Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Trick is to Keep Breathing (1989) by Janice Galloway

Book Review
The Trick is to Keep Breathing  (1989)
by Janice Galloway

   Another sad book about sad 1980's Scotland, this one written by a woman instead of a man.  Joy Stone is the narrator and main character- she teaches drama, she's a "drunkorexic" though she is also depressed, and she spends basically the entire book being sad and bemoaning her fate.

  And although I see that sad white women need their own voice in literature, I also find these type of books pretty tedious.  I've known plenty of sad white women- rich, poor- young, old- my whole life has been spent talking to sad white women bemoaning their fate.  While I am sympathetic to the various problems that women face- I'm more sympathetic to those faced by women of color and women in the global south than the problems of women in wealthy industrial countries who are basically sad about a bunch of stuff because life sucks.  I know life sucks. Everyone knows life sucks, that life isn't fair.

   I mean, get over it, or I guess, don't get over it. I'm saying that in the full flower of understanding of the struggle faced by women like Joy Stone and her progeny.  I'm sorry you are sad, I'm sorry you grapple with mental illness. It's terrible. Is it the only thing you are going to talk about for the rest of your entire life?

William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles (2000) by Catherine Mulholland

Book Review
William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles (2000)
by Catherine Mulholland

  There is a foundation myth of the growth of Los Angeles, familiar to a generation of Americans.  It is expressed in the film Chinatown, by Roman Polanski.  The most famous academic version of the myth is Cadillac Desert- read by almost every American studies undergraduate class in the US.  The myth, which is described in the foreword to her excellent history of her father, William Mulholland, the architect of modern Los Angeles, goes like this:

   Once upon a time Los Angeles was a small Mexican village, after the United States took over, it wasn't long before a vast conspiracy, consisting of both public and private interests, launched a plan to steal water from a bucolic farming community hundreds of miles away.  This theft, engineered in secret, destroyed that community and constitutes an original sin that forever taints modern Los Angeles.

  I'm as guilt as anyone when it comes to embracing what is essentially a false story.  I've got a shelf full of books like Cadillac Desert- seeking to expose the corruption at the heart of the Southern California dream.  Well, Catherine Mulholland, daughter of William and esteemed historian in her own right, is fed up with that bullshit, and her book, William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles serves as a counter-point to the more established, critical view point.

  I wouldn't say that she wrote this book to settle scores, but she does settle some scores while also writing a dense, well written, well researched, well cited book about the growth of Los Angeles.  First things first, William Mulholland started work in Los Angeles digging ditches for the pre-Anglo water department.  He moved up to work as a supervisor for one of the private water companies which preceded the (in)famous Department of Water and Power.  The early chapters shed little light on the meat of the book, but they are interesting if you live in the Silver Lake/Echo Park area.   Tracing out one of the maps in the early chapters, I actually found the original water pipes that served the Elysian Park Reservoir.

  The meat of Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles has to do with the oft recounted tale of the "theft" of the water supply of the Owens River Valley.  This act has been repeatedly portrayed as the theft of water from a group of innocent ranchers and farmers.  Some of the parts of this story turn out to have been true-  Mulholland did use a private citizen to acquire the rights in secret, then that citizen sold the water rights to Los Angeles.

  The representation that the Owens Valley aqueduct was simply to serve the land owned by wealthy Angelenos in the San Fernando valley is shown to be false.   Mulholland and Los Angeles were plotting to secure an enormous supply of water for the entire Los Angeles basin.  Wealthy Angelenos bought large ranches in the San Fernando valley because they were cheap, and available.  The two facts are not linked in time or motivation.  Those land owners did, in fact, benefit from the water supply, but then, so did every person in Los Angeles.

  Another assumed fact that is shown to be false is the idea that the Owens Valley actively resisted from the beginning of the plan to steal "their" water.  Mulholland demonstrates that the active period of resistance- with some physical sabotage- was not linked to the construction of the aqueduct, but rather to the period after, when there was a vociferous debate as to whether the power generating capacity of the new aqueduct would be controlled by private or public entities.   The acts of sabotage were supported by those who advocated for the private control of the power to be generated, financed by outside interests who weren't opposed to the aqueduct, but just to the public control of the resulting power generating capacity.

  The rise of Los Angeles wasn't the result of a criminal conspiracy, it was an obvious solution to a pressing problem, and it was executed with a style and aplomb that is rarely seen in public infrastructure projects.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Moon Palace (1989) by Paul Auster

Book Review
Moon Palace (1989)
 by Paul Auster

  There is no denying that Paul Auster is still read, and that a generation of serious readers (in America, at least) have grown up with Auster's books readily available on the shelves of libraries and book stores everywhere.   Beginning with his existential detective trilogy, Auster seems dedicated to intertwining the tradition of the 20th century European philosophical novel (Novels where nothing much happens) with the active plot mechanic of a writer who is very aware of the "state of the art" of fiction writing.

  In short, he writes savvy, intellectual fiction with some commercial appeal.  His characters very much reflect the dramatic self obsession which has grown to define our American culture, and his presence in the fictional precincts of New York City ensure that even his most failed characters have an aspirational side for readers of contemporary literature.

  Moon Palace has an intricate plot for a 300 page long novel- the narrator, M. F. Fogg, is an orphan, raised by an uncle, an itinerant jazz musician.  He attends Columbia University and descends into a "I would prefer not to" style of genteel poverty.  He is rescued from his plight by Kitty Woo, a "manic pixie dream girl" from before that term was coined.   Perhaps the brilliance of Moon Palace is contained in the fact that this description of the first act of the book provides no clue to the second and final act.

  I'm not sure that Auster's book stand up to much discussion or description- the gossamer strands of his jewel box plotting means that even the barest description of events risks compromising the pleasures of the read.  Not all fiction is like this- you can describe a work of experimental fiction- like Ulysses by James Joyce, without changing the wondrous impact of the prose itself.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Amongst Women (1990) by John McGahern

Book Review
Amongst Women (1990)
 by John McGahern

  John McGahern is another excellent answer to the question, "Why bother with the 1001 Books list?"  There is not doubt that McGahern is an excellent novelist, with a compelling ear for dialogue and superb grasp of the mechanics of the "country novel."  That he could publish such a book in 1990 and have it considered a masterpiece is even more a testament to his skill, since the cool, quiet realism of country life in 20th century Ireland is far, far from the precincts of post-modernism and magical realism.

  Amongst Women is about Michael Moran, an IRA guerrilla turned farmer, living in the middle of the 20th century, out in the country, with his second wife and his children from his first marriage.  Moran and his family live quiet, respectable lives, but Moran also lives with a tightly suppressed anger that occasionally bursts forth in a manner that we today consider border-line domestic abuse.  In the context of the mid 20th century, Irish milleu, Moran is far from being a boundary breaker, and as the novel proceeds, McGahern softens Moran's character over time in a way that will ring familar to anyone with the experience of a stern patriarch.

  What could be a one dimensional tale about an abusive patriarch is instead something far subtler and richer. 

Sexing the Cherry (1989) by Jeanette Winterson

Book Review
Sexing the Cherry (1989)
by Jeanette Winterson

  Jeanette Winterson is both a post-modernist and a Feminist (capital F.)  Sexing the Cherry is her take on the "meta-historical" novel, though in her case it is more of meta-historical work of experimental fiction. Sexing the Cherry is the kind of novel where you feel compelled to say that the author "plays with" various ideas because it is not clear what he/she thinks about the characters, or what the characters think about themselves.

  The fantastical elements of Sexing the Cherry align closely with the "freaks and geeks" sub-genre of 20th century literature. The protagonist is the Dog Woman, a giant freak of hideous visage. Their travels take place across time and space, with no explanations of the how or why.


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