather some dumbass I knew from workshops in school--who wants to show how sensitive he is by declaring that holding hands is, when you really think about it, better than sex itself, a sentiment that, ironically, he puts forth in hopes of getting laid. My advice: Don't be that guy. Otherwise, the book's all right.

S-E-X, Jeffrey Roscoe. Not a bad chappie, but with its title, the poems surprisingly lack the promised sexual (mis)adventures. This, one may argue, jibes with the puritanical spelling of sex on the cover; i.e., sex is a word not spoken in the polite circles these poems speak to. Alternately, one may counter that the word, printed in all caps like block letters on a marquee, creates false expectations. (If it weren't a small press book of poems, I'd label it a cheap sales tactic.) That's not to say there's no mention of sex in the book, but nothing explicit & not enough, what with the internet & all, to justify the titallating title. Still, as I said, it's all caps OK.

Searching for the Ox, Louis Simpson. Shortly after I read this enjoyable book in which Simpson writes what seem to be semi-autobiograpical poems about growing up in Jamaica, I swung & missed at a slow-pitch softball question served up right in my wheelhouse during a trivia quiz that asked for the name of the Jamaican born poet who won the the Pulitizer Prize in 1964. No free dinner for me at the James Joyce Pub that night, sad to say.

23 Things They Don't Tell You about Capitalism, Ha-Joon Chang.  Chang explains in lay terms many--23, to be precise, like Michael Jordan--of the most striking fallacies of the ever growing global trend to embrace neoliberalism, carefully dissecting & refuting commonly held assumptions & tenets of free market econimists. For instance, not only is the idea of a free market a myth (there are always regulations--you can't just show up one day on Wall Street with a bag of stocks to sell), but the notion that a free market is the best way to grow an economy also has no historical basis. In fact, Chang provides myriad examples of how the world's strongest economies were built via regulations & strict governmental oversight.  If I have a complaint about this book, it's that Chang, a revisionist who believes that capitalism is the best econmic system available, rejects socialism based upon common misconceptions about it.  While I disagree that the current system needs only to be tweaked to make it work--revisions only rearrange--I'm glad that Chang feels the need to sound the alarm about the dangerous spread of neoliberalism.  Wake up, sheeple!

The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein.  In this classic, published in 2007, Klein details how neoliberals--or as they are better known in the U.S., neocons--use disasters, whether natural, like Katrina in New Orleans, or artificial, like the invasion of Iraq, to institute regressive & repressive laws, all in the name of profit.  Klein discusses in depth the origins of Milton Friedman's Chicago school laissez-faire capitalism, its implementation in Pinochet's brutal U.S. backed dictatorship in Chile, & its continued utilization in Poland, Russia & elsewhere. Friedman's "disaster capitalism" is a major cause, Klein argues, for the increasing disparity between the haves & have-nots.  If your primary source of news comes from mainstream corporate media, reading this book may very well change the way you see the world.

Bushido: The Soul of Japan, Nitobe Inazo.  An informative read for any anime lovers out there who want a little background on not only the way of the samurai, but also traditional Japanese customs in general.  Sure, I guess there are other reasons to read it too, but I read it because even though I'm ancient, I still watch lots of anime.  You know, maybe too much.

The Georgics, Virgil.  The Georgics depicts Caligula-esque sexfests, replete with beastiality, for which Romans are renowned, or so you may begin to wish halfway through Book 1, but no, it's about farming & duller than Hesiod's Works & Days, which is saying something, believe me.  A notable exception is Book 4, ostensibly a guide to beekeeping but actually about human society, which, despite its didactic nature (ha!), nevertheless strikes me as the most interesting book of The Georgics, a pastoral written posthumously in 1820 to celebrate the coronation of that great patron of the arts, King George IV of Britain.   

Don Juan, George Gordon Lord Byron.  It's an extraordinary pleasure to find someone whose sense of humor is ahead of his time.  In that sense, Byron is the Monty Python of his day.  Indeed, Byron seems almost postmodern at times. However, by the book's end, the narrator no longer limits his satirical digressions to taking potshots at most notably Wordsworth & Southey--funny stuff--but turns his asides into a thinly veiled defense of Byron's personal morality, continually under attack by the tightly corsetted Regency society. Devil take it, while I understand the impulse to take pokes at hypocrisy, I own that I tired of his fustian tarradiddle & wished he'd returned his attentions to his rakish tale rather than pulling caps with mostly unidentified fribble. Still it's a good read.

The Prelude, William Wordsworth.  Ever since I, as a young poet, read The Prelude, Wordsworth greatest work, duh, I have, generally speaking, preferred the relatively experimental 1805 version to the more polished, possibly pompous, 1850 edition.  As a writer, I see the reasons for the revisions that Wordsworth made to his youthful text, but I also recognize the danger, if one does not revise carefully, of cutting the very heart out of the piece.  On the other hand, the art of good writing lies in revision--I've said so many times myself--& for most writers not named Alexander Pope, it's probably a bigger mistake not to revise. 

The Rum Diary, Hunter S. Thompson.  Despite limitations re: subject & voice, Thompson is actually a competent writer, much better than another celebrated substance-abusing writer, Jack Kerouac, whom some revere, god knows why, as some sort of god.  Thompson's prose is lean, clean, clear & concrete, whereas Kerouac is quintessentially clunky & cluttered with abstruse abstractions.  Thompson mostly comes across as gritty & honest, while Kerouac's affectations, arbitrary allusions & pseudo-philosophical generalizations seem misguided attempts at creating something akin to literature, which, I guess, kitsch is.

Visions of Cody, Jack Kerouac.  Yeah, I know!  If he's such a terrible writer, why do I read him?  Well, why do you introspectively inspect your dirty digit for the primordial particle dangling, with hoary hairs sticking extrenously out, on your philosophical fingertip in a parabolic paradox that you've picked from a nefarious nostril?  Why gawk & gander like a gauky goose at your steamy, stinking magenta-tinted stool,watching poop & paper splendiferously spinning around the solemn sun like something hot shot from a cosmic slingshot off Uranus & Cody, squating like a beer-bellied sumo wrestler in a Japanese woodcut, too real to display at garish galleries of Paris, as Duchamp knows, or Madrid, Vienna, Rome or even old New York,as Bill Burroughs knows, as he certainly knows, until everything inside, outside & the sweet marmalade cream of Polaris in between the other worldly wafers, not Eucharistic, but unholy & divinely human & huge, all of it, disappears down the shiny wet slit where shit goes when you, with a twinge of guilt, flush as if having an orgasm?  Clearly, Kerouac is, by way of analogy, the turd-booger of arts & letters.  (Sorry if I've taken my joke too far.  I don't hate Kerouac nearly as much as I let on.)  To be fair, Kerouac serves a useful role as a veritable train wreck of what not to do as a writer & I can't make myself stop rubbernecking the carnage as I zip down the freeway getting the best goddamn blowjob of my life. 

Clark Gifford’s Body, Kenneth Fearing.  Great book, well ahead of its time!

The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath.  Reading about suicide hardly seems a prudent choice, in light of my own emotional difficulties, but having put off finishing this novel too long, I came away sad, yes, very sad, but with a newfound appreciation of Plath. OK, so maybe she's a bit overrated in the pantheon of poets, so maybe her work, albeit awesome, is frequently characterized by the weaknesses one may find in most twenty-something poets, so she never lived to acheive her full potential, so what? This is a powerful portrayal, albeit fictionalized, of a person, who, by the way, just happens to be a caricature of Plath, struggling with a dehabilitating emotional disorder. Of course, the myth of Plath continues to supercede the reality. Take, for instance, the apocryphal tale of her suicide.  She didn't die with her head in a gas oven as is commonly told; in the U.K., it's called a cooker.

Want a fistful more? Read Fistful of Comments about a Few Books I've Read This Year 3