Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

All Souls Day (1998) by Cees Nooteboom

Book Review
All Souls Day (1998)
by Cees Nooteboom

  A concise description of All Souls Day by Dutch author Cees Nooteboom sounds like a precis of all European fiction in the post-war period, "A Dutch photo-journalist grapples with the consequences of losing his wife and young daughter in a plane crash en route to Holiday in Spain.  He moves between Berlin and Spain, falling in love with a young scholar researching an obscure medieval Spanish queen."

  I mean, am I right? That is literally every European novel that has made it into an English translation.  Where, for example, are the Dutch/Belgian/German/Italian/Czech historical novels (besides Umberto Eco)?  Where are the bildungsromans? It seems like every book is another potential Wim Wenders Euro cinema clunker, with no excitement in sight.

  The interesting bits for me were more about the love interest and her academic quest to uncover this (fictional?) medieval Spanish queen.  Everyone is sad.

Heather, the Totality (2017) by Matthew Weiner

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Writer, producer, director Matthew Weiner, author of Heather, the Totality.
Book Review
Heather, the Totality (2017)
by Matthew Weiner

  Probably the best advice you could give to an aspiring writer of literary fiction would be, "Become a celebrity doing something else, acting, music or politics are all good.  Once you have obtained a sufficiently large audience for whatever it is that made you famous, move into another area, and use your existing celebrity to draw attention to your new endeavor."   In other words, an audience for one endeavor, if large enough, is sufficient to generate an audience for a new, largely unrelated endeavor.

  Matthew Weiner is an American, "writer, producer and director."  Most notably he was the guiding creative force for Mad Men, which is a cornerstone of the "peak TV" era.  He also worked on Sopranos, which is another cornerstone. It means that when Matthew Weiner decided to write a novel, he got his book deal, and when it was published, it got reviewed.  The Guardian review is as long as any book review I've ever seen in that publication, surely a testament to the fact that those Editors know that there will be a large amount of ambient interest in a novel written by Matthew Weiner.

  It has also attracted plenty of negative critical attention, a stellar example of the need for critics to take authors down for not having earned their audience.  Whether the critic chooses to acknowledge their bias or not, it is inescapable and it dovetails with a general critical distrust of the cult of celebrity. Entertainment Weekly (or "Edubs" as we call it around the house) called Heather, the Totality the worst book of 2017!  This happened while I was on the waiting list for my copy at the local library, and it piqued my interest. 

  The first thing to know about Heather, the Totality is that it is a slight book, with spartan prose, enormous margins and small pages.  You can sit down in read Heather, the Totality in one session.   The second thing to know is that Heather the Totality is a hateful book, a hateful take on humanity. The intersecting lives of a family of privilege- Heather is the daughter of the wealthy couple, and  a member of the working-under class, who is growing up at the same time-ish as Heather, just barely an adult.

  I can see why people would hate it, if only for the way it depicts the emptiness at the heart of widely separate ways of life.  There is a dry, clinical feel to the prose that probably repulses many readers, and would certainly be foreign to fans who are following him over from television, people who haven't read Thomas Bernhard or Martin Amis. I'm still not sure what I think.  I certainly didn't hate it.  How can you hate a sparse, well written 144 page book- it's over before you get up to go the bathroom?

 I didn't love it either, for essentially the same reason.  I did like the mechanics of his plot, spartan though it was, obviously Weiner knows about pacing from his work in television.  I'd be interested to read a more substantial work by him, but I wouldn't hand out a prize to this book.  I've also observed in the past that you can distinguish potentially canonical works by their ability to evoke a strong NEGATIVE opinion.  If everyone says that a book is amazing, that's almost the same as people saying it's just ok.  If some people hate a work of art and other people are inspired by it, you create the kind of discussion that generates longer-term critical and popular attention.

  I think much will depend on whether Weiner writes another novel, and how that is received.  If he writes another one and people like it, the critics of this novel will look out of date.  If he doesn't write another novel, the initial negative reaction is likely to stand because there won't be a reason to revise it.


Tuesday, January 23, 2018

A Deed of Death: The Story Behind the Unsolved Murder of Hollywood Director William Desmond Taylor (1990) by Robert Giroux

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William Desmond Taylor, actor, director..famous Hollywood murder victim. 

A Deed of Death:
The Story Behind the Unsolved Murder of Hollywood Director William Desmond Taylor (1990)
by Robert Giroux

  The author of A Deed of Death: The Story Behind the Unsolved Murder of Hollyood Director William Desmond Taylor is none other than THE Robert Giroux, of the publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  Giroux was known for being the top literary editor over the court of his career, where he edited the work of seven Nobel Prize in Literature winners and also edited important books like On the Road by Jack Kerouac.

   And I guess, when he retired he wrote this book about one of Hollywood's most famous unsolved murder mysteries, an early episode in the toxic mix of fame, power and debauchery which would later coalesce under the guise of "tabloid culture."  Taylor was one of silent-era Hollywood's best known directors and at the time of his death he was playing a leading role in the negotiated introduction of censor ship into Hollywood under the Hayes Act.

  I read about this murder in the book I just read about Mabel Normand.  Normand was the last person to see Taylor alive, and Taylor, it was rumored, was obsessed with "rescuing" Mabel from the evils of drug addiction.  Despite his thorough investigation into the facts, Giroux does nothing to combat the perception of Taylor as a famous Hollywood good guy who was likely murdered for his interference with the Hollywood drug trade.

  Giroux ultimately concludes that Taylor fell victim to a "hit man" and that the perpetrators, likely Hollywood drug dealers, were protected from investigation by corrupt law enforcement. 

Monday, January 22, 2018

Knick Knack Paddy Whack(The Talk of the Town): A Novel (1999)by Ardal O'Hanlon

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Adral O"Hanlon is best (only?) known in the USA for his role as the comic foil in the Irish sitcom Father Ted.  BUT he also wrote Knick Knack Paddy Whack/The Talk of the Town, a very well received novel.
Book Review
Knick Knack Paddy Whack(The Talk of the Town): A Novel (1999)
by Ardal O'Hanlon

  Knick Knack Paddy Whack (known as The Talk of the Town in the UK but renamed for the United States) is written by Irish author Ardal O'Hanlon, who was also the dumber, younger priest on Britcom, Father Ted.  Knick Knack Paddy Whack is half way between being an Irish Catcher in the Rye and an Irish Trainspotting.  The main narrator Patrick Skully (interspersed with chapters written by his girlfriend, Franscesca), isn't in school, works a shitty security job at a jewelry store where he mostly steals stuff and spends his weekends in a disco trying to get as drunk as possible and have sex.  He basically has no friends, his father is dead and he doesn't get along with his family. 

   On the positive side, he refuses to smoke cigarettes and considers himself intelligent.  It's clear from page one that nothing is going to end well, and O'Hanlon does not disappoint. Patrick Skully, a reader might observe 10 pages into Knick Knack Paddy Whack, is not going to succeed in life.  He does not. 

Cloudsplitter (1998) by Russell Banks

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Anti Slavery activist John Brown, executed after his failed effort to incite a slave insurrection in the American south. 

Book Review
Cloudsplitter (1998)
 by Russell Banks

  760 pages! Sitting in his Altadena shepherds hut, Owen Brown, the son of famed abolitionist John Brown, remembers the exploits of his father.   The format of Cloudsplitter is that of a series of letters written by Owen to a woman working for a professor writing a history of John Brown and the anti-slavery movement.   The legacy of John Brown is often equated with his martydom, executed for a failed raid on the Federal munitions facility in Harper's Ferry, Virginia in 1859.  The goal of Brown's raid was to start a slave revolt in the Southern United States. It's an episode with lasting resonance in American history, and a story that is often ignored because of the uncomfortable linkage between being on the "right" side of history (anti-slavery) using the "wrong" techniques (terrorism.)

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Owen Brown, son of John Brown and narrator of Cloudsplitter, the novel by Russell Banks
  Any student of history recognizes that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.   Within the United States that has always been balanced with a healthy respect for authority transmitted through the experience of land owners and professionals who valued the prospect of the stability that healthy government power can bring to economic endeavor.

  Russell Banks devotes the first half of Cloudsplitter to making the case that there was a link between John Brown's noted failure to grasp the intricacies of sophisticated economic activity and his intense zeal for combating the evils of slavery.  Brown, like many mid 19th century American bred radicals, suffered from the vagaries of the economic cycle, being forced into bankruptcy and losing property due to ill advised speculation prior to his rise to fame in "Bloody Kansas."

  Like many works of historical fiction, part of the pleasure is derirved from being in the drivers seat in terms of knowing how everything will turn out.  This is the opposite of the "thriller with a twist" category in terms of plot structure.  In Cloudsplitter, presumably every single person who sits down to read a door stop sized novel about John Brown knows how the raid on Harper's Ferry ends.

  Using Owen as the narrator gives the plot a "Fathers and Sons" theme that echoes 19th century Russian fiction, but the Browns are richly All-American.   Banks writes with an apparent mastery of the time and place, meaning that the reader is never bored.  Coming after their exploits in Kansas, the actual Harper's Ferry raid is a sad anti-climax.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Mabel Normand: The Life and Career of a Hollywood Madcap (2016) by Timothy Dean Lefler

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Mabel Normand was a silent era films star, famous for her performances in Mack Sennet's early comedies. 
Book Review
Mabel Normand: The Life and Career of a Hollywood Madcap
by Timothy Dean Lefler
Published 2016 by McFarland

  What happens to art and artists after the art or artist ceases to maintain an audience?  It’s a very valid question when it comes to the level of interest in the stars and films of the silent film era.  If I had to pick a single example of an art form that had an absolutely huge fan base in its heyday, and now has literally no popular audience, it would be the silent film.  Based on my formulation of the question, the first necessary observation is that the popular artists and films are no longer written about or discussed.   They pass into a shadowy second life, often rich with the proceeds of their work but no longer famous. 

  Today, in 2018, the figure who best represents this scenario is the character of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard by Billy Wilder. Desmond was at least partially based on Mabel Normand, a comedienne/actress who starred in many early comedies from the Mack Sennett studios and went on to develop an incredible reputations as a cocaine addict, be implicated in one murder and another shooting and died of tuberculosis in her 30’s.

  She also cultivated a reputation for bookishness.  It’s impossible to read a single page about Desmond without someone (often herself) mentioning Freud and Nietzsche, and that she had read both authors. Timothy Lefler, the author of Mabel Normand: The Life and Career of a Hollywood Madcap seems like a capable “super fan” type, he acknowledges some of the darkness surrounding Normand (because how can you not) but steers away from speculation, let alone any independent research.

  Cocaine was actually legal in the United States until 1915, meaning that Normand would have enjoyed a legal habit until well after she became famous.  If you read widely about silent-era Hollywood, the depiction of the drug culture is muted.  I’m not sure if there is any deep work about the nuts and bolts of it, but it seems clear that Normand was in the middle of it.

  She was exonerated in her most famous escapade, as the last person to see famous Hollywood film director William Desmond Taylor before he was murdered.  Taylor was well known for trying to help Normand kick her habit, but the sources there are as self-serving and unreliable as any about Old Hollywood.   There is no doubt in my mind that the secret history of silent-era Hollywood is a creative gold mine.  You’ve got sex, drugs, historical fiction and the culture of celebrity. 

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