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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