Category Archives: lit

Book Report: Mash Goes To Maine

This is probably the most junk-food book I read in a while. I got it when we went to the AAUW book sale in State College. I actually goofed and meant to get the copy of MASH.

The main thing I wanted to point out was, as someone who grew up watching the preachy 70′s TV show, it was surprising to see how the book version of Hawkeye is pretty racist and sexist. He clings to his small-town Maine outlook, and he doesn’t seem to have much moral agenda beyond being a good doctor and having a good time.

Some parts are pretty good, but overall it was a little forced and it was never really well written. I read it in about 3 hours, and it was fairly entertaining, but I still felt like I could feel some brain cells dying.

Book Report: I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick

So, I actually read I Am Alive and You Are Dead last fall, and I wanted to see what I wrote about it, and I wrote nothing about it, so I’m writing the report now. Did I really write nothing about it? Guess not.

I wanted a biography of Philip K. Dick, because I was curious how much of some of the details of his last three books were biographical. The answer to that question is both more and less than I thought, which is about what I expected. The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is really almost not science fiction at all, it’s really more a portrait of Berkeley and the wacky spiritual quests of its overeducated denizens, which are often painfully transparently motivated by their inability to deal with their personal relationships. I was especially curious to see if the Episcopal bishop (who sort of reminded me of someone who would have been in my sister’s ex-boyfriend’s crowd) was based on a real person, and he was, sort of.

Anyway, it confirmed a lot of what I had guessed. Dick was a dick, especially to his wives. He was really crazy, though at times it seems almost willfully so. Reading it kind of got me over him, which I was also sort of hoping to do. I still want to get around to reading The Man In The High Castle, but it might be a while.

The author only frothed into raving fandom intermittently, but did seem to write the book as an excuse to write little expositions on his favorite novels. I guess that’s not uncommon in biography, but still, I think it was a little annoying.

Mysteries of Pittsburgh movie trepidations

Bookslut points out a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story saying that the Mysteries of Pittsburgh movie might not be shot in Pittsburgh. That’s crazy. Pittsburgh used to be where people shot movies because New York was too expensive. And they just have to get the real Cloud Factory in there. When I read about that place, I knew exactly where it was; it’s a little factory in the ravine behind the Carnegie Library, and I used to park near there on Friday mornings in high school when I had that internship at Pittsburgh Filmmakers (just two years after TMOP was published, though it seemed like such a longer span of time then). I’ve had so many “Pittsburgh moments” within a quarter mile radius of there, I would just be personally wronged if the film Cloud Factory were in British Columbia.

But. What possibly irks me more is that the screenplay apparently munges the characters Cleveland and Arthur. That’s just not right. It’s been a while since I read it, but if I remember correctly, the two really kind of need to be distinct. Cleveland is an unschooled live-fast-die-young Neal Cassidy type. Arthur is a sassy, articulate gay bookstore co-worker of the hero (not really Allen Ginsberg-like, but let’s go with the parllel). The young hero is still figuring himself out and is attracted to both for different reasons, and that’s kind of a major part of the novel.

Oh, and it’s directed by the guy who did Dodgeball. What’s up with that, Mr. Chabon?

Book Report: Persepolis

I’m not sure where to start on this one other than to say go buy it and read it now. (I know I’m probably years behind the curve on this discovery, but nonetheless…) Or see if I’ve taken it back to the library and get it from there.

It’s just perfect in so many ways.

It really plays to the strengths of the graphic novel medium: the drawings are simple black and white drawings, but that just seems to let the nuance and depth of the story and its telling come out.

It not only puts a very personal and human face on what growing up in Iran in the 70′s and 80′s must have been like, but it also was very illuminating on a lot of political and historical points that I didn’t really understand. And the medium again helps out with this: I don’t think I would have gotten as much out of a more prosaic or direct treatment of the subject. The fact that it’s a comic book makes it seem like it’s going down easier, but then it twists and gets all complicated and tragic and funny, all at the same time.

It’s also as good a portrayal of a revolution as I’ve read. I can imagine a great college English course on “literature of the revolution” featuring Persepolis, Doctor Zhivago, A Tale of Two Cities, Marat/Sade, The Master and Margarita, and… others? I feel like I’m definitely missing something from various Central American revolutions. It portrays that process where temporary upheavals become normal and permanent, as one aspect of life after the other is turned on its head.

Anyway, as we’re rapidly approaching a point where something’s going to have to give in the current situation with Iran, I can’t imagine a better time to get a more complicated and realistic perspective of the country as more than a bunch of religious nuts with nuclear aspirations.

Book Report: In Cold Blood

After we went to see Capote a couple of months ago, I was curious to pick up In Cold Blood. Up until then, I had little inclination to read it. The film focused on Truman Capote’s process in writing it, and his actual involvement in the outcome of the events he was writing about (e.g. going so far as to get the killers legal help). So I expected at least a little mention of himself in the book. Not so. There is one mention of “a journalist” who I suspect was actually Capote, and one other mention of “a woman journalist” who I suspect was Harper Lee. And that was it.

So I think the film did do some service in bringing his actual implication to light. But by the same token, I think the film also falls into much the same trap. It portrays everything in it as a simple fact. Not only does it provide no insight into the research it took to make it, it simply treats its own varnished surface as if it was reality, not a reenactment at all. (Because of this, I now sort of want to read Capote, the book upon which the film was based, though I think I may be all caput on Capote for the moment.)

Anyway, such varnish is the substance of In Cold Blood. True, it is clearly the product of painstaking research, done with a great deal of sympathy. In my favorite moments, Capote completely throws himself into minor or passing characters. They’re ordinary people who don’t usually get interviewed or researched, and turn out to be fascinating on examination. But, you never get that they were interviewed or researched. You just get the finished product, perfectly staged so that you never see back into the wings.

I know that’s part of the point; he did call it a non-fiction novel. But it  somehow doesn’t sit quite so well with me. I’ve thought about it since, and I haven’t been able to pinpoint why. On one hand, I have to admit that I can’t imagine it being so compelling if it was straight non-fiction. I’ve tried to read Studs Terkel before, because I was intrigued with the idea of someone just interviewing everyday people and getting their stories down in what feels like their own language. But somehow I never manage to get very far; part of me finds the concept interesting and the execution pretty faultless, yet the finished product fails to hold my interest. On the other hand, I’ve long thought that simple fabrication doesn’t make for compelling fiction. So I’m on board with the idea of making a novel out of real people and real events. But somehow it feels wrong that there is no warning label with that omniscient voice.

Nonetheless, it was a terrific and horrible story, and it’s definitely worth the read. And it’s another case of Truman Capote spurring me on to think heavily about the mystery of the real and the fake.

By the way

I really do love the film of Doctor Zhivago.

I just rag on it every time I mention it because I worship the book, and the film is just a very different thing. It would be better if I could just get past comparing them, or even of thinking of them as the same thing.

Book Report: The Risk Pool

So, I’m very overdue in writing any of the book reports I promised. I’ve been too busy either reading or working on my webbified Exquisite Corpse (yes, that’s back in the works). So I will begin to rectify.

The first book of the year, back at the beginning of January, was Richard Russo’s The Risk Pool. I’ve probably talked a lot about Russo here, but it’s good stuff. This one was worth reading, but there’s not much in it that I hadn’t already encountered in Mohawk, Nobody’s Fool, or to a lesser extent, Empire Falls, whether in setting, plot, character, style, subject matter. I’m not really complaining, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as a starting point, or if you aren’t sure you want to read everything. I’d start with Empire Falls or maybe Straight Man or Nobody’s Fool.

They all take place in some small manufacturing town that’s seen better days; there’s a lot of drinking of cheap beer in local bars; there’s usually a kid or two who have escaped and gone to college and gotten out; there’s some trash-talking; there’s a lot that might come off as melodrama if it weren’t done so well. They’re all also really funny. One of the things I most admire is Russo’s ability to take something that’s almost unbearably well-trodden in literature (say, the later-middle-aged English professor who’s had writer’s block since his first book was published, as in Straight Man) and to somehow make all of it seem fresh, like no one’s ever written about it before. I think it’s a rare but useful feat to not shy away from the obvious yet be totally original. As much as we all love to cling to our uniqueness, the truth of the matter is that most of the things that are really important to us have already been experienced by others, often millions of others. To not examine it, or cherish it, or share it, just because it’s been done before seems like a big mistake to me. And while a lot of writers blather about finding wonderful things in the ordinary, a lot of that kind of writing comes off to me as more pretentious than actual pretense.

Then again, maybe I just like it so much because the milieu Russo writes about is one that’s very familiar to me.