Sunday, February 29, 2004

Bee Season (Myla Goldberg; 9 hours on cassette)
Good subjects (hippy psychedelic impulses sublimated through Judaism, reform observance, spelling, f*d up family life). The dysfunction was exhibited, rather than explored: inarticulately awkward family members are at times irretrievably opaque about their motives. I can't object to the book, since I managed to finish it. If you find these topics fascinating, you might enjoy Goldberg's treatment, which is occasionally quite funny.

Saturday, February 28, 2004

Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina(David Hadju; 328 pp-- Stopped after 160 pp)
Inspite of the fascinating personalities, the writer seems to dislike Bob Dylan intensely, disdain Joan Baez, and still fails to bring into focus the spark that makes Richard Farin~a such a mysterious personality. I stopped reading at the point that RF began to woo Mimi Baez. I doubt that the 2nd half of the book gets better. A Saturday afternoon read that should have been put down for something better.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

The Fatal Shore: The epic of Australia's founding (Robert Hughes; 752 pp; 31 hours on cassette)
A fascinating tale of Georgian England's solution to their criminal class (begun in 1788, and running til 1850). Hughes remarks that Australia is a nation that refutes genetic determinism: virtually every citizen can trace their family back to felons. It is apparently popular to assume today that their forebears were mostly innocent poachers transported for petty crimes. Hughes data shows that 4 out of 5 had been convicted at least once prior to being transported. England's main object was simply to insure intense suffering, without regard to reform. The biographies of the various personalities who stepped up to implement this objective are well-drawn. The most haunting image: Since those who were transported were treated to the greatest degradation and hardship, the only thing that kept prisoners from killing themselves was a fear of eternal damnation. A practice emerged where groups of men would draw lots; the short straw would be dispatched in cold blood by the man who drew the 2nd shortest. The other men vowed to serve as witnesses, guaranteeing the hanging of the killer, with the incentive that they could be temporarily released from prison to testify in Sydney.

Friday, February 13, 2004

Inventing the Middle Ages (Norman Cantor; 21 hours on cassette; read by Frederick Davidson)
What a great history of historians! Intoned by the supremely snotty narrator, Frederick Davidson. This is a meta-history, reporting on the lives of various 20th centurian Medievalists. The only time I've read a similar sort of work was Donna Haraway's Primate Visions; she wrote with a very sharp tongue about the academic lineages within primatology, and which advisors had impressed their dogmas into the field through their posse of grad students. The defunct gossip sheet, Lingua Franca, used to discuss rumbles within the ivory tower, and Cantor has written a fascinating account of the intellectual biographies of historians who were American, European, and English. The Germans of the 1920s who aimed to build a case for strong kings contrasts with the vision of the two most renowned fantasists, CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, who took their variant visions of the past and projected them into explicitly nostalgic fictions.

Monday, February 09, 2004

Soul Mountain (Gao Xingjian; very long; bailed after 2 tapes)
Very diffuse divagations from the 2000 Nobel Prize winner. There was not a lot to hold onto, and I could not hold my breath long enough to discern if Gao was going to be another Pearl Buck, Dario Fo, or Pasternak.

Saturday, February 07, 2004

Fortress of Solitude (Jonathan Lethem, 2003, unabridged, 18.5 hours on tape)
Dylan and Mingus, childhood best friends in Brooklyn, grow up together in the early 70s, reading each others' comic books and playing arcane street games. They come from two broken sets of parents who've inscribed their separate cultures' icons (white hippie folk v. black crypto cool) into their own names. Their story is set in Gowanus, a gradually gentrifying neighborhood not far from Park Slope. Half-way through the book, it felt like this novel was going to surpass The Adventures of Kavalier & Klay, which first transformed the childhood fascination of the comicbook world into a universe of referents with sufficient muscle to make a great novel. By the last 2 tapes, Fortress of Solitude began to lose the arm-wrestling contest to Michael Chabon, whose own superheroes struggled more with the ironies implicit in their superpowers. Lethem's novel has an ambitious range: He encompasses the birth of rap, the graffiti culture of the streets, the destructive impact of crack, while contrasting the Brooklyn street with the white inflected literary pretensions of a punk music critic who writes liner notes, hangs out in Emeryville and gets "yoked" after a Jonathan Richman show in Berkeley. The force of the contrastive black/white identities loses steam before the book closes, even though the writing is always disciplined and uncliched. The superheroic twists also require a leap on the reader's part that does not end in flight.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

My life as a fake (Peter Carey 2003, unabridged, 9.5 hours on CD)
Peter Carey is an extraordinarily gifted writer, but this novel failed to really hold my attention. A literary fraud, perpetrated against the editor of a pretentious poetry journal called Personae, spawns an Escher-like loop: the fabricated bicycle mechanic becomes incarnate, and seeks revenge upon his fabricator. Carey alludes to Satan's anger in Paradise Lost and the rage of Frankenstein's monster, but his tale fails to carry anything like the weight of either precursor. Perhaps the most serious critique of Carey's new novel is that it cannot compare with the bold and amazing power of The True History of the Kelly Gang. It's unfair, of course, to demand that every novel be an awesome re-imagining of a fascinating underground folk hero. But if you haven't read the Kelly Gang, start there. This work, while lucid and well delivered, just isn't a great deal of fun.