Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, April 29, 2016

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) by Arthur C. Clarke

Still from 2001: A Space Odyssey
Book Review
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
by Arthur C. Clarke


The novel version of 2001 was written at the same time as the script for the film. Kubrick and Clarke actually collaborated on the novel as well, but Clarke was ultimately deemed to be the only author. For an audience raised on the film itself (as I was) the book comes as a revelation, explaining many key points the film leaves unsaid. Arthur C. Clarke is the ultimate example of the author as technological prophet, and the creator of the sub-genre of "hard science" science fiction. The most recent example of a cross-over success in this field is the Matt Damon starring film, The Martian. As a sub-genre, hard science fiction eschews plot devices which exceed the boundaries of known science.


2001: A Space Odyssey
was written before the first moon landing.  It's very easy to forget that, so accurate is Clarke's depiction of near-future space travel.  2001 was also path-blazing in it's treatment of subjects like Artificial Intelligence (the psychotic on-board computer, HAL),  alien life and the use of wormholes for interstellar travel.  So many exciting new ideas are included that it's easy to overlook the unimaginative prose.  The novel of 2001 is as concrete as the film version is artistic. 

   2001, the novel fills in the blanks to the point where you could say it takes the mystery out of the film. It's extraordinary to think of the two of them, Clarke and Kubrick, hashing out the novel.  2001 is based on parts of several existing Clarke short stories. The subtitle, "A Space Odyssey,"  clearly refers to the Greek Odyssey.  A key plot point that is unexplained in the film is that at the end, Dave travels through the monolith on the moon of Saturn (Jupiter in the film version).  He goes into an interdimension, where he encounters the alien's who are responsible for the Monolith placed on the earth millions of years ago (The "Thus Spake Zarathustra" scored scene in the film) and corresponding monoliths on the moon and the one on the moon of Jupiter/Saturn that is the object of the Space Odyssey. 

   

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid (1968) by Malcolm Lowry


English author Malcolm Lowry spent time in Los Angeles, Vancouver and of course, Mexico.
Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid (1968)
 by  Malcolm Lowry

  Malcolm Lowry is the end point of the fascination of English novelists with "Old Mexico."  Start with The Plumed Serpent, written by D.H. Lawrence and published in 1926.   Jump ahead to Graham Greene's,  The Power and the Glory, published in 1940.   Lowry's own Under the Volcano was the exclamation point on the end of this relationship between artist and subject.  Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid is Lowry's unfinished roman a clef about a return to the environs of Under the Volcano by a thinly veiled Lowry substitute.  The Author/narrator of Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid is the author of a differently titled Under the Volcano.

    Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend is Laid is interesting only to the extent that one agrees with the statement that Under the Volcano is one of the top novels of the 20th century.  I agree with that statement, and I thought Dark as the Grave was interesting.  Unlike the carefully layered symbolism of Under the Volcano, Dark as the Grave is an impressionistic affair.  It's unclear at times whether Lowry is doing anything except changing the names from a diary entry or letter to a friend back home.

  Like Under the Volcano, Dark as the Grave is a romantic/horrifying depiction of the Mexican state of Oaxaca.   I can't name any other work of fiction that takes place there.   As of this point in the 1001 Books project, I haven't read a single work by a Mexican author, while South America has four already(Lispector, Vargas-Llosa, Garcia Marquez, Borges.)  It's really remarkable to think that English authors were using Mexico as a passive location for their fictional exploits for a half century before any Mexcian novelist made an impression in the international marketplace.  It's artistic imperialism, is what it is.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Albert Angelo (1964) by B.S. Johnson


Book Review
Albert Angelo (1964)
by B.S. Johnson

   Albert Angelo, the second novel by English experimentalist B.S. Johnson, is mostly notable for having actual holes cut in the pages of the book as a plot device, explicitly showing the reader what lies ahead.  I knew what I was in for when I read the paragraph long quotation from Samuel Beckett's, Unnameable at the start of it.   Albert Angelo is a cross between less experimental Beckett and the "angry new men" of English literature.  The eponymous character is a thinly veiled version of the author, which is gleefully revealed in the final portion of the book, with the narrator confiding a certain amount of hopelessness with the way things have turned out for Angelo in the book.

  Besides the high modernist/early postmodernist technique deployed on his behalf, Angelo, a trained architect scuffling by as a substitute teacher in greater London, fits well within the characteristic angry young men universe.  Most of those characters are explicitly working class, whereas Angelo is more of an underemployed young professional, but they both share a common dissatisfaction with the strictures of early 60's life in England.

In Cold Blood (1966) by Truman Capote

Perry Smith and Richard Hicock, the murderers of the Clutter family.
Book Review
In Cold Blood (1966)
by Truman Capote

   As a criminal defense lawyer, I live in a dark world, filled with other people's absolute worst moments.  I also work alone.  That means that the problems of other people that come to me stay at my desk.  Most of my clients are deeply upset at whatever challenges they happen to be facing when I represent the.  The ones that aren't bothered are the scariest.  My job leaves me with little patience for the problems of people that aren't my clients.  When I'm not working, the absolute last thing I want to do is listen to the problems of friend or loved ones.  It's unfortunate, because listening to other people complain is something between a quarter to 100% of most friendships/family relationships/relationships.

   This same emotional dynamic has driven me into the worlds of literature.  I take deep solace in reading about the problems of imaginary people, and comparing their situation to the situations of my clients and murmuring to myself, "Well, things could be worse."   There are other reasons I read, but I find reading a good novel to be more emotionally cathartic than trying to talk to a friend for thirty minutes about the issues which arise when I'm doing my job.

  In Cold Blood hits very close to the mark of my working life.  It is generally credited as the first "non fiction novel," and it concerns the murder of four family members in rural Kansas in 1959 by two recently paroled convicts, Richard Hickock and Perry Smith.   Hickock was a local, a fast talking con-man sort who was imprisoned for writing bad checks.  Smith was a half-Native America, half-Irish drifter with a third grade education.   While imprisoned at the Kansas State Pentitnenary, Hickock learned about Herbet Cuttler, a wealthy farmer who supposedly kept a wall safe with tens of thousands of dollars inside.

  After he was released from prison, Hickock wrote the previously paroled Smith, and together they went to Cuttler's farm, where they failed to find the safe (which never existed) and murdered the four family members who were home in spectacularly brutal fashion.  They got away with something less than 100 dollars and a few stolen items.  Hickock and Smith were on the run for six weeks before they were arrested in Las Vegas Nevada.  Shortly after they confessed, were extradited to Kansas, tried for the murder and executed.

  First and foremost, In Cold Blood was a masterful work of craft, seamlessly blending the requirements of non-fiction with the aesthetic sensibility of fiction.  This approach to writing has been widely disseminated in the decades since In Cold Blood was originally published, to the point where readers accept it as a major category of literature.  Capote blends the perspectives of the perpetrators, investigators and towns people so smoothly that the reader is barely aware of the transitions back and forth.

  At no point does Capote intrude on the action, disguising his own appearance in the narrative as an interviewer.    His background work was incredibly thorough.  What he did then would probably qualify as competent mitigation work for a client facing the death penalty in 2016.  Capote develops the theme that both Hickock and Smith suffered head trauma that likely resulted in organic brain damage.   He also uncovers the kind of traumatic child abuse in the past of Smith that is often used as mitigation in death penalty cases.

  Unfortunately for the two murderers, Kansas was not sophisticated in the defense of death penalty cases, and the mitigation case on their behalf was somewhere between short and non existent.   Capote did not abandon the two after the verdict, famously advocating on their behalf up and until the actual execution.  I'd put even money on whether the two would be executed if they committed the same crime today.  On the one hand, it's the kind of spectacular, senseless crime that evokes cries for vengeance.   On the other, both defendants appeared to have organic brain damage, and neither had a history of committing violent crimes.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Cancer Ward (1968) by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 
Book Review
 Cancer Ward (1968) 
by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 

 A six hundred page book about suffering from cancer in Soviet Tashkent, Uzbekistan?   Call it the literature of confinement, whether the subject be common prisoners, political prisoners or hospital patients.   The literature of confinement is an important genre of post World War II literature, and Solzhenitsyn, with his 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature, is the top in this particular field.  Unlike A Day Life in of Ivan Denisovich, which takes place over the course of one day, Cancer Ward takes place over a seemingly endless numbers of days and weeks and months.   In Cancer Ward is not the classic "Arctic Soviet Gulag Prison Camp."  Instead it is a regional hospital, treating almost entirely "eternally exiled" former Soviet military and government officials who have come into disrepute in various ways.

   One of the major aspects of Cancer Ward not related to the Solzhenitsyn-proxy character's own cancer is the back story of the various inhabitants of the hospital.   How each of them came to be "eternally exiled" within the Soviet Union is a catalog of totalitarian insanity.  Like The Case of Comrade Tulayev published in 1949,  Cancer Ward is a testament as to why totalitarianism rarely works out, even for the die hard supporters.   Similar to Tulayev, the most sympathetic figures in Cancer Ward are "old Communists" who were involved with the initial Civil War or early converts outside the major Russian cities.  These people were purged starting in the late 1930's and on through the early stages of the Cold War.  Solzhenitsyn was one of those people.

   Beyond the vintage Soviet setting,  Cancer Ward is notable for the frank discussion of the subject of cancer itself, which maintained a quasi-taboo status that is still evident today.   Like any work of literature that address mental or physical health, Cancer Ward addresses the role of societal stigma among the sufferers of ailments.  It goes without saying that Cancer Ward is a deeply sad work of art.   Throughout, there are hints of some kind of reprieve, to address the status of "eternally exiled" Soviet citizens, much in the way the cancer treatment may provide hope of recovery without providing recovery.   Any humor lies in the most abstract of concepts, for example the irony that these "cancers on the state" are themselves afflicted with cancer as if to prove their tormentors right.

  Both patients and doctors are portrayed.  The Soviet Union was distinct from the West in having an ultra high percentage of female doctors vs. male doctors.  I knew that going in, but was still surprised that male doctors were few and far between.  The major dynamic in Cancer Ward is between the male patients and the female staff.  Solzhenitsyn handles these fragile relationships with incredible deftness.   By the end of Cancer Ward the reader is likely to be exhausted.  You will crave lighter fare.


    

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Time: A Vocabulary of the Present edited by Amy Elias and Joel Burges



Book Review
Time: A Vocabulary of the Present
edited by Amy Elias and Joel Burges
Published in August, 2016
by New York University Press

   It's true, I like to dabble in what you might call "critical theory."   I'm not a huge fan of French post-modernist philosophers, but there is no denying that they have swayed the majority of people who talk about cutting edge philosophical/social science type theories in the American University system.  So I went into Time: A Vocabulary of the Present expecting to see many, many, many references to German and French philosophers who wrote in the mid to late 20th century.  I was not disappointed.  Time: A Vocabulary of the Present is an up-to-date anthology of recent academic theorizing about the role of time inside and outside the academy, but heavy on theory that is only of interest to people with academic level interest in the subject ("Time Studies.")

  The introduction, Time Studies Today, by the editors, lays out the contours of the time studies field.  It's part French post-modern philosophy, partly a continuation of the post-post-modern "linguistic" and "spatial" turns in cultural studies and partly a product of cultural studies itself.   Time: A Vocabulary of the Present is divided into three parts.  Part I, Time as History: Periodizing Time has five paired chapter.  Each chapter is a different opposition illustrating an aspect of time.  So,  Past/Future, Extinction/Adaptation, Modern/Altermodern, Obsolescence/Innovation, and Anticipation/Unexpected.   Editor Amy Elias' essay on Past/Future, with an informative discussion of "retro futurism" was a stand out in this portion of the book.

    Elias accurately describes the paradoxical impact of the internet, "in the analogue era, everyday life moved slowly...but the culture as a whole felt like it was surging forward.  In the digital present, everyday life consists of hyper-acceleration and near instantaneity...but on the macro-cultural level things feel static and stalled.  We have this paradoxical combination and standstill.  This combination is what I call "techno duration" and in it, the present spreads like a tsunami wave over the past."

    From there, Elias builds up the concept of "retro-futurism" where we imagine an alternative future from an imaginary past.  Retro futurism is at the heart of many cultural trends of the recent past and present, so possessing a theoretical background on the development of retro futurism, provided by Elias in the course of her essay, is well taken.

   Part II of Time: A Vocabulary of the Past is Time as Calculation: Measuring Time.  Here, Time Studies is on the more familiar ground of horology (the study of time measurement with watches and clocks.)   Here, the pairings consciously acknowledge this theoretical pre-history, Clock/Lived, Synchronic/Anachronic, Human/Planetary, Serial/Simultaneous, Emergency/Everyday, Labor/Leisure,  Real/Quality.   The third and final part of Time is Time as Culture: Mediating Time.   This third part if firmly derived from the field of cultural studies.  References to comic books and modern art abound.

  The footnotes and bibliographical essays are both excellent and this book is worth acquiring simply for the up to date reference notes, if you are interested in the field of time studies in any serious way.

Naked Lunch (1958) by William S. Burroughs

Author William S. Burroughs
Book Review
Naked Lunch (1958)
 by William S. Burroughs

   All you need to know about me as an adolescent is that I told people William Burroughs was my favorite writer for about 2-3 years in high school/college.  I read Naked Lunch for the first time mid-way through high school.  I'm sure I read it once more in either college or law school.  I've seen the movie version at least three times.  Naked Lunch remains relevant today both on it's own merit as a canonical text of the Beat Generation, and as a key early text for later movements like "cyber-punk" and retro-futurism.  

  I read Burroughs originally with some knowledge of his Beat contemporaries, On the Road by Jack Kerouac,  Howl by Allen Ginsburg.  I had read a decent amount of 50s science fiction and fantasy, a key reference point for Naked Lunch.  I hadn't read any golden age detective fiction, another key reference point.   I certainly hadn't read anything written by James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and other high modernist whose prose experiments made a plot-less novel about Mugwumps and the interzone something that readers could treat seriously.

  Revisiting Naked Lunch having had the benefit of reading the books that Burroughs read,  I am most struck by the similarity between his junk-sick apparitions and the nameless non-protagonists of Beckett's trilogy.  His pulp fiction reference points, mostly detective fiction and science fiction also seem to anticipate the dystopian sub-genre of speculative fiction.
Burroughs and a Mugwump from the David Cronenberg directed movie version.
  For all his iconic status, only Naked Lunch and Junky rise to the level of must-reads.   Soon after Naked Lunch was published he would begin his decades long obsession with the literary "technique" of cut ups, where words were combined in purposefully nonsensical fashion in a dadaist-surrealist experiment.  In retrospect, he seems perilously close to being a one-hit wonder, with Naked Lunch as the hit.  Even Junky would likely not be notable were not an early work by the author who wrote Naked Lunch.   If anything, Naked Lunch seemed fresher to me reading it yesterday than it did when I read it twenty years ago.  It has the timeless quality of all great works of art.

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