Friday, August 24, 2018

Fistful of Book Reviews

Great Expectations, Charles Dickens.  My expectations, fairly high during the early part of the novel, dropped substantially during the middle, but rose to an acceptable level by the book's end.  All in all, I regard the novel as good, but great--?

A Distant Star, Roberto Bolaño.  Reminiscent of The Savage Detectives--both stories share a common narrator & originate in poetry workshops --A Distant Star is set in Chile during Pinochet's reign.  I've attended numerous workshops myself, but Alberto Ruiz-Tagle is way worse than any of the poets I've met, & that's saying something.  I've yet to read 2666, though it's on my to-do list, as is The Unknown University, Bolaño's collected poems.

Collected Poems, T.S. Eliot.  Whenever I hear Eliot crowned the greatest poet of the 20th century, I have to wonder if the person making that claim has actually read Eliot's Collected Poems.  It's not that long.  Eliot didn't produce all that much poetry comparatively.  While it's true that quality is a better measurement than quantity, after The Waste Land--& for that matter, in parts of The Waste Land, a significant though deeply flawed work--Eliot seems to steer windward from his early success as a poet.  Preachy diatribes replace imagery; abstractions lie atop abstractions in tottering stacks of abstractions. So imagine my chagrin when a former colleague referred to Four Quartets as Eliot's masterpiece. For starters, shouldn't it just be Quartet?  Beyond that, the poem is irrevocably marred with long-winded, meandering prosaic passages, as well as what sounds at times like nostalgia for his poetic roots, but here, one cannot say what those roots clutch, what branches grow out of this stony rubbish, for it seems little more than a heap of broken images.  He's an important literary figure, if for no other reason than Prufrock & Other Observations, but opinions about Eliot should be tempered with the simple fact that, as crazy as it sounds, he never quite fulfills his early promise.

A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick.  This novel about the drug culture (think 60s counterculture) reads not so much as sci-fi as crime noir psychedelicized.  It occurs to me now that the person who dubbed Eliot's Four Quartets a masterpiece was perhaps addicted to Substance D.

The Art of Syntax, Ellen Bryant Voight.  Her explication of syntactical rhythm's OK in certain chunks, but other chunks were a bit too much on the chunky side for my tastes, chunk-wise.  My main complaint, which may seem petty, is that Voight feels the need to prop up the poets whose works she's cited, determined to make us understand that they, as Pee Wee Herman would say, "meant to do that," i.e., whatever she's pointing out they did.  Fair enough, but I assume that most poets know what they're doing--particularly established poets, such as those Voight's chosen--so I have to wonder who she saw as her audience.  Besides, for that matter, what does it matter if the poet created the rhythmic effect purposefully or by chance?  The result would remain unchanged--as should the analysis.  I don't mean to suggest that her book lacks any value, for Voight offers many valid insights throughout, but I wish she had limited the discussion to the poems themselves, rather than pumping up poets for their awesome displays of craftsmanship.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Raymond Carver.  I'd probably not read this slim volume of stories in ten years or so, but reading it again reminded me of the many reasons I like Carver.  He's always among the writers I talk about when I talk about writers I like.

Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll.  While one will find many of Carroll's iconic characters, such as the White Rabbit, Cheshire Cat & Mad Hatter, in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, I prefer Through the Looking Glass, which includes a parody of Wordsworth, because it's just plain funny. Those who have never read Carroll probably know his work through TV shows & movies, but these often prove adaptations in little more than title, using Carroll's premise to create their own goofy, upside down, topsy-turvy worlds, hyuck, which, by & large, fall regrettably short of Carroll's original vision & wit.  Tim Burton, for example, sucks.  If you've never read Carroll's stories, you can easily remedy that in a sitting or two.  There's also a rather faithful adaptation (outside of the initial narrative framing & the welcome inclusion of the lost chapter) of Through the Looking Glass, starring Kate Beckinsale, which you can watch here.

My Antonia, Willa Cather.  "In farm-houses," Cather writes, "somehow, life comes and goes by the back door."  Despite my age, I'm still too immature to hear something like that without giggling.  Told from the perspective of Jim Burden, looking back on this childhood in Nebraska, the novel moves at a fairly steady pace & is enjoyable enough--if you like Little House of the Prairie sort of shtick.  However, the introduction of the blind troubadour Samson, a former slave, is problematic.  In terms of the first-person narrative frame, Jim Burden couldn't know the minutia of Samson's upbringing, much less his thoughts.  Nor could Cather, it seems, given her embarrassingly bad, stereotypical depiction of African-Americans, as Elizabeth Ammons (Conflicting Stories) & remarkably few others point out. Moreover, it's unclear why Cather chose to include Samson's backstory since the character serves no plot purpose, & he disappears from the novel shortly after he's introduced, never to be seen again.  On the plus side, Cather presents positive portrayals of women.   

Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids, Kenzaburo Oe.  The New York Times calls Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids a cross between Lord of the Flies & The Plague.  Admittedly, I'm not predisposed to trust what the corporate lackeys at The Times say about much of anything, but dystopian novels about kids isolated from adults can't help but remind one of Lord of the Flies.  The kids in Oe's story, however, demonstrate greater humanity than the grownups.  As for the comparison with The Plague, well, quite frankly, I'm avoiding it.

Lord of the Flies, William Golding.  So I reread it, & the way I see it, it's not so much about what happens to kids without adult supervision as much as it is about what happens when kids imitate adults, you know, those grownups engaged in the war that caused the evacuation & subsequent stranding of the kids on the unsupervised island.

The Plague, Albert Camus.  Then I sucked it up & read this, too.  It's an interesting read, though the ending goes on too long with unnecessary explication & quite a bit of philosophizing about the psychological & sociological effects of the plague & perhaps all disasters.  As for NYT's comparison mentioned earlier between Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids The Plague, both are concerned with plagues, but otherwise, they're about as much alike as Moby Dick & Moby.  Still, thanks to the Times' prodding, I've completed the trifecta of Camus novels, which I would rate, from best to worst:  1) The Stranger; 2) The Plague; 3) The Fall.

The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane.  Ah, nostalgia!  In high school, when I first read this, we studied this as an antiwar novel, but as I reread it now, it seems not so much anti as it is a war novel.  Overcoming one's cowardice & becoming a lean, mean fighting machine doesn't strike me as a particularly strong antiwar statement.

Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington.  Reading this book is like listening to Fox News. While Washington provides many uplifting stories about his rise from slavery & poverty, he seems to be a bit of an apologist, holding the opinion that although slavery as an institution is immoral & abhorrent, former slaves enjoy a better life in America than they would have had in Africa. Washington spends a good portion of the book relating the recognition & acclaim he's received for his total awesomeness from newspapers, educators, civic leaders, European nobles, & even U.S. presidents, such as Grover Cleveland, who Washington pronounces bigotry-free.  Like Cleveland, Washington is also anti-union, suggesting that strikes are the result of the infiltration of rebel-rousing reds egging on workers who've earned so much money that they want time off to indulge in their vices.  Later, Washington lavishes praise upon the wealthy, recounting anecdote upon anecdote of the largely unnamed, unknown, beneficent rich, who see as their duty the betterment of the world.  To be fair, as an example of such altruism, Washington cites robber baron Collis P. Huntington--yeah, & in further irony, Andrew Carnegie.  Although charity is necessary & good, Washington believes any steps by the state toward wealth redistribution would cause civilizations to crumble, arguing, in essence, that the rich are job creators, so leave them alone,you bastards.  It's easy to understand why Washington fell into disfavor among progressives.

The Taming of the Shrew, William Shakespeare.  I reread this to help me consider the question of whether Shakespeare's intent, given his positive portrayal of women in other plays, was satirical, & after looking over the text--which is, after all, what the reader must ultimately rely upon in such analysis--I've come to the conclusion, um, regrettably no.

The Merry Wives of Windsor, William Shakespeare.  O! the joys of cuckoldry!

First Time Reading Freud, Douglas Goetsch.  I met Goetsch many years ago at an Iowa summer poetry workshop that he taught & he seemed like a good guy, so I bought this chapbook from him, cash on the barrelhead, whatever that's about.   It's a fine little chappie.  I especially like "Your Town."  I also find these lines from "1970, Port Jefferson Harbor" particularly nice:

        Beyond was Long Island Sound,
        where we'd never go.
        I could see Rocky Point,
        high and thick with trees,
        white mansions peeking
        through the green like
        canvas behind a painting.

The Low End of Higher Things, David Clewell.  Clewell's a list maker.  Relying almost exclusively on listing to establish rhythm, he lists almost anything & everything ad infinitum if not ad nauseam. Long lines resembling prose lend themselves to his expansive tendencies, a technique that works well in various of his dramatic monologues (or perhaps non-dramatic monologues, given Clewell's sly sense of humor).  Yet at other times, the poems in this collection seem to ramble on far too long, leaving the reader wishing that Clewell would whittle his lists down.  Although on the wordy side, the book's well worth reading, if for no other reason than "CIA in Wonderland," a retelling of the agency's covert experimentation with LSD. 

September Blackberries, Michael McClure.  I owe McClure an apology.  For years, I've insisted that September Blackberries is the worst book of poetry ever written.  Part of my misjudgment possibly arose from McClure's tendency to "write rapidly and without judgment" ("Xes--A Spontaneous Poem").  As a result, many--if not most, if not indeed all--of these poems (each centered in lieu of hard left margins, in an attempt at creative typography) sound like the stereotypical rants of a New Age thinker on acid.  For instance, in "Mantra, Brother, Mantra," McClure, for no discernible reason, says, or rather--by employing ALL CAPS, which he does randomly & frequently throughout this volume--screams "MEAT IS INTELLECTIVE!" no less than seven times.  There are points of varying validity that McClure wants to make beyond the notion that all life is meat, a recurring theme, but even then, he tends to come across as a raving madman conjuring disconnected images & wild abstractions.  McClure's endeavors are ambitious, his failures spectacular.  However,  as Ted "Theodore" Logan, Esquire, would indubitably agree, despite the many deficiencies, it is

                                          NOT, NOT,  NOT, NOT,

                                          NOT, NOT,  NOT, NOT,

                                                 THE SHUCK
                                                  OF WIMPY
                                               ASTRONAUTS. ("Beginning with Two Lines By Eigner")

Yeah, well, I stand corrected.

Cairo Traffic, Lloyd Schwartz.  It begins with "A True Poem," excerpted below:

     I'm working on a poem so true, I can't show it to anyone.

     I could never show it to anyone.

     Because it says exactly what I think, and what I think scares me.

     Sometimes it pleases me.

     Usually it brings misery.

     And this poem says exactly what I think.

     What I think about myself, what I think about my friends, what I think about my lover.


It doesn't get any better--& I don't mean that as a compliment.  Stylistically, if that's what you want to call it, Schwartz often employs a form of prose poetry, but it's not very good prose, much less poetry.  His mawkish sentimentality & amateurish expressions are mostly devoid of imagery, which, when it does appear, it does so almost meaninglessly in a void--a poorly constructed one, but definitely a void.

Mexico City Blues, Jack Kerouac.  Kerouac largely eschews Mexico's vast history, which includes both the Aztec & Mayan civilizations, as a source of metaphors, opting instead for American, European, or inexplicably in at least one example, Egyptian culture.  He invokes the likes of Voltaire, Shakespeare, Melville, Twain, & various other Western icons in lieu of figures from Mexican art & literature.  Such exclusions possibly derive, in part, from what Octavio Paz characterizes in On Poets & Others as a bias in the West against Spanish & its speakers. In fact, the scarcity of imagery specific to Mexico City or Mexico in general would surely be the most glaring problem with this volume if these 242 numbered "choruses" didn't seem less like poetry than conglomerations of words smashed together on the page.  Kerouac demonstrates a rudimentary understanding of poetics at best.  His use of random, mostly nonsensical rhymes suggests that he believes if it rhymes, it's poetry.  Like a novice, he frequently lets the rudder of rhyme steer him off topic, though the blame may not lie with the rhyme.  The habitual lack of focus, in light of the numerous drug references scattered throughout,  may lead one to suspect that Kerouac, perhaps "goofing" as he scribbled & doodled in his pocket notebook, never sobered up--at least never enough to revise.  His sporadic invocations of what Kenneth Rexroth dubs "a dime-store incense burner" Buddha often conclude with a single image, a good strategy that in Kerouac's waxy hands goes awry, as these images are mostly unrelated to what precedes them.  Some Kerouac defenders claim that Mexico City Blues should be read as a single poem--in a single sitting, according to Anthony W.T.F. Hecht--not as a series of individual poems; however, rather than remedy, such suggestions merely add to the myriad problems with the text, for the predominant thread running through it, sorry to say, remains bad writing.   "No worst," Gerard Manley Hopkins exclaims, "there is none," & one may argue he foresaw the ill-fated New York Herald Tribune comparing his work to what's in this book.  Seriously, does anyone, even the most ardent Kerouac fan, actually hear Hopkins in this collection?  

Click here for another fistful.