Sunday, December 25, 2016

Review: Portnoy's Complaint

Portnoy's Complaint Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s been 20-25 years since I first read this book, and I’ve referred it ever since as the funniest novel I have ever read. Upon further review: the call still stands.

This is a book whose reputation is at least as large as it is itself. Even if you haven’t read it, you probably have a sense of “the Monkey” or of “put the id in Yid.” My favorite moment last time around came during the scene when, worried he’d contracted syphilis, he imagines his penis falling off and rolling under the dinner table. His mother cries out, “What will he tell his children?” And his father wails, “Don’t you understand? There aren’t going to be any grandchildren!” It’s still hilarious to me, still a contender for the funniest moment, but there are so many others. I enjoyed the assorted imagined headlines that occur to him during moments of despair, always the the-world-is-looking-at-me drama that feels authentic and never runs out of comedy fuel. And, of course, “Oh, Alice” from the shikse baton twirler any time she drops a throw.

As funny as this is, though, it is – as the cover blurb from Cynthia Ozick tells us – a deeply moral work. Portnoy is judgemental and moralistic. He’s a public figure for human rights for the semi-forgotten reformist mayor John Lindsay, and he’s a committed socialist. He judges others by the standards of the student movement 1960s. He puts himself forward for determining who is worthy and who is not, with finding fault with Jews of his parents’ generation, with Jewish moralizing, and with capitalism and its advocates.

It’s important to remember that Roth isn’t Portnoy. Instead, Roth has created Portnoy as someone exaggerating his own worst flaws. He is the one who comes in for the most contempt. His impulse to judge others is part of what we should judge him for. Through him, Roth may be criticizing much of then contemporary culture, but he is, above all, criticizing himself, criticizing what he sees as the worst in himself.

There’s a moral/emotional striptease to all of that, a revealing of self that, ever funny, becomes painfully funnier on reflection. It must have taken an extraordinary effort to push for such honesty. The humor obscures that effort, but figuring that out makes the humor all the more impressive for serving such an end.

It occurs to me as I read this that the very end, the part labeled “The Punch Line” when Spielvogel says, “Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?” suggests the possibility that we are to read all that precedes this as an internal monologue. Maybe Spielvogel is commending Portnoy for a breakthrough – I think that’s how it’s typically read – but I see the possibility that he is effectively saying “hello.” If so, how much more compelling is it that Portnoy has shared with us – with the readers – confessions he’s unable to share with his shrink?

There’s so much more to talk about with this one, but I’ll leave off. It’s good to know that it hasn’t lost anything in the time since I first read it which was already a good 20-some years after Roth wrote it.

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Review: On Bullshit

On Bullshit On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The last few weeks seem to have thrown Leonard Cohen into the heart of the zeitgeist. His music just seems to capture the mood of a great many of us. I was listening to him – for the first time, really – in the weeks before he died, and his death coincident with the recent election just seemed to stamp him as the musician of the moment.

In that light, this brilliant little book feels like the perfect book of the moment. I’d read some or all of it before – and I’ve seen it paraphrased many times – but there’s an excellence to its thought, a sharpness from it in the face of, well, bullshit, that makes it seem perfectly timely.

Frankfurt’s thesis is pretty well known: bullshit differs from lying in a crucial way. A liar depends upon the truth for his or her untruth to have any effect. A bullshitter opposes the possibility of truth. He is intent not so much on deception as in undermining the medium (of language) through which it’s possible to determine truth. When we discover a lie, we can move on to the truth. When we find ourselves covered in bullshit, we have nowhere to turn that isn’t itself already covered in bullshit.

Fareed Zakaria very effectively applied that concept to our President-elect’s mode of communication, and it’s certainly worth reading his piece on-line. This “book” – it’s a single essay printed on small pages that still runs only about 60 pages (so roughly 25 real pages) – feels like a foundation, like a place you can put your foot when so much of the world is slippery with, again, bullshit.

It’s also a breath of fresh air in itself, a clear-eyed measuring of a world that seems, in this moment, overwhelming.

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Thursday, December 22, 2016

Review: A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The crucial difference between Game of Thrones and The Lord of the Rings is that George R.R. Martin overthrows the fundamental order of Tolkien’s work. Middle Earth was always a place torn between good and evil; you had Sauron and the Nazgul as pure bad guys, and Frodo, Gandalf and Aragorn as unquestionably good. There were a few who found themselves somewhere in the middle – to different degrees, Boromir, Gollum, and Saruman – but there’s never a question about the bedrock showdown of right versus wrong.

Martin’s great innovation in fantasy – even beyond his often wonderful capacity to create and people an epic landscape – is his evocation of an amoral universe. No one in Westeros (or Essos) is anointed as good or even evil. Ned Stark, as noble as anyone we know, is too stern and wedded to ‘stark’ justice to be all good. And Cersei, the conniving and arrogant queen who stands as our likeliest most evil personage, has an abiding love for her children which, coupled with her frustration at the imposed limits of a woman in her world, buys her some forgiveness.

The various Song of Ice and Fire books range from the best in the genre (the first, Game of Thrones) to just well above average (the last two), but the saga as a whole has legitimately reinvigorated epic fantasy. If you’ve ever suffered through The Wheel of Time or The Sword of Truth, you have an idea how bad some of what passes for good fantasy can be. Martin, even bad Martin, is in a whole different league.

In that context, A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms is a funny work. On the one hand, it extends the epic nature of The Song of Ice and Fire back a full century. That’s good not just for giving us more detail but also for the way it implies that, apocalyptic as the saga is, it isn’t the only flash point in the history of the world. It tempers the idea that, but for Daenerys, John Snow, and Tyrion, the world would end. It’s an amoral universe, and its characters of every age confront serious threats to the order they know. Tolkien is apocalyptic; the trilogy ends with the beginning of what amounts to a messianic age. (Yes, I know Tolkien reflected on that point and, in some of his letters, gave us a sense of the diminished, human nature of the fourth age. But the books themselves end with the returned king anointed as a savior of the world. So, yeah, it’s messianic.) His story could not have happened at any other moment just as its characters are all either good or evil. This book shows Martin imagining a world as much in the balance in every generation as in the one we see most fully.

On the other hand, this book undermines some of the amoral nature of the world. Dunk is a good guy. A really good guy. Sure, he may have been a bit of a wild child, and, true, he may defy some of the lords at the end, but he is committed to a code of chivalry that others recognize as nonsense. Our friend the Hound would have a field day with him.

We get told over and over again that the forces of the red dragon and the forces of the black both had good people among them. As it plays out, though, the red Targaryens are simply better than the black. True, it’s not as existential a difference as in Tolkien, but it follows pretty consistently that the people behind the “true-born” claimant are more decent the people behind the bastard. (This, by the way, is a Shakespearean distinction, one we see most clearly between Edgar and Edmund in King Lear.)

That diminishment of Martin’s signature move – that mapping of Westeros onto a traditional good/evil axis – makes this less ambitious than the beautifully amoral seven-book saga. It also, more even than the old-school illustrations or the centrality of the child Egg, makes this a children’s book. That’s not to say this is appropriate for children (it does get a little ribald at times) but that it doesn’t push us to ask the fundamental questions about the nature of goodness. It’s a story and, as such, it’s comforting where A Song of Ice and Fire is fundamentally disturbing.

All that said, this book does have its charms. The illustrations have a magic to them, and the three linked stories in them work to give a gentle hint about the nature and scope of this world. The digressions about Targaryen succession and civil war eventually pay off in the final plot here – and they serve as scraps to people hungry for more of the saga – but they drag a bit along the way.

We’re all waiting for the next book in the series. Until then, if you’re really impatient and you tamp down your expectations, this will tide you over for a time.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Review: Fatale, Volume 1: Death Chases Me

Fatale, Volume 1: Death Chases Me Fatale, Volume 1: Death Chases Me by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve read parts of this overarching story a number of times – and I recently taught this first volume in a history of American Noir class – but I’d never read all of it straight through. Since Brubaker and Phillips are – as I have come to understand – about as good as it gets in graphic novels, I thought it was worth reflecting on each separate volume in the context of the whole.

For starters, if you’re new to this, be sure to start with the first volume. That’s not true with their equally excellent Criminal series – there you can start pretty much where you like – but this is one long story. I once tried to read volume three before volume two, and it made almost no sense to me.

It’s also true that the first volume functions very well as a self-contained account. It’s a great noir story, one that – despite what the title implies – gives some real agency to its heroine. Josephine may be gorgeous, and she may have the uncanny ability to force men to do what she wants, but she is more than simply a manipulator. She confronts some initially unexplained horrors, and consequently earns a pass for some of her especially awful manipulation of men. She’s running from a supernatural fate, one far worse than death for an ordinary human, and she’s confronted by low-lifes and users of every sort. We can kind of cut her some slack for killing a few dozen guys along the way.

This first volume is clearly the best in the series both because it seems to invent a brand new genre – the hardboiled horror slipstream mystery – and because it implies so much potential horror. We get a lot explained in later issues, and I suppose we have to, but here, where it’s simply hinted at, it has all the more power.

Read this one if it sounds at all down your alley. Afterwards, as good as it is (and as good as the follow-ups can often be) you have permission to stop.

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Review: Fatale, Volume 2: The Devil's Business

Fatale, Volume 2: The Devil's Business Fatale, Volume 2: The Devil's Business by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Volume two of this series has the challenge of picking up from what feels in large part like the series’ conclusion at the end of volume one. It lacks the staggering originality of that first volume, but it sustains much of what made that one so compelling.

We get to see Jo in the 1970s, and it’s a compelling reimagining of the period. She feels just about right in the orbit of a sleazy West-Coast Studio 54 setting. It’s a Hollywood that sees itself as tawdry but keeps turning out dreams.

Jo’s confrontation with the bishop is strong here, too. It doesn’t have the finality of either the first or fifth volumes, but it feels almost complete. You get the sense that Jo earns herself a couple decades’ respite before having to start again.

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Review: Fatale, Volume 3: West of Hell

Fatale, Volume 3: West of Hell Fatale, Volume 3: West of Hell by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If there’s a weak spot in this striking series, it’s this one.

I like the concept of taking Jo out of the sequence of her experiences around Nick. It’s striking to think of Jo as a kind of eternal-female, as someone who is in perpetual struggle with the demonic forces pursuing her. And Sean Phillips – whose art is always arresting – outdoes himself here in the Old West and World War II sequences.

But this one feels tacked on to the larger structure of the five-volume narrative.

[SPOILER] I still haven’t come to terms with whether we are supposed to see Mathilde as an earlier incarnation of Jo or whether she is one of those “sisters” we have referred to in other contexts. I can’t decide whether she’s a ‘fatale’ (for lack of another term for such women) who, falling into a trap, suffers an eternal agony, or whether she’s Jo in an incarnation that gets wiped from her memory for having died in some real way.

What’s more troubling than my uncertainty, though, is that I can’t quite feel as if the question matters. Either way, Jo is caught in an eternal struggle and this has some strange bearing on it. I like the image of the book at the end – a book we’ll stumble across in the later centuries the story chronicles – but I just don’t feel the connection.

The World War II sequences, where we first meet Hank, are more compelling and feel more a part of the larger narrative, but even there I miss the connection to Nick. That link, more than anything, marks the implicit promise that we’re dealing with a coherent story rather than a series inventing itself as it goes.

There’s much to admire here, but it seems the furthest from its source, and it disappoints set aside the other volumes.

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Review: Fatale, Volume 4: Pray for Rain

Fatale, Volume 4: Pray for Rain Fatale, Volume 4: Pray for Rain by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is probably the second strongest of the offerings in the series, but you really need to read all the volumes to get the payoff from it.

We find Jo, suffering from amnesia after being “murdered” soon before the story starts, rediscovering her powers. And it’s the discovery of mystery – as opposed to the resolution of it – that makes this series so compelling.

It’s the Pacific Northwest, and the grunge scene is in full flower. Jo stumbles upon a one-hit wonder band down enough on their luck that a couple have taken to small bank robbery work. Once she arrives, the members take conflicting sorts of inspiration from her. There’s also a serial killing cop on her trail (he’s less fun).

Since Jo is “naked” for the first time in decades, the bishop has a sense of where she is. For all her power, she seems vulnerable. There’s a real story at stake this time, the most focused and self-contained since volume one.

And, better still, we get the return of Nick whose present-day investigations weave in and out.

This isn’t the conclusion, but it’s what makes the conclusion worthwhile. Different pieces start to click together, and you can feel the narrative power of the whole.

If you make it this far, there’ll be no stopping you from hurrying out for volume five.

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Review: Fatale, Volume 5: Curse the Demon

Fatale, Volume 5: Curse the Demon Fatale, Volume 5: Curse the Demon by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a stand-along volume, this may be one of the weaker contributions to the story. It ties a lot of strands together, and I’d strongly discourage reading it if you haven’t read what comes before. If you have the bad luck to pick this up without the others handy, try to be patient. It reveals a lot, and there’s no going back. Once you get the picture of what Jo has in store for Nick, the rest of the series takes on a different hue.

As the culmination of a troubling atmospheric horror mystery, it’s pretty satisfying.

[SPOILER] Jo has managed to beat the bishop twice, once when Hank managed to steal his eyes and again, in volume two, when she sets him on fire and leaves him a charred and walking wreck. Given what we have hinted about what awaits her if she ever completely fails, it’s good to see the noxious old wreck suffering himself.

The final gambit seems pretty well earned. With the help of the mysterious Librarian, Jo has managed to put her own heart – with all the guilt and love she feels – into the bishop’s eyes. When he reassimilates them into himself, he finds himself overwhelmed with her feelings. As Jo explains to the bishop in what we realize only a little later is the big reveal, “I’ve never understood people like you…people who worship monsters. But my friend Otto explained something to me. He said you don’t understand us either.”

That detail is key because it explains the bishop’s bewilderment when he suddenly experiences all the emotions of the almost human Jo. The guilt, the love, the wonder, and the appreciation of the natural world are simply too much for him. Just as it would be torment for Jo to suffer undyingly whatever torments he has in mind for her, he suffers the torments of humanity. It’s too much, and he has to do what no human can do to him: he has to kill himself.

That works compellingly at a narrative level, and it wraps things up more or less as they should be. There’s an earned poignancy when we see the aged Jo staring again at the sea, and there’s an effective ambivalence as we see the catatonic Nick, who’s had to use his love for Jo as part of the bait to bring the bishop forward, listening without comprehension to the plans she’s made for his permanent care.

We see at last that Jo has used one last man to save herself, but we see as well that Nick has chosen everything that’s come to him. He begins as a wannabe writer with a taste for older things. He ends as someone who’s helped Jo accomplish a century long battle with the evil bishop. It’s a price he said he was willing to pay, and, as he stares at nothing when we see him last, he’s certainly paid it.

Someone may well make a movie out of all this, or better yet, someone may make a Netflix or HBO mini-series of 10-12 episodes. I’ll watch it, and I won’t be surprised if it’s very good. But this, as it is, is also very good. Graphic novels have come of age, and Fatale is some of the very best of it.

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Thursday, December 15, 2016

Review: A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen

A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen by Liel Leibovitz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sometimes when you’re a hardcore fan of a band or a singer, a completist, you come across the old “B-Sides and Demos” style release and just have to have it. There are usually some familiar songs in their original unproduced incarnations, a promising song that never made it onto any of the official releases, and a lot of things you tell yourself – for as long as it takes to justify the price of the album – are OK.

This book reads a lot like a B-Sides and Demos release.

On the one hand, Leibovitz has an intriguing fundamental take on Cohen. He sees him as a kind of wannabe prophet, someone pushing popular music to more authentically spiritual dimensions than anyone else. He has a number of striking readings of Cohen songs, and he adds some real depth to a few. I’ve been listening to a lot Cohen’s music in the last several weeks – more than at any other time in my life – and Leibovitz gives me a few new ways to listen to something like “Famous Blue Raincoat” as a song vacillating between an abstract philosophical inquiry and a personal, signed letter.

But…much of the rest of this feels like filler, like the demo tracks that might have sounded good at the time and now don’t feel fleshed out.

To take a representative example, we get an extended description of the Isle of Wight Music Festival. We hear about its promoter, about the anarchists resolved to overturn it, about the performers’ reactions to hostile crowds. For 20+ pages, it feels as if the book is going to talk just about the festival. And then, near the end of the section, Cohen emerges and calms the audience by talking to them. It’s a great scene, and it led me to what my favorite music books do: to track down the track described on Youtube and enjoy it in a new way.

I expect that exegesis to be emblematic of how Leibovitz sees Cohen on stage, but it turns out to be mostly anomalous. Cohen was not generally able to connect with crowds in those days. It’s a great story, but the first two-thirds feel like digression and the final third doesn’t seem to connect to the rest of the portrait Leibovitz is painting.

We get similar digressions all the time. We hear about Jewish religious practices, about the rise of punk or prog rock, about the zeitgeist of 1975 or 1984. There are places for that kind of work. Greil Marcus – widely quoted here and a clear inspiration – has a knack for doing what we might call rock criticism’s version of literary theory’s new historicism, of taking a small cultural moment and demonstrating how it reflects larger political and aesthetic tensions of its age. But Leibovbitz – as well and as insightfully as he writes in small sections – doesn’t quite have that same breadth of vision for his subject. (At least not here. I get the impression I’d enjoy spending time with this guy.)

The largest problem here, however, is that the book can’t quite decide what it wants to be. It isn’t quite a biography though we do get substantial pieces of Cohen’s life. It isn’t quite a literary analysis because it jumps from one era to another too markedly, never quite developing its core argument but applying it in repeated (if interesting) ways. And it isn’t quite a music history since we hear anecdotes of performance but no sustained description of Cohen as performer.

In the end, this works to take me back to Cohen’s music, but it seems more an invitation to return to the greatest hits – to the songs I already know – than to explore more rarities from the, sadly, now deceased master. Leibovitz has some tunes that I think could be polished and produced into hits, but they feel too much like unfinished demos for me to recommend this as highly as its best parts make me want to.

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Review: Shylock Is My Name

Shylock Is My Name Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Somewhere at the back table in the great deli in the sky, the great kibitzers of Jewish literature regale each other. I see Mordecai Richler the loudest, with Wallace Markfield, Stanley Elkin, and Joseph Heller making a reliable chorus. They’re saving seats for Philip Roth and Bruce Jay Friedman, and they’re always glad to see Saul Bellow when he can break away for a moment from his lunch at the tony establishment up the street. They’re choosy, these old kibitzers. They may like some of what Jonathan Safran Foer and Michael Chabon are doing, but it’s too mannered, too clearly showing the strain of connecting itself to their “tradition” for them to trust such pischers. They have their eyes on Jonathan Lethem and Sam Lipsyte, but it’s still a bit early to be sure how those two would fit in.

But the one guy they’d like to have join them, the one writer still at the peak of his powers who stands in that tradition of Jewish wise guys – wise guys so comfortable in their Jewishness that they speak to one another as much as to any larger audience, righteous in their anger and audacious in their refusal to take anything too seriously – is Howard Jacobson.

Jacobson is both so funny and so angry – angry at a world that tells him he must be a Jew and equally angry at himself for insisting he’d be a Jew in any case – that he’d seem like one of a kind if he weren’t, instead, a kibitzer at heart.

And when I say “kibitzer,” I mean it as a contrast to Harry Frankfurt’s now semi-famous definition of bullshit. Frankfurt tells us that the idea behind bullshit is that it troubles the truth. The liar knows he is lying. As such, he still depends on a concept of truth that he is violating. The bullshitter simply talks, making one claim and then another, seeking for words that secure traction. He has no sense of what’s true, just of what has an effect at that moment. (Fareed Zakaria wrote a brilliant piece applying that notion to Donald Trump, and it remains one of the best things I’ve seen about our recent election.)

The kibitzer has a strong idea of what’s true but realizes truth is so bright – much like the Jewish idea of G-d – that we can’t look at it directly. He is as deadly serious as anyone, raising issues of fundamental justice and philosophical truth, but he does so through the play of language. Western Europe had its jesters, its clowns speaking truth to power, to the King Lears of the world. Our kibitzers speak truth mostly to each other. They’re idealists in the sense that they believe there is a possibility for what we call repairing the world. They’re cynics in the sense that they don’t believe there’s much chance to persuade the necessary powers of that truth. They believe deeply in the truth and in their obligation to attempt to say it, but they know just as fully that truth is ineffable.
Put differently, they believe very much in G-d, but as the tradition teaches us, they’ve forgotten His/Her/Its name.
Jacobson kibitzes throughout this weird, funny, and deeply truthful book. He rewrites The Merchant of Venice, substituting Shylock’s claim for a gentile’s pound of flesh with the demand that a gentile submit to circumcision. As I see it, that foundational joke is worth the price of admission alone, but Jacobson gilds it on every other page with narrower insights about the nature of the Jew in the Western world. He gives us glimpses of the deep truth of the Jewish experience, and then he lets them fall beneath the strangeness of his project here: a story with the bright colors of a comic book and the two-dimensional characters of slapstick.

I’ve lost track of the many brilliant one-liners here. To mention just a few, one Christian character complains of the Jews, “Whether it’s a flaw or a stratagem I cannot say, but they have always put themselves at the centre of every drama, human or theological. I think of it as a political sadness. The glue of self-pity is very strong. As is emotional blackmail.”

Shylock, here as a character who may have learned something from his experiences in The Merchant, answers dozens of pages later when he explains that Christians always see Jews as Jews. “The individual Jew brings the collective Jew with him into any room. It’s the collective Jew that Christians see.”

If those are the broad lines of the story, though, they don’t give a full sense of it. Jacobson is constantly sliding his characters’ complaints, constantly playing with the uncomfortable charges they levy against one another. The Jew here doesn’t come across as badly as in The Merchant, though we do end with the wonderful irony that [SPOILER] Gratan, compelled to undergo circumcision, turns out already to have had it done, as is customary in many contemporary developed nations. I read that in part as offering the sense that Gratan (and by extension other contemporary Christians) is already slightly Judaized, but I think it’s yet more slippery than that. It’s also a sense that, however Jews have been marked through history, we remain distinct from others through our own codes rather than through any reliable markers.

As Shylock puts it later to the comparatively secular Strulovitch, “There is a weight of history when a Jew speaks. I watch the care with which you measure your words. There are impressions you are afraid to give, but you give them anyway. When you walk into a room, Moses walks in behind you.”

Or, as Strulovitch, slowly getting the point, tells his daughter even later in the book, “They won’t get the cultural allusions. Just remember – your intelligence is five thousand years old, they were born yesterday. They can think only one thing at a time; you can think a dozen.”

I can’t easily do justice to the serious truths Jacobson dances around, but I can assure of the humor. This is littered with inside jokes – inside to those who know their Merchant of Venice and even more to those who know the experience of being Jews who’ve been told, subtly or bluntly, that they are different from their Christian neighbors. If you’re comfortable with the sensation that you won’t get some of the jokes – if you’re someone who’d start to feel out of place at that imaginary table Mordecai Richler has going – this isn’t for you. If it is, though, it will feel like the latest iteration in a joke Jews have found ways to make fresh for at least the last two and a half millennia.

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Monday, December 12, 2016

Review: Reamde

Reamde Reamde by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I know Stephenson as the “new William Gibson” – which makes him the “new-new Philip K. Dick” – as a writer on the cutting edge of exploring what it means for humans to live with machines in such a way that machine “intelligence” becomes a subject for consideration. That’s a worthy subject, since life with computers – whether through faster processing in our daily lives, the loss of freedom to move from place to place without our records following us, or the experience of living and playing in alternate worlds of Facebook or World of Warcraft – alters the way we perceive life.

I’ve read and admired Snow Crash for the way it explores the interactive experience of living in and around the web, and I’ve looked forward to reading Cryptonomicon from its reviews and reception. So I was prepared really to enjoy this 1000-page doorstop as a thriller with some ideas behind it.

If you squint, you can see the pretty good novel that sits at the heart of this. Richard Forthrast has created a giant MMORPG that, among other things, allows international smugglers to pass real-life money back and forth through the virtual world. The premise is terrific since it seems to promise a story in which – as assorted good guys square off with assorted bad guys – the action would have to move from our universe to T’Rain’s. I pictured a kind of four-dimensional showdown with people in different places having very different experiences of the same conflict. I pictured a real interrogation of reality which, if Snow Crash is any guide, would have some aspects of a thriller woven in.

But when you’re actually reading this – as opposed to the novel it might have been – it’s more like an Elmore Leonard knock-off than anything inspired by Gibson. Instead of big ideas, we get quirky takes on stereotypical characters. We get a series of misunderstandings that put Russian mobsters into conflict with international Jihadists, and we have British MI-6 agents, Chinese hackers, and Hungarian cyber experts all working at cross-purposes to restore something like order. I prefer Leonard to Gibson, so I’d have been fine with all that if only Stephenson had recalled Leonard’s most famous maxim, “leave out the parts people don’t want to read.”

Things move quickly here. There are seldom more than 15-20 pages without someone being in danger or having to move quickly. (With that, the short, choppy sequences get irritating. It’s a narrative gimmick to take one strand of the story a few steps further and then, on the brink of conflict, to cut to another. And the gimmick gets very old here.) Despite that, this becomes a real slog after a while. The different characters, separate as they are, all seem to be going through parallel experiences. Two or three are stuck on trans-Pacific boats at the same time. Two or three get wounded in nearly the same way. (IN fact, SPOILER, one pair even discover they can exchange prosthetic legs since their wounds are so similar.)

The bottom line is that this should have been 60 percent shorter at least. I can’t imagine a serious publisher putting this out as it is if it had any name other than Stephenson’s on it. And that’s a shame because, with substantial cutting, it could have become what it promised to be. Whether it’s the 40+ pages on the opening family reunion – do we really need to see Richard reuniting with his niece? Can’t we just start with him already having offered her a job? – or the 70-some pages describing the takedown of the hackers and their Jihadi neighbors? How about implying some of these things? How about narrating in a fashion other than sustained (sustained as in 500-600 pages worth) of climax?

All that said, I’m also troubled by the politics of the novel. There’s something easy about casting a bunch of Jihadists as the clear adversaries, and there’s something right-wing fantastical in having them taken down by a quasi-survivalist community. From the opening pages to the closing, we’re made to understand that a solid knowledge of guns is essential to surviving this dangerous world.

I’d be open to all that if this book were simply told with more skill. As it is, I’d never have committed to something so long if I weren’t nearly a third of the way through it before I realized how mis-conceived it is. I’ll try to give Cryptonomicon a shot, but beware this one. Stephenson is worth reading, but this one is well below what I know of his work.

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Sunday, December 11, 2016

Review: The Book of American-Jewish Gangsters: A Pictorial History.

The Book of American-Jewish Gangsters: A Pictorial History. The Book of American-Jewish Gangsters: A Pictorial History. by Maxmillian Zellner
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Look, I’ve probably got more empathy than anyone in the world for the challenges of writing a synthetic history of the Jewish gangster. I’ve also got as much experience as anyone when it comes to exploring vintage Jewish gangster photos. So, yeah, I was rooting for this to work out.

On the plus side of the scale, there are a handful of photos here I’ve never seen. And there are a handful of entries that feature individuals or theories that are new to me.

But, after that, this really is just too amateur a production to recommend. For starters, it’s riddled with typos. And I don’t mean just misspelled words. There are spots where it seems clear that Zellner hasn’t even read his own work. My favorite example comes on pages 338 and 339. Talking about the Shapiro brothers, Zellner tells us first “Irving, although the youngest, was considered the gang’s leader.” Then we learn – 17 lines later – “Meyer, 25,…was youngest, he was considered the leader of the gang.”

There are many others – many – but they usually take longer excerpts. Suffice it to say we hear about Bugsy Siegel’s murder of Big Greenie three or four different times with varying details.

There’s also the substantial matter of the complete absence of documentation and citation. It may be that Zellner has some good new sources here, but who’s to know? He seems to have spent a lot of time visiting the sites of long-ago crimes – something he makes clear with quick parenthetical mentions of what those sites look like today – but maybe he’s also done some good archival research. He has an irritating way of suggestion some speculation or other as fact: we get, for instance, at least a couple different theories for which gangsters were involved in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. But without a sense of his sources, this is no more than an old guy opining at the senior center.

And then there’s the matter of sloppiness over what constitutes “Jewish” (to say nothing of “gangster”). When you give a book this title, you imply that each photographed person is a Jewish gangster unless otherwise specified. But we get entries on Gus Winkler and Matt Kolb, among others, who most clearly were not Jewish.

But the biggest flaw, and the one I empathize most with, is the organization here. I’ve tried (and am still trying) to write a history of the Jewish gangster, but the challenge is to find a frame for it. For Chicago, I tried once to organize my history along regions of the city – downtown/First Ward, Maxwell Street, the North Side, and the Syndicate – but it didn’t hold together. It felt like a braid unraveling.

Zellner has “solved” the problem by putting his entries in alphabetical order. The result is a book that makes little sense to read straight through. It’s reminiscent of the “encyclopedias” of organized crime that Carl Sifakis used to write, but Sifakis at least stuck to his own format. Zellner spends 4-5 pages on some and then gives quick bursts on others.

At the same time as it makes no sense as a sustained argument, though, it also has no index. There’s no way to find passing references to characters who fall below his threshold for a full – like my family, for instance, who get just one mention – so the best that can be said is that this is like surfing the darker corners of the web, only on paper.

I’m serious when I say I have all sorts of empathy for Zellner. I suspect there’s a great deal of research here. It’s just that what he’s given us is more a series of private notes than a work that’s ready for public distribution.

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Friday, December 2, 2016

Review: Blue Estate Volume 1

Blue Estate Volume 1 Blue Estate Volume 1 by Viktor Kalvachev
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m referring here to the first two collections of the series. I like the second a good bit more since the first is almost too frenetic to follow, but the success of the second is built on clarifying some of the chaos of the first. So, together, they work better than either would apart.

It’s hard not to get distracted – generally in a good way – by the art here. Despite its Varga like covers, its page art is quick and caricatured. Things move, and there are occasional multi-frame wordless passages of violence or movement. I can’t always follow the action, but the motion is striking. You get the feeling you’re watching a movie that can’t quite pull of its special effects but that deserves credit for trying them.

The story is, eventually, worthy of such art. It’s tangled: movie star Bruce Maddox wants to kill his ex-movie star wife. Her brother is involved in a transaction with the impulsive (and not so bright) son of the town’s leading Mafioso, who is in turn dealing with a shaky peace with the Russian mob. Maddox wants to make the murder look like an accident, so he’s hired a fall-guy in a private eye who’s a frustrated cop and the son of one of the city’s top policemen. And that covers something more than half of what’s going on.

Things work because they insist on playing with the genre, giving us goofy characters with sometimes arbitrary motives. It’s fun but self-conscious fun. For instance, when Tony, our dim-bulb mafia scion, wants to turn a quick profit, he buys a mansion on the cheap only to discover – too late because of his haste – that it’s termite infested.

Ultimately that self-consciousness makes it seem a little hammy. It gives too clear a sense that the writers are proud of themselves for pulling something off.

The best graphic novels – for me, currently, that’s almost anything by Brubaker and Phillips – feel like good movies rendered on paper. This, while fun, feels more like a guilty-pleasure TV show. I’m in for at least volume three (already ordered) so there’s something to it, but, for now, it’s better than most but a notch or two beneath the best in the field.

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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Review: The Corrections

The Corrections The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One way to look at a novel is to reflect on the skill it demonstrates. And, in that way, The Corrections is staggeringly good. I’ve read Freedom and I’m working through The Kraus Project, but neither prepared me for the deep excellence here. I found myself reading sections – Alfred falling from the cruise ship, Denise deciding to sleep with her boss’s wife, Chip describing the allure and disaster of Lithuania, or Gary rationalizing why he’ll capitulate to his controlling wife – and thinking, “This is so wonderful that I have to remember it.” Then I’d come across some equally stunning sequence that put that one on the back burner.

In the course of this sprawling story, we get the interwoven stories of the four principal branches of the family – Alfred and Enid and then each of the three kids – with such depth and patience that it never feels as if there’s a “favorite” here. In the tradition of the great Victorian era novels, this tells the story of a class of people rather than a single protagonist. As such, it’s atypically American, concerned as it is with a collective rather than a representative individual. (As such, it’s also much less ‘post-modern’ than its reputation holds.)

We also get a range of emotions. In the early sections with Chip, there’s a kind of malaise, a sense that our esoteric cultural theory has left us no more able to understand our culture and that, at the same time, represents a great waste of intellectual energy. In the Gary sections, we get a dose of misogyny (in its frustrations with Caroline) redeemed in some measure by its equal or greater contempt for Gary in his emotional weakness. In the Alfred and Enid sections, we get a sense of the scale of the story; it really does extend across the lifetime of a family, giving honor both to the hopes of its early years and respecting the sometimes silly traditions (like the Advent calendar) that have defined it. And in the Denise sections, we get the sense of someone hungering after a legitimate artistry (through her cooking), finding it, and losing it in the intensity of her feelings and self-doubt.

Somehow, Franzen ties all those elements together. In keeping with the apparent ambition to give a full portrait to a middle American family at the dawn of the 21st century, this is funny, tragic, ironic, sincere, and intimate. As someone who aspires to write novels myself, I can see that Franzen has accomplished all this in the course of the book, but I can’t untangle the technique and devices that produce that accomplishment. In ways that happen only rarely, I get the experience of being taken for the best sort of literary ride.

In all those ways, I find this worthy of all the acclaim it’s gotten. Freedom is certainly a strong novel, but it’s simply not as good as this one. Franzen may not be as cranky as he sometimes comes across in the media but, if he is, I can imagine some of it may stem from his semi-conscious awareness that he’ll never write anything this good again. Of course, only a small handful of living writers will either. Skill will get you only so far; if you pour most of your life into one great project, there simply isn’t enough life left to fill another masterpiece. There are ideas, contradictions and disappointments (and Freedom is full of those) but there isn’t the same flood of overwhelming experience. The reservoir is empty.

There’s another way to assess a novel, though, and that’s in what they used to call “the moral” way. This novel is more than just its superb skill. It’s also a claim for the kind of America we are and that we aspire to be. In that dimension, I have more mixed feelings.

On the one hand, Franzen brings a smarm to this – especially early and then in the closing pages – that troubles me. Maybe he’s kicking off the dust of his postmodern adolescence when he gives us Chip in all his ironic and conflicted theorizing. And maybe he’s working through a pose when he gives us a Caroline who is so icy, so incapable of giving Enid one last Christmas with her family. And maybe there’s something ultimately ironic in the sense that everyone is called upon to find his or her parents wanting.

The bottom line, though, is a dissatisfaction, a lack of faith in the people who make up our lives, that seems to me pessimistic. And maybe a little too easy as well. This is a novel powerful enough that we either have to acknowledge it or wrestle with it. And I find I have to wrestle with it in a lot of ways.

I find that ambivalence running through to the very end here. In one sense [SPOILER] the novel really ends when Alfred, in his final lucid moments, begs Chip to help him kill himself. It’s an intense, beautiful, and human scene. The father realizes he’s confronting a shell of the life he’s known, and he sees himself subjected to the indignity he’s fled for as long as he’s been himself. The son, knowing the weight of what’s being asked of him, knows as well that he can’t do it. It’s a great exchange, one freighted with real emotion and power. There’s nothing ironic in it; it’s just two men confronting mortality and realizing their own weakness in the face of death.

In truth, though, the novel goes on a dozen or so more pages. In them, Enid emerges into denouement. She visits Alfred every day, seeing to his care, but also taking time to “correct” him relentlessly. She gets to nag the mostly mindless fellow; she gets his body to herself, and it’s his body, Franzen tells us, that she’s wanted all along.

I find that scene a reversion to what I called the smarm, a letting go of the power of Alfred’s dying into the irony of the generally governing sensibility here. It’s a lingering vision of America as a kind of emasculated place. (Not only is Enid full in charge of Alfred, but Gary has long since capitulated to Caroline, and Chip has become a kept man with his new wife.)

Maybe Franzen has a point with that ironic pessimism. Maybe our America really is caught in the sort of irony spiral that a David Foster Wallace takes as his starting and ending place. Still, there are glimpses here of a deeper moral vision, and yet Franzen largely forecloses that vision. For all that this is a novel of surpassing skill, it gives us a disappointment with contemporary America that, next to an image it nearly accepts, is a disappointment itself.

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Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Review: The Mayor Who Cleaned Up Chicago: A Political Biography of William E. Dever

The Mayor Who Cleaned Up Chicago: A Political Biography of William E. Dever The Mayor Who Cleaned Up Chicago: A Political Biography of William E. Dever by John R. Schmidt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you think about it, there are only six or seven Chicago mayors who left real footprints over the last 125 years. There are the Carter Harrisons (two counting as one) who, as blue bloods governing the wild young city, got it all started. There’s the buffoonish Big Bill Thompson, Chicago’s Trump. There’s Cermak who started the machine and overshadowed the next couple decades of bosses even after his assassination. There are the two Daleys, and there’s Harold Washington. The rest, as they say, are commentary.

William Dever is commentary. John R. Schmidt admits as much throughout, even titling his last chapter, “The Least Known Chicago Mayor.” With his one term sandwiched between Thompson’s second and third, Dever had the misfortune to be in power right as the gangster world exploded. He was, according to Schmidt and everything else I’m familiar with, a principled, competent man in a job that called either for a corporate tool like Harrison or a buffoon like Thompson.

Schmidt’s central, sort-of question here is a good one: why did the most qualified mayor of his era leave so small a mark on this city? His answer, while fairly well researched, is somewhat less nuanced than I’d like.

Schmidt’s approach here is to spend time on personalities – on Dever’s and on such rivals and allies as Thompson, George Brennan, Edward Dunne, Charles Merriam and many others who walk into the story for a few pages before leaving again. I’d prefer to see more social analysis. Her talks about the temperaments and quirks of the men who came to lead the city, but he talks less about the different forces each represented. I know Cermak from a lot of other places; I know he was a notorious tough guy, a rough-hewn tavern owner who polished himself just enough to pull together the modern machine. But more interesting than his manner is that he rose because the city’s ethnics were maturing politically. No longer willing to throw their weight behind one or another elite façade, they wanted one of their own. That’s a quick version of social history, something Schmidt largely ignores.

Schmidt does, however, provide an answer to his core question: Dever failed as mayor because, whatever else he wanted to do, he found himself caught on the horns of the dilemma of Prohibition. He needed to enforce the law to please his better-government backers (people as diverse as Julius Rosenwald, Harold Ickes, and Graham Taylor) but he needed to denounce it to have a chance at broad ethnic support. He couldn’t mock the law like Thompson did and would, nor did he see his way toward a principled resistance to it as Fiorello LaGuardia would do a few years later. Instead, he acted almost as an honorable hypocrite, squashing booze merchants while trying not to offend their most fervent customers.

That’s an interesting story, but it’s also a pretty thin one. Schmidt comes to admire his subject here, holding him up as a decent, likeable guy, but there seems good reason he’s so little remembered in the city’s history. He tried to bring a reasonable compromise in the face of the extreme corruption of Thompson, but the city wasn’t ready for it. He may have been honorable, but Prohibition Chicago had little use for honor.

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Thursday, November 17, 2016

Review: Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is a masterpiece. I’m hardly the first to come to that conclusion, but it’s nice to be able to declare that it holds up a decade or so after it made its big waves. The separate stories are all powerful, and they complement each other. We get one glimpse after another of the quiet, sad, and beautiful lives of these people, and then those glimpses come together to form a larger whole. As one line puts it, “People mostly did not know they were living life while they were living it.”

I think a relevant comparison here is Joyce’s Dubliners. If this one is less self-consciously revolutionary in its narrative and less ambitious in the swath of human life that it measures, it still finds a way of setting one slice of its subject alongside another. It gives us a city – or a small town – in a way that linear narrative could not. It presents us with fracture in order that we might see the whole.

It’s easy to dislike Olive herself. Whether she stands as the main character of a particular story or as a figure moving through the background of someone else’s, she comes across as edgy and bitter. The Yiddish is “frebisn,” but Yiddish hardly seems to apply in a Maine so apple-cider New England that you think you see Robert Frost’s footsteps in the crushed maple leaves at the edge of the frame. We have character after character – or more properly relationship after relationship since everyone comes to us either yearning for a new partner or assessing whether to stay with the partner she or he has – trying to deal with disappointment or lack of fulfillment. These aren’t people who turn readily to language; they’re self-reliant and stubborn, but they’re resilient too.

I find myself liking Olive’s husband Henry quite a lot. He absorbs Olive’s unhappiness and, as one character remarks almost in surprise, he loves her. Then [SPOILER] when he dies, Olive slowly discovers that she has the capacity to care for others. Her years as a frightening high school teacher have taught her to intimidate almost everyone, but her twilight love affair is deeply moving and a quietly beautiful way to wrap this up.

As great as this is, I fear I have read it at the wrong time, though. With a divisive election still so fresh, I think I’m hungry more for anger, irony, or fantasy. This offers, instead, a quiet and sad beauty. It’s a grown up novel – grown up in the best of ways – and I’m feeling very adolescent right now. The fact that I admired it (and, yes, enjoyed when I could give it the attention it requires) at such a moment further underscores its power. In a less tumultuous moment, this would probably shine even more than it does now.

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Review: Richard J. Daley: Politics, Race, and the Governing of Chicago

Richard J. Daley: Politics, Race, and the Governing of Chicago Richard J. Daley: Politics, Race, and the Governing of Chicago by Roger Biles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I confess that I picked this up when I did because I am hoping I might be able to place a manuscript with Northern Illinois University Press, and one of their editors recommended this to me as one of their strongest offerings. That disclaimer aside, I finished it because I found it compelling. I thought I knew Mayor Daley, and I find I was only partly right.

I enjoyed the final third of this differently from the rest because I was reading a history I knew and had, in some substantial ways, lived. I dimly recall the aging Daley, the man who ran the city and who seemed an institution even to a kid who’d get there a couple times a year to visit his grandmother, aunt, and extended family. Then I recall, in parts as a recent college graduate living in the city, the tumult of what followed: Bilandic, Byrne, Washington and the Council Wars.

Biles covers all of that, though with a faster and faster pace as he wraps things up, linking his subject to the early years (when this was written) of Richard M. Daley’s tenure. The heart of this book is earlier in the Daley years, though, and that gives a glimpse of a character who’s hard to see from the vantage of someone who knew him only at the end and largely through the political clashes that followed his death.

Biles is straightforward in his admiration of the early Daley. He’s too subtle a writer for naked evaluation, but we’re left with the sense that the “young Daley” (really the middle-aged party figure who waited for his shot and slid into the throne) was about as effective and admirable as any figure from machine politics could have been.

Daley’s early distinction came through his lack of flamboyance. Others looked to get ahead through graft or self-promotion. He settled in to do the steady work of governing. Whether as a state senator or as someone’s aide, he learned how to put together budgets, how to wait out his opposition, and how to forge alliances. He believed in his city, and he believed in the power of governance.

As a historian, I know the other end of Biles’s history as well. I’ve read a great deal about William Thompson’s utterly corrupt Prohibition city, and I’ve been a small part of telling the way in which Anton Cermak pulled together the original machine to usher in a new wave of the city’s government. I was less clear about the ways in which Kelly (allied famously with Nash) ran things, and I was almost ignorant about the way Kenneally allowed the mayorship to weaken, setting the stage for Daley to arrive and reinvigorate it.

If Biles gave us only those frames, only the before and after of Daley, this would be a worthwhile contribution. But the heart of the book turns on how this early Daley – this figure of efficiency and selfless ambition (to coin an oxymoron that feels right) – became the figure I remember from the end of his life.

Biles is too careful a historian to editorialize, but it feels as if there is something satisfyingly tragic in Daley’s rise and diminishment. In the name of the people he felt he represented – the white ethnics – he forged a coalition that depended on loyalty from every turn. Look out for him, and he’d look out for you. Or, as I like to put it, “From each according to what he could be made to give, to each according to what he could demand.” That meant securing the African-American base as well, giving them enough to be satisfied but not too much that they would want to take what the Irish and Poles felt was theirs.

The civil rights movement and Martin Luther King changed that equation. King charged Daley with limiting opportunities for Blacks, with buying their support too cheaply. Daley argued that he was better at supporting his Black constituents than any other big city mayor. The irony, as Biles lets us look back on it, is that both may have been true. Daley clearly did not do enough for African-Americans, and he deserves to be remembered for those failures. But, rooted in racism as much of his platform was, it’s also true that his effectiveness as a mayor – Biles argues that he was probably the most successful big city mayor of his era, an era that saw the decline of many of our most important cities – made it possible for him to do more than any of his peers. Daley may have offered the African-American community only crumbs, but he managed to put on a better banquet than any of his contemporaries, and that meant his crumbs were better than some mayors’ entire meals.

The tragedy we glimpse throughout this is the sense that Daley always did his best to represent the city he saw. It’s just that, as the city changed around him, he saw the one that used to be more than the one that was.

I lived in Chicago for much of Richard M. Daley’s time in office, and my wife came up with a line I have always appreciated: Richard II was not “the mayor you love to hate,” but rather “The Mayor you Hate to Love.” I felt then that the son had outdone the father by yoking the “lakefront liberals” like us to the most tolerant of the city’s conservative base, giving us imperfect but solid leadership.

It turns out the old man did the same thing. He took the city out of a dark age of corruption and ugly machine politics, and he slowed Chicago’s decline against a national tide of anti-city movement. Harold Washington and the second Daley pulled it back out when the pendulum swung back toward city life, but their job was easier than it might have been because of the work his father did.

And, as a final thought, I’m grateful for the efficiency here. This is no 900-page saga. It’s got a clear purpose, a straightforward analysis, and a crisp narration. If this is how NIU Press does it all, I’d be honored to be a part of it.

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Thursday, November 10, 2016

Review: Just One Damned Thing After Another

Just One Damned Thing After Another Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This one is in love with its premise – premises, actually – and I can mostly forgive it for that.

To start with, the foundational idea here is a lot of fun. A group of researchers unearth lost history by using their time machines to go back and record events otherwise lost to time. They work with a kind of rigor, and they have all sorts of adventures just keeping their offices in working order.

The idea of such time travel is necessarily contrived. They can, for instance, go back in time but not interfere (standard time travel stuff) but they are also unable to bring back artifacts. They can only observe. Until [SPOILER], that is, our protagonist makes the realization that they can bring back things that, in their own time, have no future. That may be a mostly burned and spent pine cone, and it might be a manuscript removed from the Library of Alexandria just before it would otherwise be incinerated.

Such insights almost always bother me: if the author is making such contrived rules in the first place, I feel she ought to live within them. Changing them to set up the climax seems like cheating.

Still, there is a lot of fun in the way our heroes set off for “one damned thing after another” and eventually run into historical settings. It might be better if there were more coherence to their travels – they jump from dinosaur era to Roman Egypt to Shakespearean England without sustaining any particular research project – but I can’t be too much of a spoil sport. The book moves with a nice, quirky narrative pace, and that covers over a number of possible complaints.

The second premise here is even better: our narrator is a spunky young woman who turns out to be much tougher than we originally think. Sure she falls for one of the other guys, but he falls first. She could almost take or leave him. And sure she turns out to save the day – days actually – but, while there’s a lot of luck, it’s usually due to her rare capacity to keep her cool.

We see that same calm-and-funny-in-the-face-of-danger demeanor when she’s just learning how the kooky place works. Others are always surprised; she’s unflappable. And her narration is shaped by that sensibility and by a sustained sense of humor.

The tone gets strange here. We deal with miscarriage, sudden violent death, and sociopathic killers in the same breezy way we get reports of office hijinks and spontaneous sex. Or, there’s the quick line I really enjoyed from early in the book, “Sex was like scratching a rash. It felt good when you stopped.” Or the perhaps even funnier one when, being flirted with by her soon-to-be-lover who’s just teased her about being a terrible driver, she jokes, “Pull over and I’ll give you the blow job of your life.” Without additional explanation, we get, “And then we hit a tree.”

So, bottom line, there’s a refreshing strangeness counterbalanced by a seeming lack of planning and that uneven tone. I hear it’s a smash in England and that it has a host of sequels. I can’t see myself going any farther with this, but I can understand why it would be someone else’s cup of tea.

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Monday, November 7, 2016

Review: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was a little more than half way through this one, mostly admiring it, and asking myself the kinds of questions I habitually ask of books: does it work to have a narrator who, wise as he is, is so unable to get outside his experience and offer perspective; is it enough to raise issues of cultural difference without offering a larger critique; how does the fact that this is Young Adult fiction change how I should react to it.

And then I found my beloved cat killed in our driveway after getting crushed in an accident with the garage door. I’ll spare the details here, but I loved that cat, and the suddenness of her death left me numb.

By coincidence, I was just at the part in this book where Junior loses a series of important people. I hope it’s not too much of a [SPOILER], but I was walking the dogs in a daze, trying to pick up in audiobook where I’d been, and there was Junior dealing with his grandmother’s sudden and pointless death, his father’s best friend’s murder, and eventually the loss of his sister.

Yeah I loved the scene at the grandmother’s service when Ted Turner shows up, clueless, to try to buy his way into Indian ways. And yeah I grew to appreciate Junior’s wry take on the world as he persevered against all odds with a decency and optimism I’d love for any kid to have.

But what really got me here was a simple voice helping me deal with my own sudden grief. There’s a lot to think about here, but I loved this book because it was, in effect, the friend I needed at that moment. Maybe Junior (or Alexie if you will) was only that stranger on a bus who, seeing the shock of my face after bad news from the phone, put a hand on my shoulder. Or maybe he was the counselor who had a few kind words to help me make sense of something that may have been small – especially at a moment when we face a Presidential election of rare rancor and intense consequence – but that mattered to me.

Literature does a lot of things, and I read it for many different pleasures. I didn’t turn to this one for comfort, but it certainly comforted me when I needed it. I’m grateful to it, and I’m grateful to Alexie.

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Friday, November 4, 2016

Review: City of Thieves

City of Thieves City of Thieves by David Benioff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Here’s a premise: the question of how we define masculinity is, in large part, a rewording of a deeper question – how can we show love for our fathers? That claim builds from a perspective that is both heteronormative and male, but grant me that much and see how wide it might reach.

Masculinity is culturally defined. I’ve always loved the legend of the meeting between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin. Richard, boasting of his strength, takes out his mighty sword and uses it to cleave an anvil. Saladin, standing nimbly before him, uses the razor-sharp edge of his blade to slice a piece of silk he’s let fall across it. Each of those attributes is a kind of masculinity, whether the Norman sense of the unassailable strong man or the Arabic sense of the lightning quick and wise warrior.

City of Thieves gives us two equally distinct visions of masculinity. There is Kolya, a handsome and able Aryan who lives his life unflappably. And there’s Lev, a big-nosed, neurotic Jewish young man who, always doubting himself, always rises to heroism. Lev may question himself at every turn, but he always carries himself as a man. At the beginning, he risks his life to save a friend. Throughout the middle, he proves an important and sober balance to Kolya’s impatience. And, at the end, well, [SPOILER] he kills the chief bad guy and gets the girl.

For me, then, this novel is most obviously a kind of wish fulfillment fantasy: it lays out the perfect scenario for Jewish masculinity, with all its flaws, to be the precise set of codes necessary for survival and eventually heroism. We come to like Kolya very much; he stands as one kind of masculine ideal. But Kolya’s excellence doesn’t overwhelm Lev’s. Instead, we see that it takes both masculinities – a more conventional (by American standards) masculinity and Lev’s Jewish one – for the partners to complete their mission.

If that isn’t clear before the end, well, the climax brings it home: how else can we understand the significance of the Jewish kid beating the vile Nazi at a game of chess? It’s the ultimate in “Is there a doctor in the house?” It’s like the high school tech nerd who, with the whole school watching, quick fixes the projector the principal needs in order to make possible the screening of some anticipated movie. It’s a contrived situation in which the boy’s particular skills – particular not just to him but to the culture in which he is emerging as masculine – are exactly what we need.

And it’s also wonderfully satisfying. If you forget this is a fantasy, then I can see how you might find it ahistorical or tone deaf. It’s not especially good history, nor is it emotionally true. Demanding such characteristics of it, though, is to misunderstand that this is a sustained wish projection. If noir is an interrogation of the codes by which a man should live in a world where there’s no reason to believe in a benign, ordered universe, then this is an exploration of the strength implicit in a stereotypical Jew’s qualities. It’s a reimagining of a dark time in such a way that a clever Jew can play a difficult and necessary tole in defeating the worst villains of the century. Lev wins because he is supposed to win, because the cards are stacked in his favor by our writer.

And Benioff does all that with good humor and excellent pacing. The subplot of Kolya’s counting the days since his last shit is funny and even joyful, and Lev’s sexual awakening is both tender and embarrassing. Reading this, I can see the sensibility that Benioff brings to his work on Game of Thrones. That too is a fantasy – a more apparent one – and Benioff invests it with many of the same concerns: its story line is also contrived, but there is room within it for a variety of masculinities to vie with one another. (In fact, that conflict between different cultures is the heart of Game of Thrones.)

It’s fair to add that, as with Danaerys, we also see how here how women can thrive in a masculine context. Vika ??? is, of course, not only the finest sharpshooter, she is also the finest partisan fighter and she is demonstrably more capable than either man. In this wish-projection world, she is the ultimate fantasy down to her taking time to wash and put on makeup when she returns to Lev in the closing pages. She excels at both the masculine and feminine codes, as both a model gentile in her fighting capacity and as a model Jewess in her eventual unveiling as David’s grandmother.

To return to my original point, though, I think this is not merely a fantasy of masculinity but also, as I suggest in my opening premise, an almost too-needy letter of affection to fathers. The back cover copy of my edition (well, the audiobook slug) makes a big deal about the idea that this is a novel written by a young man, David, from the recollections of his grandfather, that this is about David’s efforts to understand his grandfather’s experiences. And then, as Lev pursues his mission, he thinks fondly of his father, always measuring himself against the glimpses of literary greatness he still recalls.

That is, this is not merely an interrogation of masculinity but also a tribute to David’s forefathers. (Less so to his foremothers.) Yes it’s a fantasy, and yes it’s perpetually involved with how a boy is supposed to perform as a man, but there’s a sweetness in its almost transparent effort to embrace and even celebrate its fathers. This may not be literature for the ages, but it’s also something that works to break received conventions. It is perhaps too much fun to ring true as a history of Jews during the time of Hitler and Stalin, but it unfolds from that dark history into an imaginative space that offers a rare balance between poignancy, humor, suspense, and action.

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Sunday, October 30, 2016

Review: The Cut

The Cut The Cut by George Pelecanos
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The good news here is that Pelecanos can write. He’s a pro as I know from this, another novel or two, and his rock-solid reputation. He’s one of the top-tier noir guys going. The signs of that come early here: he’s got the Elmore Leonard capacity for leaving out the parts people want to skip, and he’s got a knack for establishing compelling aspects of character in a few slick sentences.

The bad news is that this feels, from the start, like a bid for a successful series. Spero Lucas is a striking character. He’s proud of the Greek heritage he took from his adoptive family, but he’s also bound by the fact of his dark skin. He’s a full brother to Leo, but they’re on opposite sides of the business of bettering their community; Leo’s an idealistic teacher and Spero is a private investigator who’s willing to work with questionable characters. Spero’s young, handsome and dealing with his demons from the Iraq war. And there’s the unresolved business of his now widowed mother.

My point isn’t that all that’s bad – in fact, the premise of an Iraq vet P.I. is timely and promising – but that it has the feel of a bigger plan. It’s not just Spero’s relationship with his mother that’s unresolved; everything is. We get invited into his busy and sprawling life, and we don’t really get shown the exit. Yeah, the particular crime gets resolved, but we’re left ‘teased’ with the idea that there’s more to come in Spero’s story.

That’s not necessarily Pelecanos’s fault; it’s his job after all to get a series rolling. I just can’t help feeling that, for all the excellent series we’ve seen in noir, that there’s something un-noir, un-hardboiled to them. I don’t believe in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because I think rock is always implicitly anti-institutional; so an institution celebrating that is either self-consciously ironic or just plain wrong. In the same way, I think noir is about a glimpse into a dark corner of a dark scene. Repeated glimpses mean, eventually, fuller illumination. They mean a kind of well-lit noir – and that sounds like an oxymoron to me.

Anyway, I did enjoy this – and I have enjoyed some series, most of all Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins stories – but I can’t help feeling there’s better Pelecanos elsewhere. What we get of Spero’s Iraq history is compelling, and I like the Greek flavor, too. There’s a good mystery with a clever enough twist, but there’s also a gratuitous change of heart by one of the antagonists. That is, there’s a softness in the heart of what otherwise feels hard.

My favorite part here is undoubtedly the beginning, when Pelecanos writes with a crisp enthusiasm in his new detective’s world. Once he settles into the demands of widening that world, once he telegraphs that we’re in for a whole raft of sequels, I start to think maybe this is less a matter of excellence and more a matter of competence.

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Saturday, October 29, 2016

Review: Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life

Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life by Steve Martin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you’re roughly my age, there’s a good chance you developed the same Pavlovian response I did to Steve Martin’s voice or face: the moment I heard him or the moment I saw him, I’d burst out into laughter. He was, quite simply, the funniest man in the world at the moment I first understood what comedy was, and he shaped a large part of what I understand a comedian can do. His guest host appearances on Saturday Night Live not only made him famous but they shaped that show into what it is at its very rare best: the one place outside sports where something entirely unpredictable can happen.

This memoir started a bit slowly for me. Martin tells us he’s recounting not his life but his life in stand-up. As such, he has a clear point. Everything he tells us has to do with understanding how he came to do what he did and how he did it.

Hearing his voice narrate this (and I mean that literally since I read this as an audiobook) I kept getting my laugh response triggered. “This is Steve Martin talking,” I’d think. “This is supposed to be funny.”

But just because he is talking about funny things does not make this funny. The more I read, the more I picked up on the genuineness here, the genuine impulse to make sense of something he’d put behind him. This is, as in the classes I get to teach, “essaying,” it’s an effort on his part to try to plumb something he already knows.

For a while I felt as if I’d happened into the chance to hang out with Martin, as if I were one of those lucky fans who’d won a day with him, during which we’d eat, walk, drive, and spend time together. And I felt as if he were saying to me, “Can’t we just talk? I’m not funny all the time, and I really want to go over some things with you.”

And yet his story, particularly as it goes along, includes more and more of the familiar bits, “Mind if I fart?” or the police can tell if you’re “small” when they pull out a balloon and you can walk inside it. I’d find myself laughing and then worry I was falling back into sycophantic mode, trying to please the big man by giving him the laugh I presumed he wanted.

A little bit of that is this book’s fault. It doesn’t always telegraph the tone it’s after.

Most of that, though, gives way to a really compelling look into the practice behind an act that defined so much for so many of us.

Martin offers, as I count them, two key insights into what distinguished his comedy.

First, he tells us that, though he came of age in political comedy and practiced it himself, he was, first and last, committed to silliness in his humor. With a combination of modesty and retrospective awareness, and an acknowledgement of his fortunate timing, he proposes that he hit it as big as he did because – while preparing for his moment for roughly 15 years – he burst onto the scene with an antidote to a ‘seriousness’ that had come to define comedy. He offered a break from what comedy had become under George Carlin and Richard Pryor (both figures he deeply admires and, in many ways, hoped to emulate): extended social commentary. In its place, he offered pure goofiness.

Second, he describes his realization that the comedy he’d loved, in many ways the goofy comedy of the Catskills variety (though, as a West-Coaster, he doesn’t call it that) had become too formulaic. It began to trouble him that audiences responded not to the actual material but to its predictable rhythm. In one interesting anecdote, he talks of watching an old-time comic on T.V. who’d announce it was time for the audience to laugh by punctuating his punchlines with a blow to his own chest. At one point in the act, he garbled the punchline – it was inaudible, Martin said – but the audience still laughed on cue.

From that observation, Martin described how he set out to overturn such conventions. He decided he would not offer punch lines. Instead of inviting audiences to release the tension of a joke, they’d have to figure out their own breaking point. He might use older fashioned material – stuff taken from observations or logical contradictions – but he was going to use a very new-fashioned delivery. Some people would call it anti-comedy, and it could be, at its beautiful best, ugly. (He himself released an album, “Comedy Isn’t Pretty.”)

He reached a point where he didn’t know how to end his shows. With the audiences so unfamiliar with his cues – and with his own commitment to a kind of spontaneity that made him the perfect complement for the more traditional improve of the Second City/Saturday Night Live crew – he’d sometimes take his audiences outside the theater. He told of one occasion where he hailed a cab, had it drive him around the block, and then came back to jump out and keep going. On another his audience followed him down the street to a McDonald’s where, looking behind him, he ordered 300 cheeseburgers. Then, still in manic mode, he quickly changed it to a small French fry.

By the end of this, I’d finally found the balance I needed to be part of Martin’s “inner circle” here. I got comfortable with the thoughtful/silly contrast of what he was doing, and I found myself with new tools fort appreciating not just his stand-up but the larger art of it.

And then, right about the time I was ready to push on and see what’s next, this ended. I laughed my fair share, and I got some good insights. And, as always seemed to happen with Martin on Saturday Night Live, I found myself wanting the show to keep on going.

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Thursday, October 27, 2016

Review: Brooklyn

Brooklyn Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a flat-out beautiful novel. It’s hard to pinpoint what makes it so good except for the fact that it simply is good, that it’s written with a careful eye for details and with a loving sense of its characters. There’s such craft and affection in it that, even though very little happens, I found myself riveted.

I’m barely exaggerating when I say nothing happens. Eilis has to leave her small Irish hometown, go to Brooklyn for work, and find a new life for herself. There are no external threats, no witnessing of major historical events, no two-faced or diabolical people. Instead, there’s just life, life so rich in detail that it’s almost like experiencing it yourself.

One small early scene turns on the way she gets sea-sick on her journey across the Atlantic. She needs to use the bathroom, but she and her cabinmate have to share one with the cabin across the way. Those people, seasick themselves, have locked the door against them, so she has to get sick on the floor. Toibin gets the layout of the room across with seeming ease, and the experience plays out almost as if it’s on stage. I can see the shape of the lock, the dimensions of the cabin and bathroom, and even the tile of the floor (which he never mentions but which seems to follow from that level of detail).

We see similar scenes in Brooklyn where everything is new, and that may be the cleverest convention Toibin uses: the whole city seems striking in its not-yet-discovered quality. As Eilis discovers her new home, we discover it through her eyes. Her loneliness is real and moving. Her hunger for new experience clashes with her ignorance of American mores, and her sense of “home” gets gradually redefined. For most of the novel, the only surprise is that nothing surprising seems to happen. (In fact, for a long time I found myself comparing it to Flaubert’s “Un Couer Simple,” the first major literary effort to write a book “about nothing,” about the life of a Simple Heart trying to discover happiness in a world where other lives seem more interesting than her own.)

I’m a little less sure how to feel about the end of this. When [SPOILER] Eilis’s sister Rose dies unexpectedly, she decides to return to Ireland and tell no one that she has married her American boyfriend. That relationship has unfolded gradually and, necessarily, in an American idiom. It’s felt right, like the proper culmination of her transformation from an Irish girl into an American woman. Suddenly in Ireland again, though, she weighs whether she’s happy with that transformation, whether she’d willingly trade the America she’s come to know for the straightforward simplicity of Ireland.

She has temptations in Ireland, temptations unavailable to her when she was first there. It becomes clear that, if she’d have had a chance at the bookkeeping job at home and a shot at the appealing young pub owner, she’d never have left for America. But she did leave, and she has made the soft possibilities of America into hard realities. The dreams and what-ifs are in Ireland now. It’s in America where she has something real and defined.

I confess I was at first a bit frustrated by the sudden end, but I trust the deep quality of the prose here. That tells me that Toibin knows what he’s about, and his insistence that the story has ended means it must have. And I see nor that ending reinforces the beginning: Eilis has made a new life for herself. It isn’t perfect, and it certainly doesn’t answer all her dreams. But it is an accomplishment, and it does promise a great deal of happiness.

I feel a pang for Eilis as she leaves Ireland once again at the close of the novel, but I know she’s off to a real and a human life as well. She’s made her choice. She might have made others, but there’s no guarantee she’d have been happier. She’s living a rich and human-sized life, one full of ordinary experiences amplified only through brilliant story-telling. And it’s our privilege, for the duration of this brief novel, to live that life alongside her.

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Monday, October 24, 2016

Review: Pietr the Latvian

Pietr the Latvian Pietr the Latvian by Georges Simenon
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Reading this novella is like watching a Hitchcock film. You can see a lot of the skill it took to make it, but you can also see – a little sadly in my case – how dated its narrative technology is.

In many respects, this is the dawn of the police procedural. We get to see Inspector Maigret as he sets out, not to solve a crime, but to prove the title character is guilty. We know the formula today, and it’s often done well in television and film, but it’s new here. There’s some historical interest in seeing Simenon unfold (presumably for the first time anywhere) the possibilities of the procedural. For instance, we get the occasional scene from the antagonist’s perspective. And there are striking moments when discarded aspects of life come into significant play: such as when Maigret relies of a call to a hotel switchboard of the sort that no longer exists.

But, truth be told, this feels a lot longer than it is. Just as Hitchcock “builds suspense” by showing us certain shots longer than we expect, the method feels unsuited for a 21st century reader. My take on Hitchcock has long been that his mastery in the 1950s consisted of waiting just a beat too long, of making his viewers hold their breaths for an instant before giving them what they expected or shocking them with what they feared. Hitchcock doesn’t work for most of today’s viewers because, with our shortened attention spans, we’re waiting what feels like a half dozen beats too long. The rhythm is off, so out of sync with our expectations that there’s less suspense than what-are-you-waiting-for irritation.

Simenon is not about suspense, but a good part of this one is about watch-me-show-you-how-it’s-done. We get, for instance, a quick refresher about the fact of “hit men,” professional killers hired by organized crime. That may have felt like esoteric information when this came out; now it feels condescending.

I suspect (on the basis of his reputation) that Simenon got better the farther he went with these. As this one unfolds, however, the plot gets more and more contrived. Our title character is two people, then he’s one person playing his identical twin brother. For a time he’s a heartless killer and international thief, and then he’s a weary ex-patriate who no longer wants to hurt anyone. I confess I got lost in the final unraveling, but I confess as well that I had stopped caring.

There are elements here worth paying real attention to (probably more attention than I paid), and I may give a later Maigret another shot. Still, this feels as “middle-brow” as Hitchcock has come to feel for me: a kind of art that, however impressive it was in its day, looks more and more like a sullied compromise between what the cutting edge was doing and what the uncritical market wanted.

This is probably a three-star book given its historical significance and the fact that it is, all these years later, a model of efficient story-telling. Still, I have to ding it another star for its casual, unembarrassed anti-Semitism. That may add to the historical quality, but it’s a downer to read all the same.

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