Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

Moby Dick by Herman MelvilleFew American novels put off the general reader like Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. And the general reader isn’t entirely wrong to be put off.

Moby Dick is a genuinely strange work of art. For a book published in 1851, it’s more modernist text than 19th-century story, and might actually qualify as the first existentialist novel, if you take the White Whale to be the embodiment of a meaningless and hostile universe. Moby Dick is dense and it is difficult.

But it’s not as dense or as difficult as its reputation. It’s a pretty good sea-faring yarn. And it is a FUNNY book, at least until Ahab stomps onto the deck of the Pequod and sucks all the humor out of Ishmael and Queequeg, and the voyage in general, with his doomed, megalomaniac pursuit of revenge.

Now, there is some heavy going in this Melville novel and the first-time reader trying to decide how to read Moby Dick might choose to conserve his or her resources by “skimming” selected chapters. Father Mapple is a famous character, but Chapter 8 (“The Pulpit”) and Chapter 9 (“The Sermon”) could deter anyone from reading further for fear of discovering much much more of the same.

The many expository chapters, in which Melville discourses at length on every possible topic related to whales and whaling, also pose a problem for those picking up the novel for the first time.

To skip these chapters entirely would be to abstain from many of Moby Dick’s pleasures, particularly since Ishmael’s jaunty comic voice adds an agreeable tone of parody to these chapters.

At the same, there are a lot of them, and Melville is not always brief. So new readers would do well to pick and choose among chapters as they make their way through the book. For example, Chapter 32 (“Cetology”) and Chapter 42 (“The Whiteness of the Whale”) in their concentration and length are prime candidates for reading at a later date.

Which is not to say you should never read them. One of the great advantages of Moby Dick is that first-timers will do little violence to their understanding of the book’s story if they don’t read it straight through. Many of the chapters can stand on their own, inviting you to dip into the book where and as the mood possesses you. It also allows you to assemble your understanding of Moby Dick piece by piece, as if it were a 500-page jigsaw puzzle, rather than make a grimly determined march from the first page through to the last.

Finally, a copy of Moby Dick that includes reference materials is a big help. The Norton Critical Edition of Moby Dick includes maps, a glossary of nautical terms, and explanations of whaling and whalecraft with illustrations, all of which make Herman Melville’s book easier and more enjoyable to read.

Read Full Post »

On Beyond Zebra cover by Dr. SeussThe children’s books of Theodor Seuss Geisel (better known as “Dr. Seuss”) are divided between the didactic and the anarchic.

Didactic books, often with a solidly liberal agenda, predominate. These include The Lorax (a warning against environmental destruction), The Sneetches (a satire of mindless consumerism and status-seeking), and The Butter Battle Book (a Cold War cautionary tale).

Some of Dr. Seuss’ most famous books combine the didactic and the anarchic. The Cat in the Hat is one of the great agents of anarchy in children’s literature, his inspired chaos opposed by Sally and her brother, and finally contained only by the re-appearance of their mother.

Dr. Seuss’ teaching books show the same dynamic. For example, Dr. Seuss’s ABC makes learning the alphabet fun through a wild collection of assonance- and alliteration-heavy nonsense rhymes (and one highly inappropriate image for children).

What I like about Geisel’s On Beyond Zebra (1955) is that it is the mirror-opposite of the ABC book and many others. On Beyond Zebra opens with this quote:

Said Conrad Cornelius o’Donald o’Dell,
My very young friend who is learning to spell:
‘The A is for Ape. And B is for Bear.
‘The C is for Camel. The H is for Hare
‘The M is for Mouse. And the R is for Rat.
‘I know all the twenty-six letters like that…
‘… Through to Z is for Zebra. I know them all well.’
Said Conrad Cornelius o’Donald o’Dell.
‘So now I know everything anyone knows.
‘From beginning to end. From the start to the close.
‘Because Z is as far as the alphabet goes.’

Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell from On Beyond ZebraConrad is a young boy with neatly parted hair wearing a sweater and tie. He is speaking to a wonderfully beatnik-looking boy. This boy picks up a piece chalk, draws a new letter, one which Conrad had “never dreamed of before,” and announces “…most people stop with the Z / “But not me!”

And with this, On Beyond Zebra is off to the races, devising fantastical creatures in fantastical lands based on fantastical letters.

Along the way, On Beyond Zebra argues for the supremacy, the freedom, the possibilities, the joy, and the exuberance of the world of imagination over the world of knowledge and fact. The anarchic soundly trounces the didactic, for once.

And yet, at the end, somehow the didactic gets the last word.

Conrad Cornelius is so impressed with what he’s seen that he exclaims,“This is really great stuff! / And I guess the old alphabet / ISN’T enough!”

Oh well, if Dr. Seuss had to deliver a lesson, at least it was, “Don’t be afraid of curiosity. Don’t be afraid of the new. The world is always bigger than you think!” Those are good points. I’m writing them down. Will they be on the test?

Read Full Post »

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor DostoyevskyWhen I picked up Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, I was expecting it to be dense, dull, and depressing – especially since the background materials I read stated that Dostoyevsky wrote Crime and Punishment as an explicit critic of certain radical theories that were current in 1860s Russia, including utilitarianism and rationalism.

It’s not a good sign when a novel has a thesis. This is usually an indication you are about to be treated to a bunch of cardboard characters clomping around mouthing platitudes, engaging in fake debates, and delivering essay-length monologues while sitting in a café smoking, humping each other, or bravely defying some oppressive bureaucrat or petty despot.

So I was pleased when I found Crime and Punishment to be a wilder, stranger, more flawed, more chaotic, more puzzling, and ultimately more engaging book than I expected.

Dostoyevsky, by all accounts, meant to deliver a lecture pretending to be a novel. He ended up creating a work of art. Here’s how (with a truck-load of spoilers in the discussion).

Crime and Punishment: A Black Comedy?

The first indication that I was following Dostoyevsky down his own particular rabbit hole, rather than sitting in his classroom dutifully taking notes, was that long passages of Crime and Punishment were both horrible and funny.

An early example is what happens after Raskolnikov, the handsome and arrogant law school drop-out who is the novel’s central character, famously murders an old pawnbroker and her sister. Raskolnikov falls into a fever that seems physical, emotional, and spiritual all at once.

But instead of taking us into Raskolnikov’s apparently tortured mind, Dostoyevsky focuses on his friends, who cheerfully encourage him to get better while chatting about mutual acquaintances or who view him as a fascinating case of morbid psychology or some undefined nervous complaint.

Another example is the character of Porfiry Petrovich, the detective assigned to solve the murders. Porfiry is short and stout, with a soft round face and a figure Dostoyevsky describes as “somewhat womanish” who laughs and titters through nearly every conversation he has.

Yet this comic-figure of a man is also Dostoyevsky’s figure of vengeance. Porfiry is convinced of Raskolnikov’s guilt early in the book, pursues him with relentless guile, and attempts to drive Raskolnikov to confess either to the police or in a suicide note when he concludes there isn’t enough evidence to arrest him.

My final example. After 500 pages of anguish and self-examination, Raskolnikov goes to the police station to confess. Here is the high dramatic moment. Here is the finale of the novel. What happens?

Raskolnikov encounters a pompous, idiot lieutenant who babbles on about nonsense so incessantly that Raskolnikov actually gives up and leaves. A few minutes later, Raskolnikov returns, tries again, and this time manages to get the lieutenant to shut up long enough to confess.

These are odd, distracting, irrelevant choices if you want to advance a narrow moral argument. But they are excellent ones if you want to explore the strangeness, complexity, unpredictability, and absurdity of life. Which is what artists do. And that is what Dostoyevsky did, I think, despite his intentions to the contrary.

Iago, Raskolnikov, Meursault: The Reasons for the Crime Are … What?

For a thesis book to examine whether it is moral to commit murder, it is important for the author to clearly establish the reasons the character committed murder before he can show why those reasons are wrong.

But here’s the problem. Dostoyevsky doesn’t. Instead, he gives us a Chinese menu of possible motives, none of which are particularly convincing even to Raskolnikov himself.

The best example of this is in Chapter IV of Part V when Raskolnikov confesses he murdered the two women to Sonya , the virtuous naïve Christian girl who loves Raskolnikov unconditionally and who also happens to be a prostitute. (I’m not making that up.)

Anyhow, first, Raskolnikov tells Sonya that he murdered the women because he wanted to be like Napoleon, who pursued his grand ambitions without regard for conventional morality. Then he tells Sonya he murdered for money, so he could finish his education and support his family. Then he tells Sonya he murdered the old woman because she was a “louse … a useless, loathsome, harmful creature.” Then he says the reasons he committed the murders are that he is “vain, envious, malicious, base, vindictive and … well, perhaps with a tendency to insanity.” Then he blames the murders on “sulkiness”. Then he serves up a Will to Power argument. Then he agrees with Sonya that the devil made him do it. Then he says he did it for himself. Then he goes over all these reasons all over again and concludes, I’m so unhappy!

As the basis for a thesis, this is a hot mess. As a portrait of humanity it is – well, some of you might think it a hot mess too – but I think it is brilliant. And a century ahead of its time.

It has become fashionable, based on the latest cognitive and behavioral science, to conclude human beings are deeply irrational creatures who use reason not to guide their actions, but too justify them after the fact. It is also an established principal, at least among the modernist writers, that the more closely you examine the human character, the more ambiguous and ungrounded in some final essence the human character seems to become.

I tend to think of this vision of humanity in terms of classic (or Newtonian) mechanics and quantum mechanics. In classical mechanics, matter at a certain size … typically visible to the unaided human eye … behaves in logical, predictable, and consistent fashions. But at the atomic and subatomic level, all hell breaks loose with matter doing seemingly impossible things, like being in two places at once, or being both “up” and “down”, or other weird stuff that gives the average person a headache just contemplating. And yet, the visible logical world is founded on the invisible chaotic one.

This seems to me to be a good description of Raskolnikov. He is a quantum character trying to exist in a classical world. And not succeeding particularly well. And upsetting Dostoyevsky’s program in the process.

Also, all this suggests to me that Raskolnikov committed the murders for nothing or because there was an emptiness at his center that made him so indifferent that no action he took, good or bad, finally had meaning. Which I think is the case with Shakespeare’s Iago and Camus’ Meursault, and so I’ve added Raskolnikov to that group.

Crime, Punishment. No Crime, Punishment. Crime, No Punishment. No Crime, No Punishment.

The final reason for thinking Crime and Punishment isn’t a thesis book focused on Raskolnikov’s murders, despite Dostoyevsky’s stated intentions, is the amount of extraneous, irrelevant, contradictory, and confounding characters and plots he includes.

This sounds like a criticism, but what it really means is that Dostoyevsky did not let his school-teacher impulses get in the way of his inspiration, which seems to want to explore the whole spectrum of crimes and punishments, with or without a causal relation between the two.

It starts with Raskolnikov himself, who despite having committed a pre-meditated murder and a impulsive one (Raskolnikov kills the old woman’s sister when she surprises him during the crime), gets all of 8 years in prison.

Now I am not familiar with standards of punishment in 19th century Russia, but this sounds a little light to my American but none the less opposed to the death penalty ears, and was a bit surprising to Raskolnikov himself.

There are also unpunished criminals in Crime and Punishment. For example, the character of Svidrigaïlov, a depraved landowner who is suspected of several murders and sexual assaults, gets away free from the law (although he does commit suicide in one of the novels most persuasive and harrowing chapters). There is also Luzhin, a sadistic bully who likes to prey on women he perceives to be helpless.

We also find punished innocents. Sonya becomes a prostitute in a desperate attempt to keep her family, especially her younger step-siblings, from starvation. These step-siblings themselves suffer from the drunkenness of their father and the angry despair, then madness, then death by consumption of their mother.

Finally, there are unpunished innocents such as Raskolnikov’s cheerful and loyal friend Razumikhin, who happily marries Raskolnikov’s sister, and the detective Porfiry, who succeeds in helping to drive Raskolnikov’s confession and serving the ends of justice.

Dostoyevsky renders many of these characters with a grotesque, Gogol-esque exuberance that also undermines the thesis aspects of the book. The fact of their existence, rather than what the characters mean or what “morals of the story” Dostoyevsky wants us to take away with us, seem the real point of the novel.

Which perhaps makes Dostoyevsky like Milton in Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” when Blake says

The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it

But I think Dostoyevsky is more like the Oracle of The Matrix movies when she talks about a character called the Architect. She says the Architect’s role in the movie is to “balance the equation”. She tells Keanu Reeves her role is to “unbalance it”.

Fyodor set out to be the Architect. He winds up being the Oracle.

Read Full Post »

Fans of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels value the scenes where Jack and Stephen are playing music in the great cabin of a ship or having particular conversations, like this one which considers the feathers of a paradise bird:

Stephen said, ‘Have you every contemplated upon sex, my dear?’

‘Never,’ Jack said. ‘Sex has never entered my mind, at any time.’

‘The burden of sex, I mean. This bird, for example, is very heavily burdened; almost weighed down. He can scarcely fly or pursue his common daily round with any pleasure to himself, encumbered by a yard of tail and all this top-hamper. All these extravagant plumes have but one function – to induce the hen to yield to his importunities. How the poor cock must glow and burn, if these are, as they must be, an index of his ardour.’

‘That is a solemn thought.’

H.M.S Surprise, pg.259, Norton paperback edition, 1991

HMS Surprise by Patrick O'BrianIt seems strange, at first, that this should be so. The Aubrey-Maturin novels recount the adventures of Jack Aubrey, a British naval captain, and Stephen Maturin, an Irish-Catalan naval surgeon, naturalist, and intelligence agent, during the Napoleonic wars.

The series is full of battles, storms, shipwrecks, spycraft, political intrigue, the scientific discovery of new species, social manners, and problematic relationships between men and women.

And yet, both O’Brian and his fans always return to the quiet scenes between Jack and Stephen playing music or talking, as they are in the passage above. Why?

The reason has to do, I think, with the consolations literature offers us.

Good books have many uses. They are a pleasure and a comfort. They offer a hedge against loneliness. For centuries, readers have found their own thoughts and feelings in literature, and in finding these have been reassured that they are not alone and unknowable in this world.

And good books console us by offering a permanence to characters we love that we cannot find in the lives of the people we love outside of books.

Not all literature offers this consolation. It is no relief to know that Lear is always at the British camp near Dover, howling with the lifeless Cordelia in his arms, or that Antigone is always hanging in the cell to which Creon condemned her, dead by her own hand. Tragic works of literature offer us many things, but consolation is not one of them.

For consolation, a book must offer us characters who are convincingly human, not simply credible or familiar, and who engage our sympathies through both their virtues and their faults.

The book must also give these characters moments if not of happiness, then of peace and ease, because this is what we wish for ourselves. Among all our troubles and suffering, I think we all want – and believe we deserve – moments of at least modest contentment.

But we cannot stay in these moments or keep the people we love with us in them. Time moves. Circumstance and age separate us, further and further, until death makes the separation final and our only hope becomes reunion in another world; which many of us picture as being much like this one, except that hunger and violence and suffering and disease and death are banished.

Which makes heaven or the Summerlands or the after-life (or even reincarnation in the Indian religions) very much like the passages in the books we love.

Elizabeth Bennet will always be sparkling after dinner in the drawing-room at Netherfield, getting the best of and bettering Mr. Darcy, as alive today as the first moment she was written. Timofrey Pnin will always be playing croquet on the lawn at Al and Susan Cook’s summer house or discovering that Victor’s beautiful glass bowl is not broken after all. Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin will always be playing music while the wake of the Surprise stretches away behind them.

In this world, that is consolation indeed. Perhaps not enough. But I’ll take it.


Read Full Post »

Henry V by William ShakespeareIn Henry V, Shakespeare finds his “muse of fire” and she blinds us with her dazzling light.

Henry V is a play of almost ridiculous dramatic richness in which the scrappy, underdog Harry wins the battle of Agincourt, seizes his rightful French throne, and gets the King’s daughter. Hooray!

Except the war is justified by dubious arguments and provoked by the English clergy, who are eager to distract Henry from confiscating their wealth. Henry captures the French town of Harfleur after threatening genocide. He orders the slaughter of prisoners and leaves 10,000 French knights and soldiers dead on the field. Every friend of his youth, except one, is gone. They die in the battle, by execution after Henry’s judgment, or in the case of Falstaff, cold in bed with a wandering mind and a heart broken by the king.

In the end, it all comes to naught. The last lines of the play tell us Henry dies young, leaving England to be misruled by his infant son and a group of nobles who lose all that Henry won and spill more blood. But it was still worth it and Henry is still a hero. Right?

Read Full Post »

Bend Sinister Vladimir NabokovFor most of his life, Vladimir Nabokov declared himself indifferent to politics and expressed his satisfaction with never having joined any group or participated in any organized human activity.

Nabokov insisted that there were no “messages” in his work. He expressed contempt for literature that discussed general ideas, offered social commentary, dealt with everyday “reality” (a word Nabokov frequently put in quotes), or promised human interest.

Instead, Nabokov said he valued books that were grounded in the imagination and talent of the specific writer, and which offered aesthetic bliss which he recognized by a thrill in his spine.

Nabokov’s books seemingly confirm these principles. They are deeply idiosyncratic; full of dense word play, complex patterns, and recondite references; and deliver a great deal of what looks like misanthropy.

All of this argues you won’t find a trace of politics in Nabokov’s work just as he claimed. But here’s the thing. I don’t believe him. And neither should you.

The first reason you shouldn’t believe Nabokov is he knew from personal experience that indifference to politics does not stop politics from affecting you.

Nabokov and his family escaped the Russian Revolution in 1917. His liberal politician father was assassinated by Russian fascists in 1922. Nabokov fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and soon to be Nazi-conquered France in 1940 to protect his family and in particular his wife, Vera, who was Jewish. His brother Sergey died in a German concentration camp, where he was sent after speaking out against the Nazis.

The second reason you shouldn’t believe Nabokov is that while he may have bragged about never having joined any group, he also took great pride in his adopted country of the United States.

Strong Opinions Vladimir NabokovNabokov described himself as “American as April in Arizona” and said he felt a “suffusion of warm, light-hearted pride” when he showed his American passport at European borders (Strong Opinions, p. 98). He kept his US citizenship, and continued to pay American taxes, even after he and Vera moved to Switzerland.

By contrast, Nabokov was outspoken and unrelenting in his contempt for the leaders of the Soviet Union and the vast harm they had done to the Russian nation. Nabokov also had no problem arguing with the American liberals who continued to embraced Soviet propaganda long after they should have known better.

The third reason you shouldn’t believe Nabokov is that he consistently stated that the worst act a human being could commit was an act of cruelty. He believed that cruelty was the essence of all tyrants, and it is cruelty that he condemned in all his major novels.

This condemnation of cruelty can be hard to see because of Nabokov’s techniques as a writer, however.

Nabokov never wavered in his dislike of plainly written novels with obvious messages, and this dislike was reinforced by his observation that bad writers and bad leaders were much alike.

Nabokov saw bad writers and bad leaders as equally trite, vulgar, and stupid. They both thought and wrote and spoke in a debased language of general ideas, and both believed that human beings can be reduced to a few general “types” that are easily defined by commonplace characteristics.

Nabokov expresses this idea most succinctly in his short story, Tyrants Destroyed, when he wrote, “the real human being is a poet and [the tyrant] is the incarnate negation of a poet” (The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, p. 446).

Nabokov also seems to have understood that the bad writer, especially the bad writer with a good reputation, actually legitimized the propaganda of a dictatorship’s officially sanctioned authors. If Balzac or Lawrence or Camus were first-rate artists, rather than second-rate scribblers, then the novels of approved Soviet writers could also be great works of art rather than tools of manipulation and misinformation.

So Nabokov responded by creating a highly personal – sometimes, stubbornly personal – body of work that emphasized the uniqueness of his characters and the originality of his imagination.

This approach, in itself, was an attack on authoritarian states like the Soviet Union, which insisted that the group was more important than the individual and which were threatened by any work that didn’t enthusiastically celebrate the state’s manifold virtues in a manner easily understood by the average person.

Pnin Vladimir NabokovNabokov’s work was also a relentless assault on cruelty. Nabokov didn’t usually link cruelty directly to a dictator, although the tyrant Paduk in the novel Bend Sinister is an exception. Instead, Nabokov created brilliant, charismatic monsters who blinded readers to their viciousness, monsters such as Humbert Humbert in Lolita, Kinbote in Pale Fire, and to a lesser degree Van Veen in Ada.

Nabokov could also take the side of those who suffered cruelty, most obviously in the characters of Professor Timofrey Pnin (a refuge from Soviet Russia like Nabokov) and  the philosophy professor Adam Krug from Bend Sinister who is helpless to stop the bungling thugs of that book’s tyrant from murdering his only child. I also believe he is quietly on the side of Lolita and Lucette Veen in Ada, and not the dazzling beasts who abuse them.

As usual, Nabokov expressed it best. In October 1971, when Nabokov was 72 and had finished writing all his major works, he said this to the interviewer Kurt Hoffman (Strong Opinions, p. 193):

“I believe that one day a reappraiser will come and declare that, far from having been a frivolous firebird, I was a rigid moralist kicking sin, cuffing stupidity, ridiculing the vulgar and the cruel – and assigning sovereign power to tenderness, talent, and pride.”

Read Full Post »

The Seven Lady Godivas by Dr. SeussWhile doing research for a future review of On Beyond ZebraI made this delightful discovery: Theodor Seuss Geisel (better known as “Dr. Seuss”) wrote and Bennett Cerf of Random House published The Seven Lady Godivas: The True Facts Concerning History’s Barest Family — a nudie novelty book aimed at adults.

Jack St. Rebor at Seussblog has done a good job describing the book, so I recommend you click the link and read the post.

Maria Popova of The Atlantic posted a nice collection of illustrations. My favorite Lady Godiva is “Dorcas”. You may not want to know that.

Read Full Post »

"Telegraph Avenue" a novel by Michael ChabonI’ve read a large number of pretty good novels by pretty good authors, and now I’ve read one more: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon.

This is both praise and criticism, but not blame. It takes real talent and hard work to write a pretty good novel. Pretty good novels are less common than merely mediocre novels, or frankly bad novels, but they aren’t that uncommon either. In fact, with care and a little luck, you could spend your entire life reading pretty good novels.

If you want greatness, you won’t find it in Telegraph Avenue. If you want a pretty good novel, read on and see if Chabon’s latest matches your taste.

Telegraph Avenue: The Obligatory Summary

Telegraph Avenue is principally concerned with two couples, one African-American (Archy Stallings and Gwen Shanks) and one white (Nat Jaffe and Aviva Roth-Jaffe), and the two businesses they own in Oakland, California.

The men are the proprietors of Brokeland Records, a used vinyl record store specializing in jazz and funk, while the women are mid-wives and the owners of Berkeley Birth Partners. Both businesses are under threat, the record business from a proposed entertainment superstore, and the midwifery practice as a result of a complication that Gwen is perceived to have mishandled.

Gwen and Archy’s marriage is also in danger because Gwen, who is nine-months pregnant, no longer can tolerate Archy’s serial infidelity. In the mix are Archy’s father, Luther Stallings, a feckless former blaxploitation star looking to finance a new movie, and restart his career, using dubious means; the teenage sons of Archy and Nat, who are both friends and having sex; and an assortment of uniformly colorful secondary characters who round out the mise en scene.

I expect strong, well-drawn, complicated, but largely sympathetic characters from Michael Chabon, and he delivers these in Telegraph Avenue. I also expect a well constructed story, and on this quality Chabon is only middlingly – but I think deliberately – successful.

It’s clear Chabon intended to write a big, sprawling novel so I’m not going to ding the structure of Telegraph Avenue for being a bit of a mess.

But I will ding the novel for lacking a vision that might unify its multitude of elements. And I will knock Telegraph Avenue for its relentless, too-cool-for-school pop-culture fanboyism and for its prose style, in which some fine writing gets lost in Chabon’s inability to leave a sentence alone when he could adorned it with an excessive, frequently self-indulgent, and sometimes incoherent description, metaphor, reference, anecdote, or editorial aside.

Telegraph Avenue’s Message is … What?

The fastest way to lose me as a reader of novels is to hit me over the head with your talking points. But the lack of a vision, sitting behind the action, also weakens books. The best writers make you see the world in a new way. Telegraph Avenue doesn’t.

Chabon does feint a couple punches toward social comment, but without actually throwing one.

The first is toward soul-less big capitalism, embodied by the entertainment megastore and the healthcare industry. But this goes nowhere because the novel is firmly grounded in the bohemian middle class, who expect to enjoy the wealth of capitalism while rejecting its crass aesthetics (and pretending to themselves that this rejection is moral strength).

The second is toward race in America and here, Chabon either doesn’t throw a full punch or he throws a couple sly sucker ones.

One sucker punch is thrown at the white liberal middle class and upper middle class who are unable to distinguish their (I suppose I better say “our”) sense of personal injury and entitlement from our sense of social justice. Which leaves the people who actually need social justice out in the cold.

The utterly typical example of this is the opposition of Nat, and a few other neighborhood folks, to the entertainment megastore, which would bring new economic life to the community and provide steady work to a whole bunch of residents who don’t have it. If Chabon meant to criticize his most likely audience, he has. Sorta.

** Spoiler alert in the second example **

The second punch is a single scene which I would say was a knock-out blow if it weren’t one incident in a book that spends much more energy making comic book references than taking a clear-eyed look at America today.

The scene is when Gwen comes before three white male doctors at the local hospital who are addressing a complaint lodged against Gwen by a fourth white male doctor, who was the attending ob-gyn on the day Gwen and Aviva brought one of their home-birth patients to the ER because of a complication.

The attending ob-gyn had disparaged Gwen and Aviva’s work as dangerous and incompetent “voodoo” (among other phrases) and Gwen had gotten into his face. The stakes behind the complaint include Gwen and Aviva’s privileges at the hospital without which their practice would collapse.

Gwen goes on the offensive, accuses the attending doctor of racism, and threatening an EEOC complaint, which sends the doctor and the board into full retreat.

How much of a role did race play in this conflict? Clearly some. But how much of the attending doctor’s behavior was driven by the sometimes arrogance of physicians and their sometimes contempt for health providers without MD degrees? How much by underlying competition between two professional groups vying for the same group of patients? How much by personality, both the doctor’s in particular but also Gwen’s? How much by the circumstances of the moment of the argument, when both Gwen and the attending were stressed and exhausted?

If Chabon had done more of this, Telegraph Avenue would have been a novel with more power. Instead, we get a lot of Superman and Kung Fu.

Telegraph Avenue and Fanboy Sterility

Fanboys are enthusiastically followers of a particularly genre of art or culture. They use intellectual sophistication, encyclopedic knowledge, and painstaking analyses to compete with each other.

They also fiercely defend the purity of their fixed canon against subsequent changes, which they regard as corruptions. Because of this, fanboys are mostly born only after the energy, innovation, and creativity of a genre have been exhausted.

Telegraph Avenue is full of fanboys. Most prominently, there are Archy and Nat, who curate funk music on vinyl in their record shop and play funk music in their band. There are also Archy and Nat’s sons, who are enthusiastic fans of 1970s kung-fu movies. This enthusiasm spills over into Chabon’s plot, which embraces Luther Stallings and Quentin Tarantino, as well as Chabon’s narrative voice, which frequently makes references to comic books and pop culture.

The problem with all this fanboyism is that if you don’t share Chabon’s enthusiasms, large tracks of Telegraph Avenue cease to be interesting or compelling.

Worse, Chabon’s fanboyism seems to have diverted his attention from his real task. After all, it is the job of artists to bring energy, innovation and creativity to their work. It is the job of artists to corrupt fixed canons. It’s the job of artists to imagine the new, not protect the old. And it is the job of the artist to engage us, not talk to himself.

I think Chabon did these things well in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, where his enthusiasms became part of the blood of the book. In Telegraph Avenue, fanboy creative exhaustion seems to have infected the novel itself and Chabon’s enthusiasms just seem like distractions or self-centered obsessions. Or filler.

Telegraph Avenue and the Porn Star’s Testicle

You can open Telegraph Avenue at random and almost instantly find a sentence or a part of a sentence Chabon should have cut.

Take the one below from page 14, describing one of the security guards who is escorting Luther Stallings out of a memorabilia tradeshow because he doesn’t have a ticket.

The younger of the goons [had a] head shaved clean as a porn star’s testicle.

I have a number of problems with this. First, technically, male porn stars don’t shave their testicles. They shave their scrotums.

Second, the look of the skin on a shaved head is not the same as the look of the skin on a shaved scrotum. A shaved head is shiny and smooth. A shaved scrotum, no matter how tightly stretched, has wrinkles and dimples. When a sentence implicitly compares the appearance of thing A to thing B, then I believe thing A should actually resemble thing B.

Third, what is this testicle doing here? What purpose does it serve? How does it make the sentence better? What system of imagery does it extend or what resonances with other themes does it share?

Because the words “porn star” plus “testicle” are a real attention-getter, and if you are going to grab the reader’s attention like that, it should be for a good reason. Closer examination should produce an “Ah ha!” not a “Huh?”

I’ve read this passage many times. I don’t see a good reason. I just think Chabon’s well-earned success as a writer has made him sloppy.

Page after page of Telegraph Avenue is lousy with this stuff. If you enjoy writing of this type, you are in for a real treat because there is a lot of it. But if you don’t, then like me, you are going to need to adopt a friendly tolerance for the quirks of a writer you generally respect and do a whole bunch of skipping.

Which I recommend. Because the virtues of Telegraph Avenue are still greater than its faults.

Read Full Post »

Bronte Wuthering HeightsHalloween is an excellent time to read a scary book, but you don’t have to read dreadful trash written by semi-literate hacks – although honestly, that can be pretty fun too.

So I’ve chosen my favorite works of “horror” from famous writers for this personal “best of” list, and treated each to my 100 Word Review format. Hope you find something in here you like!

Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights (1847). Heathcliff and Cathy’s fierce love survives betrayal and lives on beyond death in this superb novel. Wuthering Heights tests the reader’s patience through its long middle section, but rewards this patience in the end, when Heathcliff either embraces an ecstatic vision or succumbs to insanity.

Cormac McCarthy: Blood Meridian (1985). Sam Peckinpah meets the Old Testament in this nightmare Western by the author of No Country for Old Men. Although the story follows a young boy through the Indian wars of the 1850s, its central figure is “the judge,” who seems to be neither man, demon, nor god, but the embodiment of the endless violence fixed deep in the human soul.

Henry James: The Turn of The Screw (1898). A country house, two small children, a young governess, and the appearance of menacing apparitions. You’ve seen this set-up before. But James is a master storyteller, and the ambiguity at the center of his tale – whether the children are haunted by the ghosts of former servants or by their governess’ furious delusions – make this work particularly effective and frightening.

Bram Stoker: Dracula (1897). Stoker’s novel makes the list because it’s a vampire novel actually worth reading. Dracula is a predator, not a seducer, and Stoker’s work surprises by resembling a detective novel as much as it does a horror story.

William Shakespeare: MacBeth (1606). An obvious choice, but it bears repeating that a play featuring regicide (among other murders), witches, ghosts, sleepwalking, suicide, a severed head, and blood everywhere and continuous, is a good choice for Halloween.

Nikolai Gogol: The Nose (1836). In this Russian short story, a minor civil servant wakes up one morning to discover his nose has been replaced by blank skin as flat as a “freshly cooked pancake”. The missing nose is an embarrassment, an inconvenience, an annoyance, a source of curiosity or indifference, but never the cause of wonder or fear. Similar in many ways to The Metamorphosis, Gogol wrote this story nearly 80 years before the appearance of Kafka’s famous beetle.

Shirley Jackson: The Lottery (1948). Jackson’s much-anthologized short story packs a wallop with its renowned gimmick ending. Whether it’s anything more than Children of the Corn for the Proust set is another matter.

Matthew Lewis The MonkMatthew Gregory Lewis: The Monk (1796). For lurid trash with a pedigree, it’s hard to beat The Monk. The novel tells the story of a pious Capuchin who succumbs to lust and features black magic, rape, incest, torture, murder, and behind it all, the machinations of the Devil himself. The Monk is one of the key novels of the Gothic genre. It is also an urtext for the mass-market bestseller, in which a book that lacks coherent plot, internal logic, human insight, or a glimmer of writerly craft can become wildly popular by sheer force of sensationalism.

Read Full Post »

Bela Lugosi's DraculaFilmmakers generally take liberties with novels when they turn them into movies. And they should. What director wants to make a movie that is simply a faithful adaptation of someone else’s work?

At the same time, it comes as no surprise – for those with a nose for box-office profit – that the liberties directors like to take with novels often have to do with matters of sex.

This is certainly the case with two familiar versions of Bram Stoker’s vampire novel Dracula: the 1931 movie directed by Tod Browning and starring Bela Lugosi and the 1992 movie directed by Francis Ford Coppola, with Gary Oldman in the title role.

In Stoker’s novel, Dracula is a predatory monster who is indifferent to his victims. He is also a peripheral character. Dracula is largely absent from the pages of the book after the scene shifts from Transylvania to London.

In both 1931 and 1992 films, however, Dracula is a central character who develops a romantic relationship with the heroine of the story, Mina Harker.

Lugosi’s Dracula is a debonair aristocrat who tries to cart off Mina to be his demon bride against her will. Oldman’s Dracula, by contrast, turns up the dramatic volume. His vampire is a Romantic hero who finds in Mina the reincarnation of his much beloved, long-dead wife and who persuades Mina to fall in love with him and participate in her supernatural transformation.

The 1931 version is a classic, but the film is no longer interesting to watch except as a period piece. Its major problem is that it is just not scary anymore. The old-fashioned style of the acting, which mixes the naïve with the declamatory, doesn’t help. And the film is a victim of Bela Lugosi’s indelible performance, which is so familiar even to people who haven’t seen it that his original interpretation looks like a caricature.

Gary Oldman's Dracula directed by CoppolaCoppola’s version is a middling success, not a classic, but it’s more fun despite its problems. Most of these are caused by the cast. Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder are bloodless in their roles, which is a big problem in a vampire flick; and a post-Silence of the Lambs Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Van Helsing serves up a disappointing piece of lukewarm ham, instead of his savory fava beans and Chianti.

Luckily, there is an exquisite Gary Oldman as Dracula. Coppola’s film restores enough of the characters and story lines eliminated from the 1931 version to make the title’s claim to being “Bram Stoker’s” Dracula reasonable. Further, Coppola gives the film an interesting visual style. It doesn’t have the pedigree of German Expressionist films, from which Browning cribbed for his Dracula, but it is distinctive enough.

All in all, you could choose many worse films to get you ready for Halloween than these two movies.

But having rewatched both films and read Stoker’s novel recently, I have to admit the best vampire movie I’ve seen doesn’t feature Dracula and doesn’t come from Bram Stoker.

If you’re only going to watch one vampire movie this month, it’s hard to beat the superb combination of sex, style, horror, melodrama — and especially haute cheese — that Neil Jordan delivers in his film adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. Sorry, Bram.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »