2.25.2011

Arthur Rimbaud by Enid Starkie




Read this kick ass literary biography back in college soon after I'd "discovered" the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud.  Rimbaud was a huge influence on Jim Morrison and, being such a faux-poet-Jim-Morrison-wannabe at the time, I was curious to find out why Morrison was so driven to emulate Rimbaud, both artistically and self-destructively.  Once I'd read and re-read and unintentionally memorized passages galore of Illuminations, I moved on to A Season in Hell and The Drunken Boat, the New Directions edition, and completely forgot about Jim Morrison.

Lines from A Season in Hell like "Misfortune was my God" or "I played sly tricks on madness" knocked my impressionable nineteen year-old self out!  And I don't think I've ever completely come to since.  Thank you, Arthur Rimbaud, for mesmerizing me (and millions others of your French Symbolist adherents) with your radically original visions, and for letting us glimpse inside your divine "notebook from one of the damned".

Enid Starkie, Rimbaud academician extraordinaire, must be paid homage as well for having crafted Arthur Rimbaud, a masterfully written, researched, and scholarly (though never snooty) examination of one of World Literature's most tortured enigmas. Rimbaud's life-story makes Sylvia Plath's seem a happy and serene one by comparison.  How could such a precociously gifted prose poet (and at times, wildly acerbic and satiric personal correspondent to boot) have completely rejected his literary genius barely turned twenty-one, and ultimately end up as an alleged slave trader dead from the untreated effects of syphilis less than twenty years later?  Enid Starkie's comprehensive analysis offers all the known clues — and more.  I didn't know, for instance, prior to reading Starkie's biography that without Rimbaud's poetry — and particularly the reality shifting ethereal poems in Illuminations — that what became the school of surrealism in art, soon to flourish in France and then the world, would have been denied perhaps its greatest influence.

Arthur Rimbaud is a fascinating read, and includes numerous passages involving Paul Verlaine, and their sordid, on-again-off-again affair.  Rimbaud's affair with absinthe and opium is well chronicled too.  Starkie pulled no punches while retaining obvious compassion for Rimbaud's sad plight.  It's like she was urging him on sometimes, was the vague sense I got, as she brought him to vivid life in her fine writing.  Arthur Rimbaud remains a lovely, unflinching, essential biography of Rimbaud the boy, the adolescent poet, the man.

2.20.2011

Yiddish with George and Laura by Ellis Weiner




This shark-tooth-sharp-meat-cleaver of a political satire, Yiddish with George and Laura, depicts George and Laura as if they were Dick and Jane.  A decidedly Yiddish Dick and Jane.  And by Dick I'm not talking Cheney; rather, the monosyllabic, pithy Dick, of the picture-book Dick and Jane fame, an educational classic as once beloved among wholesome, 1950s-era American kindergartners just learning to read, as Elmo is now amongst today's Sesame Streetwise kindergartners aspiring to read.

"See George.  He ... is a big shmegegge."

Yiddish with George and Laura comes replete with an abridged, very selective, Yiddish dictionary of terms in the index, so that children can also learn what certain Yiddish words mean in their respective George and Laura political and I.Q. contexts, and thereby be better equipped to engage the schmucks (and both their literal and political offspring) should they inevitably encounter the nefarious epes a nudwik out there in the real world.

The Yiddish dictionary also provides the proper saliva-spraying pronunciations for each Yiddish entry.  Kleenex, however, are sold separately.

Yiddish words like farshlugginer, finagler, farbissenah and farklent are some of my personal favorites, especially when they're used lampooningly in a George and Laura (and even Jeb!) context.  How awesome is it that with this book, you can finally teach your precious children how to drop "F" bombs on George and Laura all day -- in Yiddish! -- and it's okay!  Because Yiddish "F" bombs don't have the same shameful, societal stigmatized, pejorative connotations that English "F" bombs do -- and, in fact, are actually considered appropriate exclamatory declarations often heard in synagogues throughout the world!  Yiddish "F" words!  What good clean fun for the whole family!

My family values Yiddish with George and Laura immeasurably.  We think it's genius.  I hope your family will discover its skewering political commentary of that bastardized and beyond-abusive and non-law abiding Bush League Presidential Administration very soon too!

2.19.2011

First Love and Other Sorrows (Including a Sorrow of Mine) by Harold Brodkey




In Harold Brodkey's short story, "The State of Grace," that opens his exceptional debut collection from 1958, First Love and Other Sorrows, Brodkey, autobiographically speaking through his thirteen-year-old protagonist, recollects babysitting a seven year old boy.  The boy was lonely, but unaware of his loneliness, as children that age can't help but be, and he'd light up each time Brodkey arrived at his house to keep an eye on him.  Brodkey sensed the boy's subtle unhappiness over time, but being so unhappy himself, would not reciprocate the boy's adoration.  Oh, he'd play with the boy -- perfunctorily -- keep him entertained and looked-after properly while his parents dined out and saw a movie or a play, but he would not give the boy what he knew the boy wanted from him -- his love. Brodkey, now the adult, as the story concludes, and he looks back, wonders why it was so hard for him -- as that thirteen year old babysitter -- to give the boy what he needed, when it was obvious to everyone in the neighborhood that the kid just needed a big brother to love and guide him since his own father was so distant, practically no more materialized as a real presence in the boy's life than a ghost's.  Just like Brodkey's Papa -- a phantom father.  All the kid needed was some affirmation and acceptance, Brodkey!  Couldn't you at least have given the boy that?

And Brodkey lamented that he couldn't (or wouldn't) give the boy what he needed; not because he didn't have anything to give, but because he resented his own parents not giving him the same thing he sensed the boy needing from him -- nurturing, esteem  --and perhaps felt a false sense of empowerment in similarly denying the boy as likewise Brodkey's parents denied him, withholding from that deprived seven-year-old those primal and vital emotional needs.

Looking back further, Brodkey regrets his mistake of needlessly withholding warmth and praise from the boy, berating himself for the sins of his youth, wishing, dreaming that he could go back in time and love the boy like the big brother that boy so desperately needed, exhorting his younger self to make that connection somehow, even though time had long since crushed the possibility of connection, and left instead in its inexorable wake, regret, loss, and self-loathing, over the wasted opportunity.

It's a painful conclusion to a powerful story, dramatizing how the past, no matter how well remembered (and my does Brodkey remember!), can never be recaptured (my apologies, Proust) at least in terms of removing its stained accumulation of regrets, or recaptured to induce some magical reenactment of a different, wished-for outcome, no matter how earnestly one yearns or imagines themselves vociferously instructing their younger, long-disappeared, unreachable self.

Poignant evocation of regret and loss, Brodkey!  Bravo, Sir!  Perhaps too evocative?

When I was in middle school, there was this girl.  In retrospect, she obviously liked me. At the time, though, being so gangly and awkward and nervous around anybody and not just the opposite sex -- so insecure and uncomfortable in my own skin and lonely and mostly friendless because of it  -- I didn't know, having never experienced a girl's attention before, how to react to it.  To what were friendly advances accented maybe with that mysterious feminine vibe of attraction (a glance, a touch of her hair, a certain smile of hers) that I instinctively intuited meant more than her just being friendly, especially considering her persistence, poor girl, day after day and week after week in the classroom and junior high hallways, approaching me with that irrepressible "vibe".  That "vibe" that rattled and alarmed me and, frankly, scared the shit out of me.  I was afraid of the girl and embarrassed by her attentiveness, made overly-anxious and self conscious by it, stupid hypersensitive boy that I was.  And lacking the internal tools to appropriately reciprocate her advances, and meanwhile realizing that I lacked the know-how to respond to her anyway, and that she held such power in exposing my opposite-sex ineptitude just by approaching me, I began to secretly loathe her.  Just as Brodkey began resenting the boy for his unspoken needs.

My solution to this girl who would not go away?:  Avoid her.  Ignore her.  Shun her.  But not overtly; I couldn't be that rude.  I mean avoid her by looking right through her, never directly at her even though our eyes sometimes met.  I could keep her distanced and disengaged this way, no matter how relentless she became.   Went on all school year like that.  The more I resisted, the more she persisted.  At least persisted up to a point; her point being the last day of class.  Kids performing the yearly June ritual passing around their school annuals for signing and sentimentalized memorials of "good lucks," "goodbyes" and "friends forever".

The girl took my annual.  I took hers.  I did my (by then) rote don't-engage-her routine one last time.  There was nothing grandiose or sentimental in what she handed back to me, her last words in my yearbook annual:  "I just wish we could've become friends".

Killed me.  How it hurt, her honest words.  And why shouldn't it have hurt?  Wasn't I in dire need of some friends?  Wasn't I lonely?  Hadn't she been generously, beyond-patient with me, offering me a balm to loneliness and outsider'd-ness -- her friendship and maybe more -- all damn yearlong?  Would it have been so exceedingly difficult for me to have just woken up -- "wake up, Freeque!" as Harold Brodkey exhorted his immature thirteen-year-old self to do regarding the boy he babysat -- and to (damn it!) befriend the poor girl, merely accept what she was offering?  It's what she needed from me.  It's what the neglected boy Brodkey babysat needed from him.  It's what Brodkey himself needed and I needed too, and what none of us got.

Beware all who approach the First Love and Other Sorrows of Harold Brodkey's, lest his writing resurrect memories and regrets you'd might rather have remained dead.

Bookforum's Reassessment of Harold Brodkey's Literary Stature 

2.15.2011

The Magus by John Fowles




Not bad for a first novel, The Magus.  Might even daresay one of the best first novels penned during the latter half of the 20th century.  And before some unsolicited nitpicker rudely points out to me as some rude unsolicited nitpickers have been prone to do with me in the past, saying something like, "Whoa, Dude, hold on there just a cotton-pickin' stinkin' minute, The Magus was John Fowles' second novel  -- The Collector was his first;" well, let me hereby acknowledge and hopefully thwart your correction by stating that I'm already aware that The Collector was Fowles' first published novel -- and do note the emphasis I just placed on "published" -- but The Magus was actually the first novel he wrote, prior to writing The Collector.  Clear now?  Capiche?

The Magus has been wrongly criticized as being misogynistic (what hogwash!), a novel only a certain type of machismo'd-to-the-max male reader could truly enjoy and appreciate, blah blah blah ...

Never mind that nearly every female character in the book Fowles endowed with protean feminist charac- teristics.  These are magnificently amoral Super- Women, IronWilled- Women.  Think Mary Wollstone- craft, Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem, Susan Sontag.  Think.

Has, in The Magus, a more sexually liberated cast of women characters ever been so bluntly depicted in literary fiction in the last fifty years?  Fear of Flying doesn't even get off the ground by comparison!

Keep in mind, though, if one is looking strictly for titillation, that The Magus is not erotica per se, not even the so-called "revised version" with the slap-in-the-face ending and added sex scenes (it's not even soft porn, for that matter -- dang!) and if you're that young adult male yearning for some good literary porn a la the Marquis de Sade or Anaïs Nin, you certainly won't find it here in The Magus; all you'll probably experience reading Fowles' book, if I may speak from personal experience (and pardon the questionable t.m.i.), is only partial tumescence during the tame sex scenes.

But just like the feminist movement was never really about sex anyway, rather power and empowerment and equality, it's not the sex per se that so titillates in The Magus, but the woman's utilitarian attitudes toward sex and their sex and gender roles that elicits such a rise out of its male readership.  Some males read The Magus for the same reasons they appreciate the artistry and craft of a dominatrix.  No kidding.

The sex in The Magus is never sex for intimacy, recreation, or procreation; it's sex as moving a chess piece in a dangerous game of submission these women are determined to win (with no emotion or morality attached) and win indeed they do.

"Check mate me, Mister," they might as well declare in unison, merciless in their collective victories of female domination.  Misogynist, The Magus?  Puh-lease.  If there's a word for "misogyny-committed-against-men-by-women," in the OED, then The Magus might serve as a good working definition of the term, in novel form.

Ah, The Magus, how do I love thee?  A novel that's like an ultra-reality-sex-game akin to the Big Bad Sister of TVs The BachelloretteThe Magus, in other words, is sex turned completely upside down with the women using and abusing and manipulating and despoiling the confounded men and, the men, or, latest man, I should say -- the poor pathetic and naive Nicholas Urfe, so easily lured like so many before him in this lush fantasy world of the mysterious (and mystic) Mr. Conchis' making -- who's been duped into playing the weird Dungeons and Dragons-like role-playing competition at a secluded mansion on an isolated Greek isle, ignorant that he's been had!  Far out is right!  Frank Herbert envisioned similar women as Fowles' a year earlier (1965) in Dune, calling them "female superiors" -- the progeny of his infamous "Bene Gesserit" witches.

If the criticism levied at The Magus is that its women are mostly pleasure seeking, covertly-operating-toward-their-own-ends-"immoral"- nymphs -- haughty hedonists at heart -- perhaps every man's fantasy -- then maybe the criticism should be aimed in a more masculine direction since the women, after all, are only acting clandestinely like your typical philandering man would, out on the prowl.

Therefore The Magus, I believe, is not so much misogynistic as it is an indictment against misogyny; using sex role-reversals to make an outstanding, and unfortunately easily misconstrued, statement for woman's equality.

Sexuality aside, The Magus' impressive imagery -- a labyrinthine metaphysical mystery world walled with Greek Myths, psychopathology, in surrealistic renderings, invokes in this reader both abiding dread and delight.  It is a Dark Odyssey, recounting the journey of an immature man-boy (a Minotaur in the making?) who has set off for adventure from England to a distant teaching position in Greece, only to arrive and soon discover that he's the one being taught a lesson or two (but a lesson taught by whom and regarding exactly what?), as he's drawn and ever drawn, increasingly, by degrees, toward obeying the will of some alluring, yet sinister, spell, to the other end of the island and Mr. Conchis' remote mansion -- its interior seemingly decorated by its occupant's deepest dreams and insecurities taking material form in mesmeric manifestations -- where self-discovery and manhood (or maybe madness) awaits.

2.13.2011

The Secret Teachings of All Ages by Manly P. Hall



I'm still slowly reading through The Secret Teachings of All Ages, about halfway through this gargantuan compendium of all things arcane in the disciplines of religious mythology and mystical religions, with their always intriguing ancient rites, symbols, and of course, "secret teachings".  The book, I'm discovering, is really more of a reference work than a book to pick up and read from start to finish, though finish it I happily will.

The lengthy introduction provides abstracts of just about every philosophic movement in history, and serves as an excellent refresher course for students of philosophy.  Someday I'd like to itemize the founders and features of each philosophy with maybe an abstract of my own, for later reference, just for fun.

I can't say I believe much of what I'm reading in this book, however, at least regarding the history and veracity of the ancient gnostic's vast (and complexly convoluted) underworld network of behind-the-scenes movers and shakers in world politics, religion, and thought.

The core conception of The Secret Teachings of All Ages --  that an "Elect" few denizens of ancient secret societies have existed from time immemorial, and are still operating today, covertly shaping and re-shaping and preserving in the process, through the eons, the world's major movements (and advances) in mathematics, the sciences, philosophies, and religions -- I find dubious at best.  Too conspiratorial for my taste, like The Da Vinci Code.  Guess I'm just a Doubting Tomás.

Nevertheless, as a fan of good books like Foucault's Pendulum -- that contain their own unique compendium of secret societies -- I'm inevitably fascinated by and attracted toward what Manly P. Hall has termed "The Mysteries" that are veiled within the symbolism and creeds and esoterica of secret societies.

Manly P. Hall authored somehow, what in less skilled hands might have become a tedious and too-recondite reference work, a remarkably readable tome.  In fact, The Secret Teachings of All Ages is not just plain readable, but pretty darned unputdownable.

2.12.2011

Bad Poem of Homage (Dis?)Honoring In Search of Lost Time



How does one "review" Marcel Proust?
Does one "review" the Parthenon or the Pyramids? --
the Taj Mahal?
What about the Grand Canyon, Great Wall of China,
or Niagara Falls?
Can one credibly critique an Albert Einstein, Beethoven,
or Vincent Van Gogh?
The answer, of course --
no

No, that is, unless your name's Medellia.


[Read her piece on Proust, coming soon to a LibraryThing near you]

2.11.2011

Wonderland Avenue: Tales of Glamour and Excess by Danny Sugerman



I read this as a young man during a short-lived, coming-of-age, drug experimenting, collegiate-Doors phase in my life, and found this rock and roll biography of lust and loss to be quite the scintillating page turner -- even juicier, I'd say, than freshly squeezed navel oranges.  Next to No One Here Gets Out Alive, also co-authored by Danny Sugerman, I can't think of a better insider's glimpse into the sordidness orbiting Jim Morrision and his psychedelic entourage in the late sixties and early seventies.  Danny Sugerman was there, allowed inside the inner Door's circle, and recorded some of the funniest, sublimest moments in rock history -- and also some of its saddest.

Sugerman's autobiographical tale of teenage success (and excess) moves beyond Morrison's mythical death in Paris and follows the sad fate of his widowed long-time girlfriend, Pamela Courson, as well, into the mid-70s, all the way to her similar (but far more bitter), drug ridden demise.  Sugerman was an excellent writer for one so young, and unblinking reporter unafraid to tell the truth even though the truth might cost him, given an opportunity most young would-be writers could never dream of -- becoming friends with a rock star and his band.  Unfortunately for Sugerman, along with so much access to his rock idols, came the easy access to what ruined and often killed so many of his idols -- the drugs -- and the drugs, of course, had turned Sugerman into a heroin addict by the time most young adults his age are graduating college.  Of course, on the flip side, most young adults just graduating from college can't say that they managed the Doors, either, as Sugerman could.  Would you rather have at that age, an entry level position in a cubicle at some dumb company, or be the Doors manager and a heroin addict?  Pick your poison.  I'd of probably picked the latter, had I the opportunity.

Following Morrison's death, the Door's decided to make a go of it as a band sans their Lizard King, and, as aforementioned, hired Sugerman to point them in the right directions, which he more or less did quite well, but, let's face it, the Doors without Jim Morrison? ... just not the Doors without him.  Regardless, they released two albums -- Other Voices and Full Circle -- the former barely breaking Billboard's top-40 album charts, and the latter an even larger commercial flop, before officially disbanding in 1973.  Which was like a second death of the band for Sugerman, a second loss, and sent him into a despairing self-destructive binge-spiral that rivaled his idol's, Jim Morrison's, swift plunge to an early death.

But Sugerman found sobriety (and Buddhism) and turned his life around.  Read how he did it in Wonderland Avenue: Tales of Glamour and Excess.

Sadly, Danny Sugerman died of lung cancer at the age of fifty, on January 5th, 2005.

2.06.2011

Food, Inc. by Robert Kenner: A Summary Outline





Disgusting and dictatorial: Monsanto.

Disturbing, all of the below:

NAFTA connection.

IBP advertising in Mexico for cheap labor.

IBPs in bed with Immigration.  Won't rat out the illegal labor when it suits their vile purposes, and just as quickly will snitch on the powerless illegal labor when Immigration needs to prove to the media and masses that it's doing something about illegal immigration.

FDAs in bed with all of the four major Food Conglomerates.

The board members of the Food Comglomerates, and its lobbyists, in turn become high ranking officials of the FDA!  Conflict of interest, anyone?  Conspiracy of collusion?  FDA lets the meat packers "police themselves".  Ha!  Makes the merciless meat packers of 'ol Upton's The Jungle seem actually ethical and humane by comparison.

Cover by Theresa Liu
It's apparently a crime, if you're a United States citizen, to say anything publicly against the Food Conglomerates.  If you happen to have had a child die because of e-coli that a subsidiary of the conglomerate knew about but then attempted to coverup; and even if you were understandably devastated watching your child die an horrific death; and then once you found out the death could have been easily prevented had proper and allegedly "legally mandated safeguards" been enforced, and you happened to understandably speak out publicly in your justified outrage and anger against the conglomerates for their outright refusal to take any responsibility in your child's death, they'll turn the tables and sue you for slander and they'll win, as they did against one poor Mom depicted in the documentary, so that they -- the evil conglomerates -- are suddenly the "victims" and you then must apologize to them (for merely telling the truth about them) in order to make their ruthless and bankruptcy/homeless-making litigation go away.  That's how much corrupt power they've exacted with bribes, er, "lobbying," from greedy government bureaucrat-goons in the supposedly democratic U.S.A. who've been elected to protect and defend We The People.  Right.

Beyond Disgusting Movie Scenes:

Cattle ankle deep, nearly to their bloated, overly hormoned and anti-biotic'd bellys, in their own excrement just prior to being butchered and processed.  Their shit does get mixed in with our food.

The food companies care for their workers about as much as they "care" for what they inhumanely butcher day after day. Chicken literally never see the light of day, given growth hormones to grow fast and fatter so that they can be sold cheaper quicker; become so fat they sometimes can't even walk, because their internal organs cannot keep up with the bionic growth of their bodies. The Food Industry has become as tyrannically controlling over every aspect of the Food Industry as once the Tobacco Industry was over theirs. They won't recall their meat for weeks after discovering it's contaminated with e-coli. The courts have stated the FDA does not have the authority to shut down meat packing plants even when they've demonstrated repeated and fatal bacterial invasions.

Corn fed beef is good for you!  Bullshit it is!

Corn makes cows sick. So, they shoot 'em up with antibiotics and they'll keep growing quick. Never mind that increased E-coli outbreaks are the deadly consequence. Just run ammonia through the meat.  Yummy!  That'll probably kill the E-coli.  Or maybe not.

Then there's the Independent Farmer's seeds problem.

An Independent Farmer can't even keep his own seeds!  Monsanto has the patent on the seeds, see, and if they see you reseeding with your seeds on your farm and not their seeds, they'll sue you -- the little guy farmer barely hanging on to his farm -- for patent infringement of their seeds, and while the independent farmer facing litigation probably has a good case against the Monsanto Conglomerate's lies and double-speak, he can't afford to spend six figures before he even gets to court.  So he "settles".  And by "settles" that means he essentially gets "screwed" and loses his farm.

Go organic is the film's theme. Read labels. Don't buy from outlets who do business with the Big Four: (Can't name them).

The fast food chain, Chipotle, buys their food the "right, ethical, humane" way.

WalMart has got on board too, not because they're necessarily altruistic, but because it's becoming good business to go organic, as their customers are increasingly demanding that they buy from organic farms and not the conglomerates.

The difference between Organic Farming and Conventional Farming is staggering in its bioethical scope.

Food, Inc. is a phenomenal and riveting documentary.