A Few Fistfuls More of Book Reviews

A Long Time to Teatime, Anthony Burgess.  If you're like me, a huge fan of A Clockwork Orange (the novel, not Kubrick's hit-&-miss movie), you might (emphasis on might) enjoy this "lost classic" if you're a fan, as I am, of Lewis Carroll, or maybe, like me, you'll just be disappointed.  If you've not read Carroll, by all means, read him instead. Or A Clockwork Orange.

Flatland, Edwin A. Abbott. In the way of criticism, I could offer that all the characters are flat & underdeveloped.  Likewise, the storyline is one-dimensional: linear to the point of being an actual line.  Kidding aside, it's an interesting experiment in storytelling, using geometry to create sci-fi worlds.  Reading it, I keep hearing Frank Black's "Abstract Plain," a great song from an even greater album (Teenager of the Year), which, apples to oranges, I like better than the book.  Highly recommended.   

Perpetual Peace, Immanuel Kant.  If you've ever read Kant, then you'd probably agree that this may be his easiest to understand essay.  It is, however, probably the Kant treatise I take odds with the most.  While I agree with his goal of world peace, it would seem he was overly optimistic that humankind would develop, along with its ability to create more & more destructive weapons for wars, the capacity to reason why it is imperative (categorically, one assumes) to avoid armed conflicts in the future.  Instead, it's as Richard Eberhart writes in  "The Fury of Aerial Bombardment":
           You would feel that after so many centuries
           God would give man to repent; yet he can kill
           As Cain could, but with multitudinous will,
           No farther advanced than in his ancient furies.

Poems of Paul Celan, Michael Hamburger, trans.  For me, Celan's rhythm & tone, achieved often through truncated lines & terse syntax, nearly eclipse the dark mood & subject matter.  One could argue, of course, that his rhythm & tone accentuate mood & subject, & that sounds right to me.  I cite, not as an example, but as one of my favorite lines:  "The world is gone, I must carry you."

Brood, Kimiko Hahn.  A chapbook of short, elliptical prose poems.

The Nonexistent Knight, Italo Calvino, trans. Archibald Colquhoun. Not my favorite Calvino, but it's still Calvino, so there's that.

Paterson, William Carlos Williams.  After completing The Cantos earlier this year, I quickly noted Williams's various allusions to--perhaps mimicry/mockery of--Pound, his friend & sometimes mentor.  While miles apart politically, both long poems use collage to present seemingly unrelated material in line with the modernist tradition.  While Pound's concern was presenting a global economic theory, Williams concentrated on portraying an American town, which presumably would represent all towns.  It probably goes without saying that Paterson is much shorter & more readily accessible than The Cantos, but the latter, with its myriad flaws, comes closer to achieving its goal, however offensive, inconsistent, repetitive, & just plain wrong Pound can be. Paterson, on the other hand, while it may fall short of its lofty mark, remains readable, even if not Williams at his best.  For that, see Pictures from Brueghel.

William Carlos Williams' Paterson: Language & Landscape, Joel Conarroe. If any of its chapters were essays written by students, I'd give them A's for the discussion of themes & symbolism, but I expect more from a professional academician.  Well-written, or at least, well enough, Conarroe's mostly structural analysis ultimately sheds little new light on Paterson.

Kora in Hell: Improvisations, William Carlos Williams.  After reading Paterson, I thought, why the hell not, but I'd probably have to give these, let's say, prose poems a closer look to offer much in the way of insight, even for me.

The Bridge, Hart Crane.  Like Williams in Paterson, Crane set out to retell the story of America, albeit in a more traditional manner: through a series of freestanding poems based on America's past.  While I tend to lean toward Williams, one cannot deny Crane's deft ear for poetry--unless you're Harvey Gross, that is.

The Prophet, Kahil Gibran.  I must have read The Prophet a dozen times since high school, but I always come away with the sense that I'm missing something, specifically, the profundity that I'm told it imparts. Honestly, I find Monty Python's The Meaning of Life more profound, but I'm not saying The Prophet isn't worth reading. It just doesn't strike me as particularly deep. 

Futurama Comics, #31, "As the Wormhole Turns."  I'm not much of a comic book guy, which is not to say there's anything wrong with reading comic books, & sometimes I do, but when I do, I don't enter that in my book reviews because, well, despite the name, they're really not books, are they?  They're more like magazines. If I read People from cover to cover, I wouldn't count it as a book, & if I did, I wouldn't tell anybody for chrisssakes, much less post it here. However, I wanted to share this exchange from a really old comic:

     Tauronian:  We plan to take whatever we want from earth, kill most of your population with
     biological warfare, then bring in slaves to do our manual work for us.                     

     Fry: That's despicable!

     Tauronian:  What?  We're just trying to fit in with your earth customs.  It's how this former
     country was founded.

The Third Policeman, Flann O'Brien.  I like the story within the story about the nerd's research of the wacky fictitious philosopher, but about midway through O'Brien's novel, the plot becomes a bit tedious & predictable.  Also, several offensive ethnic depictions gratuitously tossed in out of the blue surely don't help.

From Commune to Capitalism, Zhun Xu.  While Xu admits that the farming commune system practiced under Mao was flawed, he maintains that it was still more effective & egalitarian than the theory that private property owners can generate higher yields, as is the capitalist view.  Many charts & graphs help to illustrate his theory.

The Unknown Cultural Revolution, Dongping Han.  Compiling information about the lives of people in the village where he grew up, Han argues that the Cultural Revolution was successful for those in rural towns in China, giving them access to education & healthcare, for instance.  However, most elites, many in urban areas, didn't welcome changes that might strip them of their social position.
Although Han's writing at times seems mechanical & his support is often anecdotal, I agree with his general thesis. The Cultural Revolution empowered ordinary people, & those in power today condemn Mao's theories unfairly. 

China and Socialism, Martin Hart-Landsberg and Paul Burkett. What's happened in China since Mao's death pretty much mirrors what's transpired in the US since democracy died (i.e., Reagan became president--I'm kidding, it was pretty much DOA), though more dramatically.  A lamentable trickle-down theory of economics has replaced socialism in order to push the wealth to the 1%.  China's miraculous economic turnaround, the authors suggest, is a propagandized facade.  More members of society living luxurious lifestyles than before doesn't prove capitalism is better than socialism, especially when it ignores the growing masses who are worse off under the Mao-less system.

The Physicist and the Philosopher, Jimena Canales. Using Henri Bergson & Albert Einstein's theories (as well as their personal conflicts) to represent two opposing schools of thought, Canales presents various concepts from a number of prominent thinkers in answer to the question of "What is time?"  Briefly, Bergson accepted Einstein's findings in regard to relativity, but objected to the insistence that time can be conceived only as a measure of light speed. Einstein, nearly a cult figure, alleged (albeit erroneously) Bergson simply didn't understand science. Personally, I've always believed time is money, but apparently it isn't, regardless of which camp you're in. In any case, this is one of the most intriguing books I've stumbled across in some time. 

Amerika, Franz Kafka, trans. Mark Harmon. I can't help thinking while reading this novel--my mind tends to wander is what I'm saying--that Kafka was trying to write like Jack London. Amerika's not as good as Kafka's other unfinished novels, The Castle & The Trial, which aren't great either, but on the bright side, it's better than London's The Scarlet Plague. However, Kafka's short stories, without a doubt, are his best work.  As for London, The Call of the Wild. Probably.    

Afternoon of a Pawnbroker and Other Poems, Kenneth Fearing.  I've been reading Fearing since I was 18--not this book in particular, duh, but his work in general--& he remains one of my favorite poets. Often political & humorous at the same time, Fearing is a major influence on my own work.

By Night in Chile, Roberto Bolaño, trans. Chris Andrews.  I've read three Bolaño novels, & despite a cameo by Pablo Neruda, this is my least favorite, though, that said, it's still good. 2666 &  Bolaño's collected poems, The Unknown University, remain on my to-do list, but they intimidate me with their hugeness.

Castle in the Air, Diana Wynne Jones. As the second in the trilogy, it's a bit stale & formulaic compared to the clever & imaginative Howl's Moving Castle. Chapter 18, entitled "Which Is Rather Full of Princesses," pretty much capsulizes my critique.

House of Many Ways, Diana Wynne Jones.  The third & final book of the Howl Pendragon series, it's much more enjoyable than the above.  Still a little thick with monarchists for my tastes--adding toddlers doesn't help in that respect--but the story's closer to the form of the first in the trilogy, so I generally like it.

Bullet Park, John Cheever.  Having recently enjoyed Oh, What a Paradise It Seems, I decided to read more Cheever & chose Bullet Park. Apparently, to fight ennui, those in the suburbs fill their empty lives with booze, drugs, sex, money, lawnmowing, psychoses, neuroses, parties, pets, murder schemes &, if Bullet Park is an example, writing disappointing, disjointed books about the suburbs. 
The Tin Drum, Günter Grass, trans. Breon Mitchell. It's not so much a novel as it is an experience. Weeks after I finished it, I'm still not sure what to say in summation. I don't mean to imply that it's confusing--it is, at times, in a good way--but rather there's so much that one could say about it that I don't know where to begin other than to say I highly recommend it. Voler Schlöndorff's film adaptation simplifies the storyline of the first two books, if not oversimplifies, for it inevitably fails to do justice to the intricacies & complexities of Grass's voice-driven narrative, though if you're a movie buff, I recommend it, too.

Transparent Things, Vladimir Nabokov.  I don't share his politics or general outlook--he seems a bit elitist--but as a writer, Nabokov's unusually clever.  His quirky, somewhat conversational narratives, which don't plot well on Freytag's model, suggest his idea of story is what one may tell another face-to-face about what happened to this person or that person, or in the case of Transparent Things, Hugh Person.

Our Gang, Philip Roth.  Although it's written about the Nixon era, if you name any of our recent presidents instead of Tricky, let Venezuela stand for Denmark, substitute Iraq, Afghanistan, or any of our other numerous wars for Vietnam, & think (as well as thank) Julian Assange instead of Curt Flood, then you pretty much have a satire of our current political scene.  Very funny stuff!

Main Street, Sinclair Lewis. In Gopher Prairie, there's constant pressure not merely to conform, but to accept as gospel all the beliefs & customs of the town's blue bloods. Folks admit that Gopher Prairie could use some livening up--gosh, what place couldn't--but even the smallest change is dismissed as not very sensible. Those who disagree, even in the slightest, face ostracization. When a suspected socialist is roughed-up & run out of town on trumped-up charges, the defense is "We need less free speech."  Although Lewis wrote this satiric take on America's small-mindedness about a century ago, nowadays the internet has helped to shrink the world into a virtual Gopher Prairie. Blue tick culture loves to give lip service to change, yet regards actual change as impractical. Those who express alternative opinions risk becoming social media outcasts, victims in varying mutations of cancel culture in its many cliquish forms. Indeed, the powers-that-be consider free speech so much a threat to their positions--er, democracy--that they create algorithms that routinely censor--er, filter--views outside the mainstream narrative, often to the applause of online denizens who, confound it, consider themselves pretty darn open-minded.

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