Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, April 09, 2020

You Can't Win (1926) by Jack Black

Jack Black SF Call.jpg
Reformed criminal and author Jack Black
Book Review
You Can't Win (1926)
 by Jack Black

  I've known about You Can't Win since high school, because it is commonly cited as an important influence on William S. Burroughs- who was my favorite back then- and because Burroughs wrote the foreword to the current edition, so I would see it at the City Lights Bookstore in the Burroughs section.  You Can't Win is THE pre-eminent example of what you might call "hobo lit"- written before the Beat era, and it was a hit, but fell out of print until it was republished, with the Burroughs foreward, in the late 1980's.

    Burroughs was blunt in his praise:

I first read You Can’t Win in 1926, in an edition bound in red cardboard. Stultified and confined by middle-class St. Louis mores, I was fascinated by this glimpse of an underworld of seedy rooming-houses, pool parlors, cat houses and opium dens, of bull pens and cat burglars and hobo jungles. I learned about the Johnson Family of good bums and thieves, with a code of conduct that made more sense to me than the arbitrary, hypocritical rules that were taken for granted as being “right” by my peers.

    Of course, if you've read Junkie, the similarity in the narrative voice is obvious.  Black's narrative voice isn't what you would call "literary" but the voice still comes through, loud and clear.  You Can't Win takes the form of Black recollecting on his career as a criminal from the position of being reformed- during the writing of the book he was working at a San Francisco newspaper.    Although Black has attained eternal fame as a representative of the hobo-tramp world of the early 20th century, he is more of a criminal than hobo.   The hoboing is just an entry point, in the same way that a gang member in a city might disdain paying to ride the subway (at some point in time before everyone had cars but after they had subways).  The trains play their role, but it is really the crimes, and the trials, and the prisons that take up most of the space.

   I'm not complaining!

Moderan (2018) by David R. Bunch

David R. Bunch's Cybernetic Moderan Stories Acquired by New York ...
Cover of the original 1971 collection of Moderan stories by David R. Bunch
Book Review
Moderan (2018)
by David R. Bunch
Published by New York Review of Books Classics

  Moderan is a collection of futuristic science fiction short stories that were originally published in the early 1970's in a variety of sci fi focused magazines.  Except for two, they were never reprinted, and the New York Review of Books Classics collection published in 2018 is the first attempt to collect all the stories in one place since 1971.   The collection arrived complete with an introduction by Annihilation author Jeff Vandermeer:

    IT’S BEEN hard to get your hands on David R. Bunch’s best-known work for almost half a century now. Most of the Moderan stories—linked, fable-like tales written in an experimental mode, set on an Earth ravaged by nuclear holocaust—were published during the 1960s and ’70s in magazines and later gathered, along with several additional stories, in Moderan, a collection put out by Avon in 1971. Outside of specialist circles, Bunch has been all but forgotten, the original Moderan volume long out of print. Yet in the years since his most prolific period, the nightmarish dystopia he imagined has begun to look increasingly prescient, even prophetic. In Moderan, men who have violently transformed themselves into cybernetic strongholds battle across an Earth paved over with plastic and tunneled under with living quarters. 

    Vandermeer later admits that the tales are, "wild, visceral and sui generis" which is a nice way to say that they are at times impossible to understand.   Basically, the stories in Moderan are as just experimental literary fiction as they are science fiction.   The use of  a distinctive dialect by his cyborg narrator echoes the Russian influenced dialogue of A Clockwork Orange.  The environment that Bunch describes sounds like the post-Skynet environment of the Terminator films.   Bunch eschews the kind of narrative tricks that would give the reader any context- you just have to put it together for yourself. 

  Still, there are some clues in the back and forth:

 “Now, to answer your question about the scraped-off rolled-down land, the jammy-rams and the plastic: You see, we’re moving down toward where you came from. We’ll get it all in time. Surely you must know that the earth is poisoned. From what I’ve heard, where you are from is not only poisoned, but wrecked and cindered as well. We stopped just short of that havoc up here; therefore there is this place for you from Old Land to come to. But our land was poisoned by science ‘progress’ as much as yours was. So we’re covering all with the sterile plastic, a great big whitey-gray envelope of thick tough sterile plastic over all the land of the earth. That’s our goal.

   Fair enough.  What about the human emotion we call love?

“Once, long ago, in an age of horror, living conditions were as your mother has let you hear on the old tot tubes in that abandoned nursery. People lived together in clusters of rooms, whole families lumped not only in each other’s consciousness, but together in sight and smell as well as feel. Their personalities were untrue; their characters developed twisted; they were walking nightmares of contradictions because they warped one another by their proximities. They even ate together, food such as, thank all the powers of Thinking, you have never seen—sustenance that often times came in great chunks which they took by mouth and actually had to chew and swallow by their own power. Now, who would have time for that today, what with the need for power mentalics and the overriding necessity for using all our abilities for Universal Deep Thinking? And remember. THEY WALKED IN THE WEAKNESS OF FLESH ALL THE DAYS OF THEIR LIVES!”

  You get the idea.  Moderan very much seems like a book that would interest the people who read this blog.  Or the bots.  Both groups, really.  Another great example of why I'm drawn to the New York Review of Books Classics line- that much competition for these titles within the Los Angeles Public Library system.   For me, the act of taking an author like Bunch and giving him a new platform a half century after the original publication- that is at the heart of what interests me.

Monday, April 06, 2020

Deacon King Kong (2020) by James McBride

James McBride at the 2013 Texas Book Festival.
American author James McBride
Book Review
Deacon King Kong (2020)
 by James McBride

   James McBride won the National Book Award in 2013 for The Good Lord Bird, a work of historical fiction set in Civil-War era America.   Deacon King Kong is set in 1969, in a fictionalized version of the Brooklyn housing project where McBride grew up (McBride first came to the attention of a national audience with his 1995 memoir, about growing up in Brooklyn as the son of an African American minister and a (converted to Christianity) Orthodox Jewish mother.

  I managed to check out the Audiobook version of Deacon King Kong- which is an excellent product- but I'd also recommend the book itself, because Deacon King Kong is the kind of book that comes to live in your hands.  At time, I actually regretted not being able to read the sentences the narrator was intoning.   The plot is an elaborate, though not confusing web following the travails of Sportcoat, a down and outish deacon at a Brooklyn church, who makes his living as a part time handyman and full time drinker- King Kong is the name of the local home-brew.

  The plot is set into motion when Sportcoast shoots his former baseball protege and current heroin dealer, Deems Clemens.  Before things come to rest, McBride expands his story to include the whole neighborhood, Irish cops, Black cops, Italian gangsters, Irish gangsters, Black gangsters, all brought vividly to live by McBride in a way that simultaneously evokes the "great American novel" and the grand Hollywood tradition of storytelling a la Robert Altman, Spike Lee or Martin Scorsese (McBride has collaborated with Lee on two films).  Surely a contender for another National Book Award or the Pultizer Prize, Deacon King Kong is not to be missed.

Travelers (2019) by Helon Habila

Helon Habila - Wikipedia
Nigerian author Helon Habila
Book Review
Travelers (2019)
by Helon Habila

  Travelers is the new novel by Nigerian (living in the US) author Helon Habila, about the interconnected lives of a small group of African migrants- some legal, others not, living in Europe.  Travelers is divided into six parts, linked by a nameless narrator, an African academic, working in the United States who has travelled to Berlin to work on his thesis.  There he falls in with a group of undocumented migrants.  Other memorable characters emerge in subsequent sections, Manu, a Libyan doctor of sub-saharan African descent, working as a bouncer at a night club that caters to older white women looking for younger, foreign companions, while he looks for his wife every week at Checkpoint Charlie after they are separated crossing the Mediterranean.   Then there is Portia, the daughter of a professional dissident poet who is looking for answers after her brother is murdered by his wife, a white Swiss woman.   There is the story of Karim, an Eritrean who has fled through Yemen, Syria and Turkey.  All of the tales are memorably described, and Travelers has a way of making the migration situation in Europe come alive in a way that straight forward news fails to achieve. 

Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs (2020) by Camilla Townsend

Aztec Civilization - Ancient History Encyclopedia
Map of the Aztec "empire" on the eve of the Spanish arrival
Book Review
Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs (2020)
by Camilla Townsend

  The past couple decades have seen a wealth of new materials for scholars interested in pre-Columbian history.  Many of the achievement have been archeological- including rapid advances in jungle-piercing LIDAR technology which has allowed archeologists to see beneath the thick jungle canopy of Central America.  This has led to the discovery of multiple significant "lost" sites.  There has also been growth in the area of traditional scholarship, with a renewed interest in history written by the losers- mostly the mixed-race children of Aztec elites and Spanish conquistadors, who continued to write Aztec history AFTER the conquest, in a way that was simply ignored by the first several generations of pre-Columbian scholarship.

  Camilla Townsend arrives on the scene to synthesis these materials- drawing heavily on this little known post-conquest but still recognizably Aztec voices to tell a novel version of Aztec history.  The first order of business for Townsend is debunking the persistent myths of Aztec history: That Montezuma, the Aztec emperor, was cowed by Spaniards they thought were literal Gods is a big one.  Townsend also explains the whole idea of an Aztec empire is misleading, rather the Aztecs were an agressive, late arriving people in an already "civilized" area.:

The element of central Mexico’s way of life that seems to have spread more easily than any other was the notion of a central town square surrounded by pyramidal structures, where people gathered and shared cultural events, and where there was almost always a ball court with slanted walls on two sides. There, athletes played before their people, using their hips to keep a rubber ball aloft, until finally they scored a point by causing it to hit the ground on the opposing team’s side. Often there was a stone ring carved on each side of the court; only the most skillful could send the ball through such a hoop. The crowd yelled with excitement and frustration while watching the dramatic games. Later, when empires arose, there would be occasional games played to the death, with the losing team sacrificed.

   The arrival of the Aztecs into Mexico bears some resemblance to the arrival of Germanic barbarians to the Roman Empire, they drifted in from the north, serving as mercenaries for stronger groups, and eventually ended up running the place.   Their weakness would have been the same as any new world Empire the Spanish might have encountered in the new world: Aztec dominion was brutal and exploitative, and their demands of tribute and sacrifice caused most if not all of their subjects- many of whom spoke the same language and were the same ethnicity as the Aztecs- to hate them.  Thus, when Cortes showed up, they were eager to fight.

  Townsend also defends the Aztecs against some of the more colorful claims regarding their well-established practice of human sacrifice:

   Horrendous misconceptions have grown around the Aztec practice of human sacrifice. In novels, movies, and even some of the older history books, hundreds of people at a time were made to climb the narrow steps of the pyramids to the top, where their hearts were cut out and their bodies hurled downward, while the people screamed in near ecstasy below. In reality, it seems to have been a gravely quiet, spellbinding experience for the onlookers, much as we suspect it was in other old worlds, like that of the ancient Celts.

   She leaves aside equally colorful claims about the cannibalism that was said to surround human sacrifice, but it stands to figure that the valley of Mexico- a place where dogs were raised for meat in the absence of larger animals- wouldn't waste so much good protein.   Honestly, the more I read about pre-Columbian empire, the less I mourn its passing.  True, the Spanish weren't great colonial overlords, but the Aztecs were dicks and their own people didn't mourn the passing of their ineffectual aristocracy.

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