Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Them V's

So ever since I got a job I've been wondering what book I should read at work. I decided that it had to be practical: a paperback that I could easily carry with me. I was already reading Dubliners (see previous post) and I thought it would be fitting: but it turns out it's too big, or rather, too normal-sized for quick-access on breaks or when I'm taking out dogs for walks (I work at a kennel).

I realised that it had to be a compact-paperback, designed for this sort of thing--unfortunately, we haven't figured out how to make them over here in the West, so they're not as common, but I had a few lying around. I chose God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, by Kurt Vonnegut.

Just to note, I've read Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions, Cat's Cradle, Player Piano, Sirens of Titan, and Galápagos. Normally, I'm a big fan of his work.


But page after page, Kurt Vonnegut decides not to tell a story, but to go on an extended, creative rant about the paradoxes and hypocrises of American life and government. This, in and of itself, does not sound like a bad premise for a rant, or even for a whole book (though it is short to be sure). In fact, it sounds like it could be delicious, but unfortunately, it is not: I sense almost none of Vonnegut's usual sharp wit in Mr. Rosewater and find his thinly-veiled attacks on capitalism (in which he refers knowingly to himself one too many times) uninteresting and pretentious--not at all like similar, subtler attacks made by his idol and perhaps a better writer, Mark Twain.

I am reminded, of all things, of George Carlin (may his godless soul rest in peace), whose "politics" were occasionally spot on but often far too broad and generalising to mean much of anything. And as I read I keep thinking about how much more War with the Newts did with this concept (at least the bumbling bureaucracy/government part). Karel Capek, I have repeatedly told friends, was Kurt Vonnegut 30 years before Kurt Vonnegut was Kurt Vonnegut.

But then I still have a lot to go (I'm only 40 or 50 pages in) and I have to caution that as always I tend to play devil's advocate and let the critic in me scrutinise flaws first and foremost; ultimately I have had a great time with a number of Vonnegut's work and even this one squirms its way into my heart (however difficultly) on occasion. Who knows, maybe I'll feel differently by the end. Ultimately Vonnegut is one of those authors who I know I will read every piece of their ouvre some day, so I think, in the end, he is forgiven this transgression.

Forthcoming: I will soon be reading The True Believer by Eric Hoffer, simply because it is the only other "small paperback" I have. I am looking forward to synergising it with Imagined Communities, which I got at a used bookstore a ways back and has since been sitting on my desk.

Otherwise, I'm almost done with The Christian World (see previous post again), and as predicted, I do have my pet peeves about it, so I will delineate said nitpicking in the next post.
Continue reading "Them V's"...

Monday, June 16, 2008

Books, Books, Books

So! What's happened since my last post? Quite a stretch of time, eh? Well, apart from getting demoralised about my audience (re: myself), reading!

I finished Tristessa essentially the night I began reading it. It was quite a ride, for my first Kerouac, and I'm certain that, as one Amazon review states, it will "become the book of Kerouac that I return to most often." It's short but full of little niceties. It was certainly nuanced enough that I couldn't possibly catch everything on the first go--especially for my first dose of his work. I'm not saying it's quite the same, but in many ways I would think it'd be like delving into Joyce by first reading Finnegan's Wake: it could be alienating.

To say the least, it rekindled my interest in writing, and I soon was tacking away on the typewriter in enthusiasm.

In other news: Dubliners! This is a good trip for a first timer but I think I should start reading it during the day. I don't know what it is about Oxford World Classics, but they refuse to put the annotations in the text (it might have to do with some lofty appeal to the purity of the text). You essentially have to always keep one finger in the back of the book to anticipate any coming annotations, and since almost every sentence contains a street name or some Dublin locale, I'm flipping back and forth constantly, to the point where I'm uncertain whether or not I'm actually comprehending the text as a whole or in little chunks.

But that might be more a problem with my unfamiliarity with Dublin than anything else. Surely not knowing the city detracts from the enjoyment of the book, or rather, knowing the city would enhance it. Still, the locales are integral to the story, so it's not exactly like I can avoid them...right?

I'll resolve it eventually. Now I know how my professor must have felt last semester when I wrote a historical fiction piece with 50+ annotations.

Moving on! I went to Strand in New York the other day with my father, for Father's Day, and Forbidden Planet. And I can never resist the temptation to buy books!

At Strand, I picked up To See Every Bird on Earth, The Christian World: A Global History, and God's Terrorists: the Wahhabi Cult and the Hidden Roots of Modern Jihad. All of them were marked down significantly, so it felt like a great buy. Now, one by one:

1) The author of To See Every Bird, Dan Koeppel, came to my school to speak a few months back about freelance journalism and the book business. He read excerpts from this book and his more recent effort, Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World. The excerpts were affable and engrossing, and so of course I mentally catalogued him for future reference (his lecture, by the way, was also another factor in helping me orient myself towards writing again). I'm looking forward to reading this one. $6.

2) I picked up The Christian World on an instinct. I wanted it to incorporate into my general Abrahamic religions syllabus that I mentioned a few posts back. Sitting among the other used books, I could tell this one was more high profile and more professional (re: attractive cover), and from my brief perusal definitely seemed interesting. I'm frustrated that I can't seem to find any information online about it.

I started reading it today and I think it's going to be a good ride. The author, Martin Marty (wonder if he was teased as a kid?), is a pastor of the Lutheran persuasion, so clearly he has some vested interests, but at least so far I'm placated by his sense of responsibility to be scholarly and therefore neutral. He uses C.E., which, as the above linked post explains, makes me happy, and he does go to great pains to not gloss over the "evils" (as he puts it) of Christian history. From my first impression--first chapter, 30 pages--he does definitely have some kind of apologist slant but I'm hoping it won't be a problem.

Otherwise, I find the prose to be kind of simplistic at times simply because it is so sweeping, but then, as he notes, this might simply be the problem of trying to write a history of the whole of Christian development all across the world in just 288 pages.

Regardless, I'm positive it will be informative, and any potential biases will (hopefully!) be normalised by the (hopefully!) cynical slant of The Battle for God later on in the syllabus.

3) Finally, I picked up the very attractive (again, aesthetically speaking--covers just speak to me) God's Terrorists, by Charles Allen. I'd read about Wahhabism a bit in Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace (see here), and of course as such an important part of Islamic history I decided I needed to brush up on it.

I'm hoping the alarmist title doesn't hint at the tone of the book--one Amazon reviewer does note that he "was completely let down by the author's brief and poorly argued conclusion...[which] seemed thrown-in as an after thought," so I will be wary (then again, the title of his review was "A Warning to Western Civilization." Hmm...mixed messages.

Anyway, this'll segue well into the Forbidden Planet excursion.

I'd never been there before, and I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived. A very decent selection and humble atmosphere--though what do I know as only an onlooker of comics from the periphery? I was browsing wracking my brains for comics on my list that weren't things like Transmetropolitan or The Watchmen (no hard feelings--I will read them someday, but I was craving something different, something more palpable), and I remembered a graphic novel a friend at school recommended me, Palestine.

I was in luck. They had 3 copies. Joe Sacco's graphic novel--or I should say, comic, since the term 'graphic novel' is loathsome marketing junk according to Sacco--is a vivid (and sometimes harrowing) account of his trip to the Palestinian territories, drawn laboriously in the gangly R. Crumb tradition. The 'magnum opus,' as he sometimes refers to it himself in the comic, is a page-turner: I finished it in a day, though it is a "comic." I don't mean this pejoratively; I simply mean that I like the pretty pictures and it goes by quickly.

The narrative is just naive and self-deprecating enough to be affable, though at times it may try a bit too hard at this. The politics, of course, is the meet of it, and what's good is that Sacco tends to let characters talk for themselves. He interjects his own opinions often, but there are many monologues and interludes with the book's eclectic cast, each telling their stories. Having just finished Fromkin's excellent history, I did spot a few inaccuracies (or at least "glossings-over," but no harm no foul I guess), but otherwise the ground-level view of quotidian Palestinian life is heart-wrenching. It really helps that this

Visually, as I said, it is superb. I have always had an instinctive negative reaction against the unctuous, hairy, organic style (I could never watch Ren & Stimpy as a kid), but I think Sacco hits the sweet spot. It's not "gross," but there's just enough grit and grime to get you really feeling and seeing all the melancholy and humility (in the sense of their humanity--not always their personality) of the Palestine's inhabitants/landscapes. I was frustrated at how Sacco drew himself, however: this ultimate act of self-deprecation portrays the man as an ugly skin-and-bones nerd with huge lips. But in the portrait--he's so handsome! I can't forgive him for that one. See for yourself:

But I kid. Ultimately I have no weighty qualms about the book yet (I will certainly have to flip through it a few more times to let some of the images/prose sink in more), though I might have to sit on a few of the ideas presented.

I didn't buy anything else at Forbidden Planet, but my brother got the Sam and Max "Surfin' the Highway Anniversary Edition," and some other thing which I can't quite remember but will find out about shortly. I am looking forward to devouring them in the coming days!

Phew! What a post. I will be back, dear readers, with more bookish updates soon!
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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Memoir as a Blueprint; Memoir as Self-Serving

I just finished Pamuk's Istanbul (discussed in this post), and I can safely say it was worthwhile. I'm definitely chomping at the bit for more Pamuk, but I would like to address a few things (some good, some bad) about the book first.

On the good: the more I read Istanbul,the more it resembled The Black Book, and indeed, I've realised that it is something of a blueprint for the book. Though Istanbul was written nearly 10 years after the original release of The Black Book in Turkey, it obviously reveals what Pamuk's mindset and his line of thinking about the city he lives in, and at least for me demystifies the complex narrative of the latter.

I remember falling in love with Pamuk's prose in 2006 when I read the new translation by Maureen Freely (which I bought in Spain, incidentally--I bought an imported English copy and so the cover was not something terrible as my experience is in America but actually quite tasteful), but being overwhelmed by the superstructure: I couldn't get more than halfway through. Now after reading Istanbul I see to what extent The Black Book is merely a surrealist, fictionalised account of what is in fact Pamuk's actual life and city. So many of the names are quite the same, so many of the details ring a bell, and I think now this book has prepared me better for going back to The Black Book better than I ever could have imagined. I'm excited to delve into it soon.

On the bad: Towards the end, Istanbul began to taper off. Pamuk included more and more about his personal life and his personal demons, to the point where I--stunningly--found myself bored.

Throughout most of the book his thesis is watertight: he interpolates the idea of "hüzün," (melancholy) historical Istanbul, and his own existentialist crises very well. In this context the personal anecdotes are humble, endearing, and most importantly interesting.

But the last few chapters these personal anecdotes begin to wear thin, because they are no longer linked to the thesis as solidly as they were before. They seem more like entries in a diary, indignant and rambling more than intricate and elegant (as had been my impression until that point). Here is an excerpt:
"...My brother and I would give our all to vanquishing and crushing each other to fend off the fear we kept hidden in the darkest corner of our hearts: the melancholy and desolation of sharing Istanbul's shameful fate."
Pamuk's self-deprecating confession that he is "prone to exaggeration" might justify these passages but at this point it ceases to be believable or endearing, and instead merely absurd. The "First Love" chapter which soon follows, which could have been linked much more gracefully with the overall narrative, ends up sounding exactly like the type of narcissistic confessional I might make to a friend. I thought as I read it how much more tolerable and interesting it would be if Pamuk had told me this over lunch or coffee rather than in the pages of a book, where my patience was being tried. In these final sections it feels as if the intermittent references to hüzün and Istanbul's historical fate are merely tacked on, reminders to himself what his book was originally about.

Ultimately, it is still Pamuk and interesting enough that one is compelled to finish (not the least because of the exquisite photos adorning almost every page). But it feels like Pamuk dropped the ball at the end. He alludes early on to the "hidden symmetry" of the book, but as one reviewer noted, it seems the this symmetry is nothing more than the contrast between internal, personal conflict ("the man") and external, historical conflict ("the city"). This is all well and good, and as I said, works for the majority of the novel. But towards the end this symmetry seems to crumble and become self-indulgent. The aforementioned reviewer notes:
"At times — certainly over the last fifth of the book — Pamuk’s melodrama about huzun gets to be a bit much. He haunts the miserable streets of a lost empire, collar upturned against the snow, trying to shake off his own desperation at a lost love and make an art form that doesn’t just ape the West. On and on he goes, trying to beat us over the head with the idea that the city inhabits the man and the man the city: we cut back and forth between his furious wanderings in the streets and his fight with his mother over what he’ll do with his life. Pamuk thinks he is terribly clever. He wants us very much to know how clever it is; earlier in the book he drops hints about its “hidden symmetry.” This symmetry, so far as I can tell, is just the symmetry between the man and the city. So now you know. If you were paying attention during the first half of the book, you already knew. I’d rather not be bludgeoned with the Cleverness Stick."
And I couldn't agree more. He convinced me about hüzün by page 107; did he really have to repeat it like a mantra so much so that I would almost regret hearing it said (or written, rather)?

So: what do we say? Well, Pamuk is still a wonderful writer, but I've concluded that he might just write fiction better than non-fiction--everything I've read, and everything I've been told by those who've read his other works indicates this. His thought process seems to lend itself much more to the grandiose and beautiful, and so his description of quotidian realities can come off as lacking if not properly executed.

We'll conclude with some minor ruminations spurred by youtube:

Here is a clip of Pamuk receiving the Nobel Prize in literature. It struck me as terribly ironic: here is this writer whose modus operandi is struggling with the dichotomy between East and West, and now here he is being awarded the prize for this effort in an antiquated European ceremony with tinny trumpets blaring and stilted gesticulation. Kind of strange that his recognition for articulating the melancholy of Istanbul, that site of East-West tensions, is to take part in a highly Western ceremony, only to later be disparaged by his own people and ridiculed for "insulting Turkishness" (by acknowledging the Armenian Genocide of WWI). Kind of depressing, isn't it? He achieves that attention he so longed--"Under Western Eyes" as in the title of one of his chapters in Istanbul--and it serves instead as his downfall. Pamuk has some very cogent things to say in the Journeyman Pictures video.

Here Pamuk admits that he never had a job until he was 54, when he began teaching at Columbia University. Holy crap.

Miscellaneous Update: I've started reading Tristessa, by Jack Kerouac. It's my first of his books, and I think it's a good introduction to his works--I've heard good things, to say the least. It's just shy of 100 pages, less even, so it'll be a quick read. I'm enjoying the zany, stream of consciousness prose so far, to be sure: lots of quotables.

More posts to come on it for sure.
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