Saturday, April 18, 2009

Fortune Cookie Book Reviews

Over the last couple weeks I've been dealing with this terrible double ear infection drama. It sucks, undeniably, but in a way there has been a weird positive aspect. Because there is all this fluid trapped behind my eardrums, thus making the little bones unable to rattle and thereby fail to send the messages to the nerves that go to the brain like they ordinarily would, I can't hear very well. Like hardly at all. The other day I was at this bougie luncheon, sitting next to one of our few laudable local politicians, and I couldn't hear a thing he was saying. If you speak to me in regular conversational tone, unless it is in a small space and there isn't any other competing sound, I can't make out what you are saying, especially if you are on my left side. At home, when I've watched movies I have my TV volume all the way up. In my car, same thing with the stereo.

(Photo of the merch table at a recent Dinosaur Jr show I probably really shouldn't have attended, all ear things considered.)

I finally got around to going to the doctor a couple days ago and got some antibiotic/steroid thing, but he doesn't seem to think that will fix the problem, so it looks like I'll be hitting up an ear/nose/throat specialist sooner or later for the privilege of having him/her stick a needle in my eardrums and draining the gloop. Awesome.

So, perhaps you are thinking, where is this aforementioned upside, CB? Well, the fact I can't hear shit has really changed the way I interact with my environment. I'm much more in my head (in a good way), I'm much more content to walk around and look at stuff without getting distracted, when I do listen to music, I'm much more interested in really LISTENING to it, and because of this I've found myself turning to more "challenging" records lately, like Yeasayer, Menomena, Sholi, and off-year Prince.

But the best part is that I've been reading A LOT for pleasure lately. Like a book (or two) a day. So, as the title suggests, here are some baby nugget comments about the last few I've digested in the past week or so.

Patrick deWitt - Ablutions: This is an interesting book, or rather an outline of a book, but the whole outline gimmick felt, well, like a gimmick. I mean, by 2009, it just isn't interesting, even to first year grad school po-mo enthusiasts, to do these kind of ham-handed, cutesy "experiments" with narrative. That being said, the narrative you eventually find is intriguing, the anti-heroic nature of the main character compelling, and one is left with greater disdain for the editor that failed to push for a full work than the writer who submitted a partial manuscript.

Larry Doyle - I Love You, Beth Cooper: This is why I shouldn't be allowed to book shop while drunk and on vacation. The jacket clearly says the author is a writer of The Simpsons, so what was I expecting? It reads like a book destined to be a movie that reviewers will pan while disfavorably comparing it to Superbad.

Michael Chabon - The Mystery of Pittsburgh: Chabon's first novel, written during a summer after he moved in with his mom, when he first decided to be a novelist. In a nutshell, this book is valuable for its historical significance if you are Chabon enthusiast or enthralled with that generation of American writers. Otherwise, skip it. Chabon notes he was inspired by Phillip Roth and The Great Gatsby, and it shows, with the pinched rhetoric and lame bourgeois-ness of it all. The book as it is should've been a first draft, as there are uninteresting elements that receive too much attention and potentially very interesting elements that are far too shrouded in the mystery the title hints at. However, I'm judging a mid-career writer for his first book, which by rookie standards was pretty professional. So, by all means, read Chabon, especially Wonder Boys and his essays, and if you fall in love with his work, check out The Mystery of Pittsburgh after you've made it through Kavalier and Clay and the Yiddish Policemen books.

Jeffrey Brown - Clumsy/Unlikely: Only recently have I started to get into graphic novels, and the ones I've liked have been slice of life works about post-college slackers, not the kind that are made into big-budget films that give people seizures. Brown is my favorite, and these two lengthy novels are the first and second in a trilogy I stumbled upon when buying the brief epilogue (the awesomely titled Every Girl Is The End Of The World For Me) at the new record store in Tremont a few months ago. These three books, and I imagine the next one - AEIOU - recount Brown's romantic relationship greatest hits, and start to get a bit repetitive, as Brown is repeatedly scorned, earnest, and cringingly pathetic in a way we all have been and, likely, all will be again, even though thinking of the last time we acted that way still makes us blush with a self-loathing fierceness. So, I'll be getting AEIOU soon, and will probably devour it immediately, but after that I probably won't continue on with any of Brown's other, non-trilogy work.

Bree - was chicken trax amid sparrows tread: Bree is a local poet and quite an impressive indie publisher. I first encountered her when she read one of her own poems and then another of d.a. levy's poems at a levy event held at Art House a few days after I moved her in late summer 2007. I bumped into her a couple of times again, and then discovered her publishing entity, Green Panda Press. I've kept an eye out for new work of hers and, when I saw was chicken trax amid sparrow's tread sitting on the counter at Mac's Backs one day, I snagged it immediately. Her work in it is top-notch and I have a feeling she's gonna break out nationally soon. Part 2, a long poem/movement, is great, simply great. I recently noticed she is organizing an impressive set of events next month that I'm plenty stoked about, especially since Charles Potts, a poet I learned about from a package of volumes Bree once sent me, is on the program.

Simon Sebag Montefiore - Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar: Montefiore's tome is a work of a lifetime, and anyone who wants to know anything about Josef Stalin would be wise to start here. That being said, I have a reasonable amount of knowledge about Koba already, and find myself gravitating more to thematic or period studies of the master evil politician rather than chronological works like this one. Still, this book is without peer in the category it falls.

Arthur Koestler - Darkness at Noon: Thanks to a random recommendation from a friend last fall, I purchased Robert Conquest's brief book-length essay on Stalin and the Kirov murders. It got me back into reading things about this dastardly dude and when I went back to check out the "people who bought this also bought ..." page, I saw references and positive reviews of this Koestler novel. Never is Stalin mentioned in the book, but the metaphorical references are quite obvious. Even after translation, Koestler's ability to put the reader in the protaganist's mind, the administrator's office, the dank cell, the interrogator's boots, is peerless. A must read.

Bryan Murray: Scott Pilgrim, Vol. 4: Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together:

If I had to recommend any of these, I'd say your best bet is Arthur Koestler's book, but only if you already know a bit about Soviet history. Otherwise it'll just seem like a weird, maybe existentialist, prison novel. But if you know what internal Russian politics in the era of Stalin were like, you'll get it and you'll see the book's brilliance. So, check it out. You can get it used lots of places - or stop into Mac's Backs and have Suzanne order you a copy. That way you'll be keeping the cash local. Same goes for Bree's work and the Jeffrey Brown graphic novels. I wouldn't hesitate a moment to recommend either of those authors to even my best-read friends.

Speaking of keeping money local, I'm off to Record Store Day festivities at Music Saves. Maybe I'll brush my teeth first, though. Maybe.

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