Sunday, May 20, 2018

Book Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

One of the best reviewed (and despised) novels of the past decade, Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch tells the tale of Theo Decker, a young man coming of age in New York City and Las Vegas during the early decades of the 21st Century. Many have compared The Goldfinch to a modern version of a Dickens novel in the tradition of David Copperfield and Great Expectations. Tartt creates vivid characters. Her writing style channels the suspense and excitement of life. Theo's not the most appealing character, more of a modern day Holden Caulfield, but he's a remarkable narrator. Like Homer, the epic story does what only the best books can do - resonate after reading them. The characters are real and their world blends with your own.

The novel begins with 13 year old Theo visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mom (they are very close) on a day he's been suspended from school. An explosion at the museum leaves Theo an orphan, forever separating him from his mom. The loss sets his life on an entirely different trajectory. Theo is taken in by a wealthy New York family, then moves to Las Vegas to live with his estranged father who left months earlier. Once in Vegas he meets Boris, a Russian who will become his best friend, easily the most memorable character in the novel. The son of a Russian miner, Boris seems to have been everywhere and done everything by the age of 15. Together, Theo and Boris have many misadventures often fueled by alcohol. Another tragedy brings Theo back to New York for the second half of the novel.

Back in New York, Theo becomes an antique dealer under the tutelage of Hobie who becomes his mentor and surrogate father. They share a connection to event that started the book. More secrets are revealed as Theo comes of age, mostly surrounding a stolen painting that connects all the characters. The second half loses some momentum as themes of addiction, fate, friendship, and fate vs chance are all explored. Is everything connected? Or is everything random? Or both? The final section moves to Amsterdam and briefly loses focus, but lands on its feet over the last 100 pages.

Great novels illuminate life; opens up new possibilities. Moments, imagery, and characters feel hauntingly real thanks to Tartt's immersive writing style. A novel about art, specifically the question of beauty and whether art makes us better people. Art is a positive force in the life of Theo, his mom, and Hobie, yet all see it differently.  What gives us meaning seems to be the question Tartt's attempting to answer in this 800+ page book.

Tartt's novel created a stir among critics who dismissed it as too popular and not literary enough. One may call it a potboiler, but the themes are heavy and the characters are complex. Even in our period of hyper technology and political instability, aspects of modern life Tartt wisely avoids, although I think it's possible to get a political subtext out of the story.  Human emotion and experience remains the same, questions that occupied Homer, Shakespeare, and Dickens still hover over everything else. Tartt gets this and harnesses the power of the written word in the best way possible. 

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Book Review: Horror Films of the 1980s by John Kenneth Muir

John Kenneth Muir’s exhaustive history of 1980s horror is fascinating trip through the decade that gave us slashers, retro obsessive cinema, and horrifying allegories. Muir views the genre as a response to the social and political climates that shaped them, and horror at its best sheds a light on reality. The real life horrors of the 1980s were manifold: nuclear warfare, the AIDS epidemic and the subsequent sexual panic, out of control consumption, and the oldest fear of all: the monsters within all of us.
Muir often returns to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and “Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid” mantra as the defining characteristic of the 1980s. President Reagan made grand promises and waxed eloquently on the majesty of the American experiment, while at the same decimated the working class through tax cuts and Union busting, presided over the selling of arms for hostages, and talked a tad too freely about nuclear holocaust being God’s Will. Wes Craven’s unforgettable creation Freddy Kruger (played with gusto by Robert Englund) attacked teenagers in their dreams, just as Reagan infiltrated the subconscious of America with bright visions of city’s on the hill. The decade’s aversion to reality manifested itself in a shabby pop culture of MTV stars and fake moralistic/successful people on television (Bill Cosby being a prime example). But horror movies at their best shined a light through the facade of a schizoid culture.
The ironic element is how tame the 1980s look now in comparison to today. I was born in 1979 so those years were my childhood. Memories of He-Man guys, Diff’rent Strokes, The Muppet Show, Return of the Jedi, Hulk-a-Mania, Late Night With David Letterman, foment waves of nostalgia. Hell, even thoughts of Reagan taking the podium conjure images of continuity and dare I say statesmanship. Elitists wrote screeds against the new gilded age culture that grew trashier with each year, yet at the same time there’s self-assurance to the decade that resonates. 
Video stores and video arcades were meccas of pop culture bliss outs, a far different experience from doing an Amazon Prime search. One of the decades best genre films from 1984 Night of the Comet celebrated consumerism and apocalyptic culture with a subtle irony, honesty, and a distinct irreverence that leapfrogged over the rest. Nightmares are always around the corner, but why not try to have a good time anyway?
Reading over the 300+ reviews, there's sense of diminishing returns as the decade unfolds. The early years were riding the wave of the explosive 1970s. The horror genre reached an apogee during the early years of the decade, an indicator of a changing culture. Slashers became the most popular subgenre, one where the tropes became a kabuki play. May autuers emerged, the trend setters of the 1970s like Wes Craven, John Carpenter, and Tobe Hooper continued to raise the standards of the genre. New comers Sam Raimi, Tom Holland, and James Cameron expanded the possibilities of horror. One hit wonders are legion.
Muir applies the closest analysis to even to the most oppressive of clunkers, usually finding some element to praise. Even for the mediocre movies, and most of these are average, John gives you a reason to check them out. Some of these films are widely available and are regularly aired on cable television or are available to stream. But many of them are not. There are many hidden diamonds in this book that deserve a wider audience: Obscurities such as Alone in the Dark, Q: The Winged Serpent, The Stuff, The Entity, and many others. 
Horror fans will have much to savor with these volumes. For those looking for an iconoclastic look at the 1980s without the tired genre of Reagan hagiography, Horror Films of the 1980s will illuminate how movies are not only entertaining and an invaluable source of escapism, but an educational journey into the subconscious

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Book Review: Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michel Wolff

Media hype aside, Fire and Fury is a compulsive read of the early days of the Trump White House. For most of 2017 Wolff had "fly on the wall" access to daily goings on of one of the most disorganized, mostly incompetent administrations in American history. Limitations of the book aside, it's uneven and repetitive, what emerges is a study in power that's illuminating, comical, and disturbing.

At its best, Fire and Fury provides a vivid portrait of Trump and the people around him. Steve Bannon, former chief strategist, is the Iago like protagonist. Others include Trump's Son-In-Law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka, usually referred to as Jarvanka. Other figures come and go, but the book is framed as a sort of Shakespearean tragedy with elements of King Lear, Othello, Julius Caesar. But only a writer with a true sense of the absurd will be able to make sense of this West Wing.

The book begins with a meeting between disgraced Fox News creator Roger Ailes and Bannon after Trump's improbable electoral victory over Hillary Clinton. Ailes expressed concern over the rumblings about Trump's Russia connections, which Bannon dismissed outright. Bannon ranted about China being the longer term threat, offering his usual reply when confronted about the peccadilloes of his man, "Trump is Trump."

The story of the first year of the Trump administration, according to Wolff, was the power struggle between Bannon and Jarvanka. Trump enjoys the infighting, the Darwinian struggle to win his favor, even tolerating Bannon's frequent vulgar language towards his Ivanka, telling her "it's a tough town." To note, some Presidents have taken such an approach, Nixon and FDR among them.

Bannon's backstory is one of disappointments - and resentment against the establishment. A working class Catholic, he overachieved as a student and was a naval officer in the 1970s, mid-level Goldman Sachs banker, and a frustrated screenwriter. A voracious reader of history, Bannon fancies himself a master historian who speaks in grandiose terms. He found a niche at Breitbart, a right wing media outlet, that views itself as the vanguard of the alt-right. Bannon's own ideas come across as incoherent, viewing globalization as a vast conspiracy to destroy Judeo-Christian civilization. Many on the left are also critical of globalization, but Bannon and his co-horts at Breitbart like to dabble with racist ideas under the guise of being politically incorrect. Bannon and his allies glean most of their pleasure by driving liberals up the wall. 

Bannon came into the Trump campaign at its lowest point in August 2016 and advised him to focus on Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and Florida as the pathway to victory. During "Billy Bush weekend", a point when even Trump's closest allies were suggesting he end his candidacy, Bannon called for a scorched earth strategy, to double down and fight fire with fire. Trump's victory gave Bannon an almost mystical aura within the media. Yet, when given a position of power, Bannon proved to be a lackluster Machiavellian. All bluster. 

Jarvanka are the moderate influences on Trump, Kushner is viewed as an Establishment Republican, the last remnant of the liberal Rockefeller wing. Kushner often takes advice from Henry Kissinger (now 94) as his foreign policy protege. Wolff describes Kushner of taking Zen approach towards his boss/father-in-law, the key is getting to him at just the right time since Trump usually adopts the views of the last person he talked to. Needless to say, Jarvanka come off as out of their depth. They were behind the firing of FBI Director James Comey last May, an almost fatal mistake that led to the special counsel of Robert Mueller (Trump thought the media would love the dismissal of Comey).

As for Trump himself, I think he's got ADD. Wolff reports him getting always bored during briefings, talk of history and foreign policy bores him, especially power point presentations. He'll just get up and leave a meeting when he gets bored. Much of his time is consumed with watching TV and tracking what the media says about him, often driving his Twitter feed. Like Nixon, he feels the whole world is against him. He's described as an "old fashioned misogynist", who prefers working with women (he believes men are scheming and dishonest by nature). Working with him makes everyone depressed and crazy. 

Past presidents including Obama, Bush 41 and 43, and Clinton took the job seriously and appreciated the history behind it. Trump sees the Presidency as something to endure, he only cares about the prestige that comes with it. Wolff describes election night as an existential shock to the Trump's camp, most in his circle were planning for lucrative media careers. Trump envisioned a TV network to rival the power of Fox News. Long story short; everyone associated with the man is miserable.

Nothing in the book should be shocking to anyone who follows the news up close. Whether Trump will survive the term is anyone's guess. Vice President Mike Pence keeps a safe distance from the Trump camp, possibly prepping for his big moment. While most traditional Republicans pay lip service to him, deep down, they know they deserve better. Where will all this end up? All one can do is throw up one's hands and hope for the best - and vote!

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Book Review: Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life by Scott M. Marshall

In a groundbreaking new book, author Scott M. Marshall examines the spiritual journey of Bob Dylan. Many remain perplexed at his so-called "Christian" period from 1979-81 when he released albums (Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980), and Shot of Love (1981) with a strong Christian message, and turned his live performances into revival meetings. Dylan stopped playing all of his old material from the 1960s and only played gospel music. 

His fan base divided into factions, it's an often told tale. There's surreal footage of Dylan preaching to angry crowds about Judgment Day. After a few years of proselytizing, Dylan went back to being a more conventional rock star, touring with the likes of Tom Petty and The Grateful Dead. Yet as the book explains, spirituality has always been at the forefront of Dylan's songwriting. 

At first, I was somewhat skeptical if any book could explain Dylan's spirituality. After all, without access to the source himself, what can one really conclude? Instead Marshall relies on Dylan's own words the over 200 interviews he's granted during his career. Marshall also spoke to many who knew Dylan during his born again period. It's clear Dylan was serious about his new faith and the whole thing was not a publicity stunt (as many believed). What we get is not a definitive portrait, but a thought provoking one that adds depth to understanding Dylan's spirituality. 

When Dylan released Slow Train Coming in 1979 the songs "Gotta Serve Somebody," "When You Gonna Wake Up," and "Precious Angel" implored listeners to accept Christ as the only path to salvation. The follow up album Saved offered more soulful gospel with "In The Garden" and "Saving Grace." CBS records despised the Saved album and pleaded with Dylan to make a make a more commercial friendly record, the result being the underrated Shot of Love with one of Dylan's most beautiful spiritual ballads "Every Grain of Sand." A few years later Infidels followed, a moody album full of references to the Torah, prompting many to wonder if Dylan had returned to Judaism. 

A key theme in the book is how people perceive Dylan's spirituality, his Christian and Jewish fans seem to be in a competition as to which religion Dylan prefers. Prominent Christians such as Jimmy Carter and Billy Graham were elated that a rock and roll icon had embraced Christianity. Dylan's Jewish fans were taken aback, baffled at why Dylan would turn to born again Christianity for answers. 

At the same time, Dylan still frequently visited synagogues and appeared on the Chabad telethon three times during the 1980s. In 1983 he visited Jerusalem for the Bar Mitzvah of his son. On the Infidels album released that same year his song "Neighborhood Bully" was unabashedly pro-Israel, endorsing a hawkish foreign policy towards the Arab states.

Dylan's always been a fierce individualist. No group can claim Dylan as their own, a recurring motif in his career, going back to his going electric in the mid 1960s. He's obviously taken much from Jewish and Christian traditions, his admiration for Christ is sincere. His devotion to the traditions of Judaism are also evident in his words and deeds. Some conclude that Dylan has attempted to synthesize the two traditions.

Another strength of the book is Marshall's close attention to Dylan's live set lists, which seem to be a conversation between himself, fans, and detractors. His Christian songs have never left his live repertoire and in the late 1990s he would often perform traditional hymns. In his final concert of the 20th Century, he played the old spiritual "This World Can't Stand Long" as a parting message to the old millennium. 

In 2009 Dylan released Christmas in the Heart, a holiday record that blended traditional favorites along with songs celebrating the birth of Christ, Dylan told an interviewer he was a "true believer" in Christ. His 21st Century work is replete with spiritual longing and musings on a world that appears more broken everyday, the Old Testament and New Testament are in never ending conversation. 

Reading Bob Dylan: A Spiritual Life one will come away with knowledge of Dylan as one of the most unlikely theologians in an age that relegates theology to irrelevancy. Marshall contributes a new perspective to Dylan's wide ranging catalog and complex relationship with fans and critics.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Book Review: The Cinema of Generation X: A Critical Study by Peter Hanson

Published in 2002, The Cinema of Generation X by Peter Hanson, is an early study of the youthful voices who defined American movies in the 1990s. Each chapter analyzes various themes in Gen X cinema and the creators behind them. Hanson uses the arbitrary dates of 1961-1971 as the birth range. They came of age as the open wounds of Vietnam and political upheaval loomed over the culture, in addition to an increasing divorce rate, the AIDS crisis, and across the board cultural malaise. 

If one could not find solace in family or institutions, the only remaining refuge was pop culture. Hence the pop culture obsessed characters that populate so many of these movies. The two convenience store employees in Clerks (1994) debate obscure plot points in Star Wars, while violent mobsters in Reservoir Dogs deconstruct Madonna's song lyrics, and the college grads in Reality Bites (1994) cannot stop talking about 1970s sitcoms.  

Ironic. Slackers. Spaced Out. Ennui. Those are all words used to define Gen X and ideas the movies are obsessed with. As the children of flower power and Ronald Reagan ethics, two competing influences in 1990s America, they looked at the world with weariness and cynicism. Slackers saw the moral bankruptcy of both world views:

Slackers do . . . perceive an antagonistic force in their lives , albeit an amorphous one; some Gen Xers carry the activism torch passed to them by the previous generation; and postmodern style . . . is not for style's sake, but rather a spirited, if not always prudent, attempt to seek new means of conveying thematic material (17).

Steven Soderbergh gets credited with first Gen X film; sex, lies and videotape came out in 1989, its themes of sexual dysfunction, video technology, and fractured relationships, would all become preoccupations of the decade. Quentin Tarantino delighted in twisting traditional narrative in his first two films Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994). Paul Thomas Anderson made the captivating three hour film Magnolia (1999) that follows disparate misfits trapped in self imposed misery. Kevin Smith's quartet of films in the 1990s: Clerks (1994), Mall Rats (1995), Chasing Amy (1997), and Dogma (1999) are perhaps the best primer for Gex X cinema.

These movies took a personal approach to politics. Despite the generational confusion, their films embraced new ideas about sexuality, while at the same time looked at the ominous side of the sexual revolution. Male filmmakers still dominated the discourse, although Hanson does cover the early work of Sofia Coppola and Kimberly Pierce. White filmmakers tended to avoid racial issues entirely, a task left to the African-American directors Spike Lee and John Singleton.

Politics also extended to the workplace, or lack of opportunities awaiting the new generation. Reality Bites followed an aimless group of privileged college graduates troubled about whether going corporate would make them sell outs. Mike Judge's Office Space was a hilarious take on white collar ennui. 

There's also a fascination with violence. Tarantino dared audiences to revel in the violent criminal worlds of his imagination. Not a surprise, since the criminal life looked more appealing than the "McJobs" that were available. David Fincher's Se7en (1995) and Fight Club (1999) were bleak tales that toyed with Nihilism. The Wachowski siblings blew up the Sci-Fi genre with The Matrix, a visionary statement that struck a cultural nerve.

The year 1999 marked the high point of Gen X cinema: Office Space, Dogma, Boys Don't Cry, The Matrix, Fight Club, Magnolia, The Blair Witch Project, The Sixth Sense, American Beauty, Three Kings, Girl, Interrupted, and The Limey are all modern classics. As Hanson points out, the low budget Blair Witch Project, a found footage about 20 somethings lost in the woods, was the perfect metaphor for Gen X. 

Hanson's study is well written and engaging. An early attempt to understand 1990s cinema, the energy from these movies still pops off the page. And many of these directors are still working and producing great work! 

Hanson, Peter. The Cinema of Generation X: A Critical Study. Jefferson: McFarland, 2002. Print.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Book Review: Grown Up Anger: The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Calumet Massacre of 1913 by Daniel Wolff

In a stirring work of history, Daniel Wolff connects various flash points from the past, tracing the roots of righteous anger in America. On Christmas Eve 1913, 73 miners and their children perished in Calumet, Michigan after a false fire alarm either orchestrated by the mining company or their henchmen. A panic ensued and people trampled over each other for safety.  The fire exit door was locked.  Woody Guthrie wrote a song in entitled "1913 Massacre" that retold the tragic events, the final verse ending with "See what your greed for money has done.

In 2013 there were no remembrances for the lives lost, no specials on a major TV network that would remind Americans to reflect on labor struggles. As Wolff emphasizes, that doesn't mean it never happened. There's an anger, you just have to search for it. For the book draws a straight line from Calumet - Guthrie's song - and Dylan's recording of "Like A Rolling Stone" in 1965.

In the first chapter, Wolff writes that revolution suggested in "Like A Rolling Stone" never materialized: 

Like this new century was born from a struggle it barely knows about. As if forces have long been working underground, and we walk the landscape they've produced like innocents, unaware. (18)

Grown Up Anger tells three parallel stories: the historical roots of the Calumet Massacre, Woody Guthrie's political awakening, and how it all connects to Dylan. It's bigger than that even; it's the history of the 20th century and its epic tragedies. The 21st Century, as Wolff points out, has witnessed strides in terms of group rights, yet the wealth gap has skyrocketed. Union membership is at its lowest level since 1913. Even Michigan, a state put its fate in the hands of Trump, was at one time was the heart and soul of American labor, passed Right-To-Work laws. Wages are falling for everyone, except the top 5%.

The parallel journeys of Guthrie and Dylan are instructive, in their own ways tales of exuberance followed by cynicism and the echo of hope. On "Like a Rolling Stone" Dylan's anger seems to grow with each verse, but resolves itself with the promise of starting over and living to fight another day.

Wolff's cinematic approach to history is written with journalistic precision. Perhaps the approach warranted a more experimental writing style; maybe would've made for a cooler book. But now is not the time for abstractions; the time cries for truth and clarity. On that note, I would highly recommend Grown Up Anger.

Wolff, Daniel. Grown Up Anger: The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Calumet Massacre of 1913. New York: Harper Collins, 2017. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Book Review: A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison by Nat Segaloff

If there were a Godfather of modern popular culture, Harlan Ellison would be the guy. Mr. Ellison published his first story as a teenager and never looked back. A cult hero since the 1960s, he seems to have been everywhere and met everybody.  Biographer Nat Segaloff was given unprecedented access to Ellison's archives and granted several interviews with his subject. A Lit Fuse works as a reliable introduction for those new to Harlan Elison, while providing a complete picture for those familiar with his work.

In all honesty, Ellison's been his own biographer for decades, sharing details of his life in his writings and speaking engagements.  Reportedly, Ellison spent several years on a memoir entitled Working Without a Net, but recent health problems compelled him to pass the project on to his friend Segaloff. Many stories recounted in the book are reprints of interviews Ellison's provided over the years; the book puts them all into a cohesive narrative.

So, who is Harlan Ellison? He's written in all genres of fiction including TV and film, comic books and graphic novels, and media criticism. In addition Harlan's a voice actor, lecturer, comics collector, and one of the last great raconteurs. As a public personality he's been called the most contentious man on the planet; fearless in his confrontations with anyone, anywhere. Ellison can be a loyal friend or bitter enemy (he revels in getting revenge towards those who wronged him). He gained a reputation for being litigious, but won most of his cases (most famous case being the 1984 film The Terminator).  

Segaloff recounts Ellison's chaotic boyhood in Painesville, Ohio, a place he came to despise for its backward ways. He was bullied repeatedly for being Jewish and fought back just as hard. His childhood tormentors have often appeared in his stories, same names and all. He ran away many times, driving his parents up the wall.  After getting expelled from Ohio State (Harlan punched out a professor who told him he would never make it as a writer) he established himself in the pulp magazines, served in the army for a few years, and continued writing at a rapid pace. Then he moved to Los Angeles and broke into the television industry.

Ellison's had a tumultuous relationship with television, forever denouncing producers who changed his scripts.  The most infamous case is the Star Trek episode "City on the Edge of Forever." Despite winning the WGA (Writers Guild of America) award for the script he remained angry over the changes made to his original vision. In 1970, he wrote The Glass Teat, a groundbreaking book on how television failed the public on every level. Ellison worked on the 1980s reboot of The Twilight Zone series, but walked off when CBS refused to film one of his scripts (a satire on Christmas and consumerism).

The author of over 1500 short stories, many of which are considered classics of the form. Just a few memorable titles are "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" "I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream and "Jetty is Five" are all staples of modern fiction. Ellison's mostly written short stories, a form he believes is superior to the novel (also admits he lacks the focus to write a long book). 

Despite Ellison's abrasive personality he's fostered many friendships over the years: karate training with Bruce Lee, motorcycling with Steve McQueen, and a moving friendship with the late Robin Williams. His encounters with Frank Sinatra, L. Ron Hubbard, and irate fans are all legendary. As a teacher he championed young writers by running work shops, serving as a mentor to many.  Always the activist, he marched with Martin Luther King at Selma (wrote a compelling account) and delivered hundreds of speeches to support the Equal Rights Amendment (Governor Reagan put Ellison on a watch list and had his phone tapped). 

Ellison's crowning achievement remains his editing and supervision of the speculative fiction anthology Dangerous Visions in 1967, one of the Rosetta Stones of modern genre fiction. I was hoping the book would shed light on his collaboration with Thomas Pynchon, no dice.

Segaloff divided the book into thematic chapters, avoiding the awkwardness of a straight line narrative. Details are learned about Ellison's personal life: his five marriages, acrimonious relationship with his family, and the residual pain from his childhood. 

In 2014, a massive stroke sidelined Ellison. It was sad to read about how his health problems in recent years have prevented him from writing.

Ellison often agonizes if his work will endure after he's gone. I think it will. Few of his writings have been adapted into film so the possibilities are endless.  Segaloff makes a strong case for Ellison's legacy; admiring, but never worshipful.

(Many of Ellison's interviews are available on youtube. Begin with his interviews with Tom Snyder)