Friday, December 30, 2005

Book No. 45: The Turn of the Screw and Other Stories by Henry James

The "other stories" mentioned in the title were "Sir Edmund Orme," "Owen Wingrave," and "The Friends Of The Friends," all of which deal with hauntings of some sorts. The real prize here is, of course, "The Turn Of The Screw," a short story more perfect than I remembered from my freshman Victorian Lit class. James's prose is so carefully considered and honed that it renders the delicious ambiguities of the story to be completely hidden unless one is looking for the craft. His narrator is wonderfully unreliable, with most of her reported conversations ripe with potential meanings. We know what she is thinking, generally, but she passes so quickly over the specifics of how she learns certain things that a careful reader, when going back to re-read, will find all sorts of information she has glossed over in her haste to reach her point. I thought I didn't care much for James, but I think now (15 years later) that I'm going to have to re-read some of his novels.

Book No. 44: Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian

Another fantastic read. I loved the movie, which is only marginally related to this book, and considering how highly recommended O'Brian's work is, I couldn't wait to dig into this. I often had no idea what was going on in the action sequences (which, hey, was true of the movie, too), but that wasn't so important. What was important was the life O'Brian breathes into the lost way of life of the sailing brig. I'm not going to write too much about this, because it's been done and done better, but I did enjoy the hell out of this book and intend to continue reading O'Brian.

Book No. 43: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

I've become quite the Murakami fan this year. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka On The Shore were both brilliant, so I was quite looking forward to this novel. Unlike either of the other two novels, which combine dream-logic and Pynchon-like playfulness, this one is more or less a straight coming-of-age novel set in the late 60s. However, it retains Murakami's masterful ability to make both the strange and the ordinary seem equally alien and perfectly familiar through his tap into subconscious portents. When reading his books, I feel like I'm only inches away from reading a very compelling fairytale.

At the start of the story, the protagonist of Norwegian Wood is reminded of his youth by hearing the titular song on an airplane, and the rest of the novel takes place in his past. His best friend has committed suicide a year before, and he has become friendly and perhaps fallen in love with his best friend's girlfriend. After sleeping with him, she puts herself into a rural mental hospital, which he visits periodically. He meets another girl in Tokyo in the meantime, with whom he also falls in love. All of this is wrapped in the glow of youthful self-doubt and white-hot feelings, and all of the characters are perfectly realized. I wouldn't start reading Murakami here, but a nascent fan like me would probably find this swerve into strict realism to be poignant and fulfilling.

Book No. 42: In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Kim Cooper

What a beautiful dream
That could flash on the screen
In a blink of an eye and be gone from me
Soft and sweet
Let me hold it close and keep it here with me

If you're like me, you love Neutral Milk Hotel's In The Aeroplane Over The Sea with a passion that few other albums achieve, and you have been looking forward to the 33 1/3 book for as long as you've known about it. Well, ok, there's probably only 1000 or so people in the country who fall into that category, but MAN, what a great album and what a great book about it.

Kim Cooper (the editrix of Lost In The Grooves, Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, and Scram Magazine) gets to the heart of the story about this album. As NMH fans know, Jeff Mangum produced only one prior NMH album, On Avery Island (released in 1996), which was pretty much created without a band, then brought in a group that became the NMH that we all knew and loved. NMH put out the amazing In The Aeroplane Over The Sea in 1998, went on a short tour to support the album, then more or less disappeared. I remember when they came to Chapel Hill on that tour, but I didn't go see them because I thought I'd have plenty of options to see them again. I was wrong.

Cooper spent some time with Jeff Mangum while researching the book, and it shows, despite his unwillingness to be directly quoted, in her insight into his elusive genius. She also spoke with the other major members and friends of the band, who provided her with the in-stories that show exactly how this band bottled the lightning in 1998. Cooper's depth of research and sympathy for her subject are wonderful to read.

I pitched Richard and Linda Thompson's Shoot Out The Lights to 33 1/3, and I can say with confidence that this is exactly the sort of book I'd attempt to write about that album if the editors give me the go-ahead. Some of the other 33 1/3 books have been too much about the ego of the author; Cooper disappears into her narrative, and her book is infinitely better for it.

Friday, December 09, 2005

I set up a tentative website for the new band at Myspace. There's an old demo there and more to come.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Book No. 41: The Final Solution by Michael Chabon

Another Sherlock Holmes rewrite, Chabon's book is a bit more to my liking than Mitch Cullin's. As in Cullin's book, The Final Solution takes place when Holmes in very old, but this Holmes isn't reflecting on his life; he's engaged in a mystery. The mystery in this case centers around a parrot that spouts numbers in German, the only friend to a young mute Jewish boy who has been rescued to England during WWII. When a lodger in the boy's house turns up dead and the bird vanished, Holmes comes out of retirement to find the bird. The story briefly spends time with a colorful cast of characters (and the story is so short, a novella really, that everything is both brief and perfectly considered) before finally getting around to revealing the actual perpetrator through the perspective of the bird. Little is made of the fact that numbers that the bird spouts are almost definitely either the numbers of the trains carrying Jews to death camps or the numbers tattooed onto murdered Jews. Oh, and Holmes is never identified as such, being simply called "the old man" throughout the book, but his identity is barely a mystery. All in all, an interesting novella. I suspect that it contains metaphorical depths that re-reading would reward, but maybe not.


A fellow in comments to Cullin's book invites viewers to visit his website, in which he inserts himself into the lead role in Doyle's Holmes stories.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Anonymous asks in comments how Robert Clark Young is being disingenuous in his statements on Brad Vice's alleged plagiarism on this web page. Anonymous follows up by pointing out Young's article in the the current NY Press.

To the question of Young's disingenuousness, let me point out that Young compares Vice's use of some of Carmer's words to the institution of slavery and says:

The law states that the cut-off date is 1923. Writers are free to steal the phraseology--even entire texts--of any work published before that date. This is a federal law. True, white Southerners have a long history of ignoring and violating federal law, making up excuses for why it should be "nullified," ranging from the South Carolina Nullification Act to secession to Jim Crow laws to Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door to the illegal placement of the Ten Commandments on state property to Jake Adam York's justification for stealing KKK stories from the dead.

What we need is a literary William Tecumseh Sherman to ride down there with a few thousand good men and make sure you boys play clean. No wonder those folks in Georgia were so quick to rescind Vice's Flannery O'Connor award--they were quick to attempt to squelch this embarrassment before the story hit the Northern press and Yankees felt the righteous need to "come on down heah and interfere"--the traditional fear of white Southerners.

It's too late of course. This story will not limit itself to the Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia papers that have run it. The Chronicle of Higher Education, a Yankee paper, has run the story, and other Yankee papers will follow. I ought to know. I write for Yankee papers and have already contacted The Editors. Vice's volley against the Fort Sumter of Literary Ethics must not go unanswered.
You want to know why I call this guy a nutcase? Please read and re-read the above, which explicitly compares white Southern writers, a list that presumably includes Faulkner, O'Connor, Harry Crews, Larry Brown, Eudora Welty, Madison Smartt Bell, Bob Shacochis, as well as the Barry Hannah he wrongly hatchets in his NY Press article, to pathological racists from the past. The condescension he exhibits in this argument states almost everything I need to know about the guy: he's an unredeemable prick.

Then, in his NY Press article, he reiterates the current charges against Vice (calling for his hanging? what?), claims to have found further evidence of plagiarism, and then bitches about the chumminess of writers associated with the Sewanee Writers' Conference.

Leaving aside the first issue because I've already stated my opinion on it, Young's alleged new evidence of plagiarism is pure bull. Young states that Vice could have rewritten those phrases in his own words, and, well, they are. What's more, this grand evidence is bland to the point that it could appear verbatim in almost any number of books about blowflies.

Finally, regarding the chumminess of the participants at the Sewanee Writers' Conference: well, I'm shocked, shocked, to learn that writers, especially literary writers, most of whom will have to have other jobs since their fiction will not ever pay the bills, may occasionally play the you-scratch-my-back, I-scratch-yours game. That's quite the scoop there. No doubt Mr. Young is above all of this because of his superior Yankee upbringing.

Update with links.

Fred of American Views Abroad offers a more succinct (but more clever) analysis of Mr. Young's article.

Jason Sanford at StorySouth weighs in with a more thorough analysis, including a rather convincing rebuke of Mr. Young's flimsy "new evidence" of plagiarism.

Michelle Richmond's shows the allegations of mutal back-scratching at Sewanee to be as fictive and twisted as the rest of Mr. Young's article.

After reading these other, better-conceived posts, it's obvious to me that Mr. Young is pursuing a personal vendetta against Brad Vice for unclear reasons. And here I thought Armond White was the worst writer at the NY Press!

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