Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Looking For A Good Book?

As it should happen on the wily worldwide web, some of my previously published book reviews disappeared forever and ever. I thought I'd post a few, not in order, in case you're looking for a good book. Below, you will find reviews for the following:

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels: All Four of Them
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen


Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

I can't believe it took me so long to read (or listen to) this! I’ve had this latent, mildly unkind disinterest in Didion’s work for a dumb reason. I had to read one of her books in an undergrad class called “Politics and the Novel” (I won’t tell you which one), and I guess I didn’t like it. The class was taught by a Poli Sci prof who liked to read, rather than a stuffy old English prof or a chic/smarmy writer-type: the course was a noble endeavor, but somehow I missed out on the heart of the Didion conversation.

I listened to the audiobook of Slouching Towards Bethlehem with Diane Keaton narrating, and you pretty much can't get any better than Keaton doing Didion.

This is an old book (published in 1968), and its episodic, short, perceptive essays by a then-thirtysomething smart writer create, really, this stunning portrait of California and the Sixties. The portrait is along the lines of other literary portraits that capture cultural landscapes (The Great Gatsby?) or the significance—this is so totally one of my favorite thematic preoccupations—of place/geography (The Grapes of Wrath?). It may feel dated to some readers, and it may seem historic to others. I think, in truth, it’s both; this era is over. But Didion captured it!

You should watch Mad Men around the same time that you're reading this to get its power in full-force.

Really, I just found myself wanting so very much to do what Didion does here. She’d hang out on Haight-Ashbury; she’d talk to hippies on drugs; she’d look into the life of Joan Baez. She’d talk to people involved in love-turned-murder scandals. She’d contemplate the idolization of John Wayne.

Writers, this is why you have to get your hands on this old book. It makes one want to write that kind of narrative nonfiction, simultaneously invasive and private, poignant but kind, highly articulate and observant. She is like some kind of undercover spy here, EXCEPT SHE'S A WRITER!

The book’s title comes from the W. B. Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming (Slouching Towards Bethlehem).” It might be worth reading it, as Didion does successfully capture its sentiment in prose:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert.

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Some essays were more interesting than others. I’ll highlight a few.

"Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream" is the opening chapter. With a murder mystery at its center, it’s a kind of Stepford-Wives glimpse into the secrets behind marriage and pretty lives and religion-gone-astray. Didion writes, “This is the California where it is easy to Dial-A-Devotion, but hard to buy a book.”

"On Keeping a Notebook" is my favorite. I. Can’t. Even. Required reading for all writers. I really think she gets to the heart of the compulsion to write, or at least a dimension of it, by acknowledging that she does it to know “how it felt to be me.” This is a fairly profound admission: a lurid confession. Our claims at documentation or reportage are shrouds, masks, shiny veneers we use to hide writerly myopia.

"On Going Home" speaks, maybe, in a more universal way to readers. While many of us are not writers, most of us have homes (for better or for worse). In this, Didion writes about a visit with her husband and daughter to her parents’ home in the Central Valley of California. What I really loved about this piece was how she wrote of her husband’s sudden displacement: “My brother does not understand my husband’s inability to perceive the advantage in the rather common real-estate transaction . . . and my husband in turn does not understand why so many of the people he hears about in my father’s house have been committed to mental hospitals or booked on drunk-driving charges.”

"Rock of Ages" is a peek into Alcatraz in San Francisco. It closed in March 1963, which has always seemed like ancient history me. To Didion, writing in 1967, the mystery may not be so mythical—like it is now. I found myself wanting to know what became of people she mentioned. I thought about googling them; I didn’t. That happened at several points in the book, though. She’d slip into a life with its occupant, and I’d be engaged—in the ordinary. When she stopped writing, I’d be asking, “But what happened next?”

"Goodbye to All That” is a love-hate song to New York. Damn, it’s a true essay! She writes, "I was always there for just another few minutes." Tell me about it.

I'll carry parts of these essays with me forever. "Writers are always selling somebody out," she writes, in the introduction. Ouch!

Oh, and the Hughes essay made me think of Trump. So that whole issue of this book being dated may be obsolete. History is repeating itself? What goes around comes around?

The White Album: Essays calls to me.


Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels: All Four of Them

My Brilliant Friend (2012), The Story of a New Name (2013), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014), and The Story of the Lost Child (2015): doesn’t this four-book-in-a-row thing blow you away?

My introduction to Ferrante came on the operating table, minutes before I had both breasts cut off. Probably my most-trusted literary confidante had told me to read Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment (2005), and—for some no-doubt predestined reason—that was the book I took to the hospital to get a double mastectomy in the summer of 2015. I read parts of it, in a hospital gown with only socks on—no underwear. The protagonist’s marriage was over. Reality, contorted. I woke up and read again. My body, compromised.

At the time, I found her writing visceral, claustrophobic, beyond definition. Cramped, as if I might hyperventilate.

I recovered—from surgery and Abandonment—and read the four Neapolitan novels, all translated by Ann Goldstein. It wasn’t that I loved Abandonment so much; rather, I kept hearing about “Ferrante Fever.” Apparently, “someone” (a woman? a man? a consortium of Italians?), writing under the pseudonym of “Elena Ferrante” was making the literary world reel. So I took the plunge. I read all 1,682 pages.

Guys, I caught the fever!

The novels became both tiresome (all those character names, like a crazy Russian novel!) and addictive (I couldn’t stop). Now, having finished, what might I tell you about this author, and the ultimate meaning of these novels?

Ironically, I decided on a whim to ask “Elena Ferrante” to write a blurb on the back of my unpublished novel. You know those blurbs, right? Famous authors say something nice about your book: “Heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, head-spinning . . .” – Jennifer Spiegel, author of The Great American Novel.

Why not ask Ferrante? I thought.

Because, really, wouldn’t Elena totally get my book?

I emailed her publisher. Literally, the next day, Elena’s real identity was revealed. This was the biggest literary scandal since James Frey made up parts of his 2003 memoir, A Million Little Pieces. My timing was really, really bad. Some reporter-dude chose this week to unmask her. Elena Ferrante never emailed me back.

But what of her books?

I wish I could put my finger on it. There was something distinctly un-American about it. (The way translation affects a narrative and the particular influence of Ann Goldstein is perpetually fascinating to me.) Sweeping? That sounds so Gone with the Wind, as does epic. Though it is, in fact, sweeping and epic—covering the lives of two Italian girls (Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo) from a poor neighborhood in Naples as they leave behind their 1950’s childhood: sometimes they go to school; sometimes they fall in love with the same boy; sometimes they leave everything and everyone for Rome or for Florence or even for Switzerland; sometimes they dip into post-war politics and 1960’s social movements, flirting with violent rebellion, risking jail; sometimes they marry brilliant academics or neighborhood thugs, or they have illegitimate and legitimate children, or they see their own mothers and fathers die. The major consistency in their lives is their friendship, which plummets at times and soars at others. This is the story about two women. (There was no way on earth, incidentally, that the real Ferrante could’ve been a man.)

These never-ending books (too long?), with the careening prose (Rusty Reno, editor of First Things, described her prose as careening—and I thought that was particularly descriptive) are about identity. The mysterious author, who seems to be invariably obsessed with anonymity, wrote four tightly sequential novels about self-identity.

It’s also the story of a writer (Elena is the first-person narrator and a successful author). Aren’t all writers obsessed with identity? While one might read this for the portrayal of women, one might also read for the landscape of the writer’s mind. Rule Number One when writing a book is this: Don’t make your character a writer. So what does Elena Ferrante do? Of course she names her protagonist Elena and makes her a writer.

This book, for all its plotting (the girls grow up and get old), is truly a questioning of self-identity. The protagonist asks, Who am I? Who is Lila? Who are we in relationship to each other?

Towards the end of the Neapolitan novels, Elena suspects that Lila has been secretly writing a book. Elena wonders: “To write you have to want something to survive you. . .” Then, she ponders the possibility of anonymity: “To carry out any project to which you attach your own name you have to love yourself, and she had told me, she didn’t love herself . . .” What kind of person writes a book? Why does someone write a book? For what end?

Throughout the novels, we are aware of the uniqueness of Lila. She is implicitly superior to all. But we are also aware of her fear: “That people, even more than things, lost their boundaries and overflowed into shapelessness is what frightened Lila in the course of her life.” The loss of boundaries. Fuzzy edges.

Lila wanted to disappear.

Is this fear resolved? I’ll whisper the answer to you: not so much.

But I was reading for other reasons.

I was reading for the study in identity, the attempts or even failures in trying to know oneself or to know others. At times, the scrutiny of personal motive was staggering. Truths about oneself can be humiliating, and Elena Ferrante allowed her protagonist to be terribly—awfully—human. Sometimes, the protagonist was a bad mother. Sometimes, she sought fame at the expense of her children. Sometimes, she allowed a guy to walk all over her. I found Ferrante honest.

Over and over, Elena circles around the same questions: Who am I? Who is Lila? Who are we in relationship to each other? As I read the first novel, I wondered who was the “Brilliant Friend”? Was it Elena, or was it Lila? And at the end, I was still questioning: Who is the lost child?

For me, these explorations were enough to declare the Neapolitan novels a success. A study of the self.


Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

I love George Saunders, and I’ll read anything he writes.

Okay, then.

My review, in summary: he's brilliant, a genius even—but Lincoln in the Bardo, his first novel which follows a stellar short story career, is more like an amazing exercise to be appreciated and discussed, from somewhere below; however, it failed to do what I personally like in a novel, which is for someone else's story--besides mine!—to absorb me. That's a lot to ask, but I often ask it. This explains my love of big, bulky stories like The Nix or The Goldfinch. Saunders offers fascinating ideas, brilliant collaging, and great sentences—but I wasn’t overcome, and I wanted to be. Did I step outside of myself and into the life of another, much like the Bardo “ghosts” step into the lives of the living? Am I closer to the human experience?

Let me quote my book-reviewing cohort at Snotty Literati, Lara Howard Smith. We’ve tangled before on Saunders. I loved Tenth of December; she did not. When our bookish friends began making a racket over the new novel, Lara grew strangely silent. I picked it up, and found myself unpleasantly up against that, um, “Fourth Wall” (see below).

Oh no!

I talked to Lara. She said, “I think he's the Wes Anderson of books. Super high-brow. Only accessible to literary elites.”


Then, I started to like it.

But I think there’s something to my original assessment: an amazing exercise to be appreciated and discussed, from somewhere below. The entire time that we’re engaged in the act of reading (it’s a quick read), we’re well-aware of the distance between writer and reader, we’re well-aware of authorial finesse (there’s plenty of it), we’re well-aware of the Fourth Wall (not to be confused with Trump’s wall).

What is this Fourth Wall? It’s when the Artist “intrudes” consciously upon the real life of its audience. Basically, the artificiality of the artistic act is acknowledged; the artist “winks” at the audience; the suspension of disbelief is abolished. Examples abound: The characters in The Office give us a side glance. Lemony Snicket explains something. Ferris Bueller turns to us. Death, the narrator, addresses the audience in Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief.

Is that what Saunders is doing? Maybe metafiction is a more useful term? A broken or intrusive fictional artifice draws attention to the act of storytelling? A story about story? I was always aware of narrative artifice and authorial control here.

But he’s a genius. One of my students quoted Arthur Schopenhauer when I lamented my lack of engagement. Alex Ozers(!) suggested that I wasn’t used to the form. “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.”

Maybe I just didn’t see the target?

Consider the virtues, then.

Fascinating ideas. The story surrounds the Bardo, the Buddhist intermediate state between life and death. Lincoln’s son has died and his soul lingers in the Bardo with other souls who are not willing to move on to some kind of Judgment Day—because they don’t want to admit that their dead. Willie, Lincoln’s son, longs for his father. The main “ghosts” all have ties to the earth that prevent them from “giving up the ghost,” so to speak. Hans Vollman, a middle-aged guy who landed a young wife, was on the verge of consummating his marriage when he died in a freak accident. (Instead of carrying around shackles and chains, he is encumbered with an outrageous erection.) He doesn’t want to let go of life! Roger Bevins III, a young gay man in Civil War America, commits suicide—but changes his mind at the last minute. He wants to live! (He becomes hyper-aware of life, with heightened senses.) The Reverend Everly Thomas is afraid of death—and so he holds onto the misery of the Bardo. These circumstances, of course, lend themselves to philosophical profundities.

Besides the Reverend’s poignant thoughts on religiosity, there is the usual Saunders Comic Touch—demonstrated by two ghosts, a forgotten academic and a forgotten pickle manufacturer, who are spending their Bardo eternity by flattering each other. Professor Edmund Bloomer says, “At any rate, I thank you, from the heart, for acknowledging that I was the foremost thinker of my time. I feel some measure of redemption, having been at last recognized as the finest mind in my generation.” Lawrence T. Decroix, his companion, says, “Thank you so much, for saying my pickles were excellent. Thanks for saying that, of all the pickles being made in the nation at that time, mine were, by far, the best.” This is their hell.

There’s brilliant collaging. The novel is made up of dialogue, monologues, and real and fictitious historical snippets. Good luck in navigating what’s real and what’s not. If you’re a truth-monger, this might bug you! Saunders acknowledges two sources: The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage by Daniel Mark Epstein and Twenty Days by Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr. and Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt. This mega-postmodern play on truth and history sent my head spinning. At times, Saunders offers commentary on unreliable narrative (different sources interpret the same thing differently). At times, the collaging adds layers to a story like never before.

But I’m so confused!

Finally, this is a book of fine writing. Roger Bevins sees vivid details: “a sleeping dog dream-kicking . . .”

Showing rather than telling is the rule. Thomas Havens was a “good” slave. He didn’t seek freedom; he rejoiced in his free-time (two hours on Wednesday afternoons and every third Sunday): “ . . . I had my moments. My free, uninterrupted, discretionary moments. Strange, though: it is the memory of those moments that bothers me the most. The thought, specifically, that other men enjoyed whole lifetimes comprised of such moments.”

Death, be not proud, indeed!

This book, culminating in the mysterious “matterlightblooming,” is wondrous on its most lovely pedestal.

We sit beneath the pedestal, however.


Just Kids by Patti Smith

Who isn’t listening to audiobooks these days? I was late, as I am to many trends, as I was with Patti Smith. I think I only “discovered” her in the nineties. Actually, I know exactly when and where I was. The nineties, the East Village, a used record shop (are they still there?) Me, trying, failing, to be cool. I bought Patti Smith’s Gone Again. Hooked, ready for Horses. 

I finally listened to Just Kids, which is narrated by Smith. It’s extraordinary. Though the book focuses on her relationship with Artist Robert Mapplethorpe (who, admittedly, interests me considerably less), it was Smith who lulled me with her prose. When poets commit to narrative, sometimes amazing things happen.

And since it looks like the Prez-elect has declared War on the Arts, this book—already poignant to me—became, suddenly, culturally poignant. How is a life in Art lived? What does it mean to be an Artist?

This book is really, truly the portrait of an artist as a young woman. It feels like the beginnings to me, like the way it goes for those with the compulsion to pursue the Crazy of Art. There’s more to it, and you can bet I’ll be listening to M Train (listening because it’s also narrated by Smith).

Mapplethorpe died young. At 1989, he died of AIDS at the age of forty-two. He got famous, and—this was something I didn’t love, though Smith only speaks lovingly of him—his ultimate aim in the Arts seemed to be wealth and notoriety.

But Smith. Artist at Large. What happens to a young woman?

Would you believe that she was taking a bus to New York City, leaving behind her family and factory jobs, having had a child which she gave up for adoption and an awareness of some kind of artistic compulsion, and she didn’t have enough money to pay the bus fare, so it was then that she found a white purse—on top, I think, of the pay phone—with $32.00 in it? She took the money, left the purse, and got on the bus—the rest is history.

She’s utterly likeable, speaking of her cigarette-smoking mom standing over her when she said her nighttime prayers, recounting her discovery of literature and art—seeing Picasso’s work in Philadelphia, telling us about the time she stole a skating pin. She refers to Jim Morrison as a “West Coast St. Sebastian,” noting that she looked upon him—when she saw him live—with an admixture of disdain and admiration. He possessed both a sense of self-loathing and supreme confidence; she also thought that she, too, could do this. She prayed to save Robert’s soul; he prayed to sell his soul to the devil (this is paraphrased). The book name-drops without meaning to name-drop: Andy Warhol, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan.

And the New York of it! They, like, really lived in the Chelsea hotel (which only has one-hundred rooms?). She describes it as being like a dollhouse in the Twilight Zone. But so much of New York is brought to life here: Coney Island, Andy Warhol’s clubs, diners, donut shops, Brooklyn apartments, flea bag hotels. Parts of Paris too.

Did you know that Smith loved the Rolling Stones? She cut her hair like Keith Richards, saying goodbye to her folk era-do, and someone asked her if she were androgynous. She thought it meant ugly and beautiful at the same time. So she said yes. Soon after, she began writing song lyrics

Someone told her: You don’t shoot up and you’re not a lesbian, what do you do?

Mapplethorpe said to her, “Patty, you got famous before me.”

The fame was secondary to the Art of it. She’s a wonder.

And if we’re really at war, stand by the poets.


Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen

Bruce likes to write.

Actually, Bruce loves to write.

Over 500 pages, this memoir covers a lot. From his Italian/Irish/Working Class/Catholic/Crazy Dad/Longsuffering Mom/Freehold, New Jersey childhood to his happily-married/empty nest/post-Clarence Clemons/horseback-riding sixties. Bruce is headed into old age, my friends.

The Word on the Street: Springsteen wrote the whole thing himself, by longhand, over the course of seven years. I believe it. Typically, I’m mildly cynical about “celebrity memoirs”—but the book is so wonderfully Springsteen-esque, which is to say it’s rambling, poetic, repetitive, heartbreaking, a little longish, sometimes profound, and totally engaging. A ghostwriter wouldn’t have lingered so long over every single album. Every. Single. Album. (I highly recommend the audiobook because Bruce narrates it; however, I’d be listening and he’d say, “Chapter Fifty-three . . . Chapter Sixty-seven . . . Chapter Nine Thousand.”)

Everyone has a Springsteen story. I have three or four. My cousin—who morphed, oddly, into a Trump-supporter!—first exposed me to Springsteen as an antidote to my Rick Springfield passion (why did all of my musical taste grow out of some kind of opposition to youthful fancies—is it like that for everyone?). I like to also pretend that we named our daughter after “Born to Run”:

“Wendy let me in I wanna be your friend/
I want to guard your dreams and visions”

But this isn’t true. I also like to pretend that we named her after Wendy Darling in Peter Pan. Also not true. We just liked it. After 9/11, when Bruce went on tour for The Rising with the E. Street Band, my mom and I saw him on August 25, 2002—about a month after my father died—so it was a special admixture of tributes and memorials that imprinted on our lives. Finally, my husband and I ventured out to see Bruce play solo in the Devils and Dust Tour in 2005. We obviously didn’t have kids yet. Those are my stories.

But the book . . .

If you’re a Bruce Springsteen fan, you’ll love it. Bruce loves to write, but he can write. In his music, he takes to heart Bob Dylan’s adage that he quotes: one is “not just writing about SOMETHING but writing about EVERYTHING.” This explains why the Springsteen songbook is deep and wide. This already-famous passage is how he opens his memoir: “I come from a boardwalk town where almost everything is tinged with a bit of fraud. So am I. By twenty, no race-car-driving rebel, I was a guitar player on the streets of Asbury Park and already a member in good standing amongst those who ‘lie’ in service of the truth ... artists with a small 'a.' But I held four clean aces. I had youth, almost a decade of hard-core bar band experience, a good group of homegrown musicians who were attuned to my performance style and a story to tell.”

But Bruce becomes an artist with a big “A,” and that’s the draw of the book. He is well-versed in his medium, looking to Dylan, Presley, Woody Guthrie, Frank Sinatra and so many others. Dylan, already mentioned, informs his songwriting: “’Like a Rolling Stone’ gave me the faith that a true, unaltered, uncompromised vision could be broadcast to millions, changing minds, enlivening spirits, bringing red blood to the anemic American pop landscape and delivering a warning, a challenge that could become an essential part of the American conversation. This was music that could both stir the heart of your fellow countrymen and awaken the mind of a shy, lost fifteen-year-old in a small New Jersey town.” 

Note the uncompromising part. Bruce Springsteen reveals himself to be . . . wait for it . . . a control freak. In his approach to music, he is “primally unmovable”—as he puts it. He really is The Boss, even among musical giants like Steven Van Zandt and the late Clarence Clemons. He’s in charge, and you can tell.

There’s also a lot of ego here.

I’ll tell you what, though: I’m terribly forgiving of this kind of uncompromising, and this kind of ego. In other words, I think artistic vision and artistic ego is, well, special. Springsteen, from early on (he doesn’t even read music!), had a sense of his own ability and greatness. He talks a lot about it. My response: So what?

He is pretty great.

My favorite parts include:
--how he talks about his wife, Patti Scialfa
--how he talks about Stevie (there’s a great scene in which they’re thrown out of Disneyland for wearing bandanas) and Clarence (Clemons’ death is particularly poignant)
-- seeing Elvis's debut on The Ed Sullivan Show
--his discussion of “Born in the U.S.A.”
-- pretending to be mentally ill to get out of Vietnam draft (really!)
--his admission to lifelong depression, which—at times—is debilitating.
--his take on playing the Super Bowl

But there are three other things to mention.

This is a father-haunted narrative. Springsteen, like many of us, is forever dealing with his own parental heritage. I was particularly struck by the part about how his father “hid” his mother, refusing to show his love for her in public—and how this hiding impacted Bruce’s own ability to love his wife before others.

This is also well-written prose: “She was Italian, funny, a beatific tomboy, with just the hint of a lazy eye, and wore a pair of glasses that made me think of the wonders of the library.” There are, probably literally, a million examples of linguistic finesse.

Finally, this is sometimes human and humorous. When the Northridge earthquake hits with its days and days of aftershocks, Patti wants to leave California. He told her, “We can brave it out.”
She responded, “You brave it out. I’ve got three kids . . .”

I liked this memoir. As with his hours-long concert, you’re satisfied when it’s over.

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