Category: books

Waging Heavy Peace

Waging Heavy Peace is not your usual rock star memoir. To call it haphazard would be an understatement. To begin with, there’s no chronological structure. At times, Neil Young seems unable to complete even a paragraph without going off on unrelated asides. Many chapters take the form of chatty diary entries. A lot of pages are devoted to Young’s beloved model trains and vintage car collection. There are many impassioned and thoroughly unabashed plugs for Pono, the digital music player designed to provide album quality sound, and Lincvolt, the custom designed electric luxury car. Those are Young’s pet projects, which he’s labored over (and funded with his own money) for years. Recollections come up in random order and give way to vague philosophical speculations. But what this book lacks in the polished blandness of ghostwritten memoirs it makes up for in personality. Once you get used to the narrative unevenness, it quickly becomes charming.

Neil Young is an artist with a reputation for integrity. He’s steadfastly followed his muse with little regard for commercial success or critical acclaim, and remains unperturbed that many of his projects have met with neither. In characteristic fashion, he writes only about what he finds important, and if that happens to involve talking about cars a lot, so be it. Given that Neil Young’s most notorious act of rock star depravity was appearing in The Last Waltz with cocaine refuse visibly dribbling from his nose, it’s no surprise that the anecdotes he chooses to share aren’t the kind that make tabloids. Most involve some combination of cars, children and pets. The booger incident is mentioned only jokingly and in passing. Unlike many notables who take up the pen as a means of settling old scores or picking over the bones of failed relationships, Young has only kind words for old cronies and former flames alike. If he has any festering feelings of resentment, he’s keeping them to himself. Nor is he interested in drumming up pathos. He’s matter of fact about his lifelong health woes. Where anyone else would be tempted to affect the tone of a righteous martyr for having raised two disabled children (and one able-bodied one), Young is nothing but proud of his family. He adores his wife and finds his children delightful. In fact, he finds a lot of things delightful, and his joie de vivre is winning.

Besides integrity, Young has a bit of reputation for being a grumpy old man, and difficult to work with. He freely admits those things, and is quick to shoulder his share of the blame in many situations. His perfectionism stems from passion, and he is bursting with enthusiasm when it comes to things he cares about. His favorite adjective is ‘really great’ and he likes exclamation points a lot. He describes one old buddy as “a real G-man” and helpfully explains that “the G stands for genius!” Young doesn’t possess an especially grand vocabulary, which he is the first to admit. He comes off as a bighearted country yokel who made it big, slightly squeamish about fame, but sincerely and deeply grateful for his good fortune.  If he’s not bent on documenting every detail of his life for posterity, that’s understandable – he’s already been biographied thoroughly enough. He’s more interested in sharing his thoughts than documenting events, and what he shares is a wealth of undramatic but revealing personal tidbits. Did you know that Neil Young enjoys shopping at Costco? Yes. He loves hiking, paddleboarding and long road trips. He favors Team Coco and appreciates Jimmy Fallon’s impersonations of himself. He approves of YouTube and online music streaming. He still fondly recalls the time Bob Dylan complimented him on his cool hat.  The Mists of Avalon is one of his favorite books. He is the kind of pet lover who remembers the names of other people’s cats.

Waging Heavy Peace may be short on concrete information; it may appear to have gone to print with only the bare minimum of editing done; it may lack literary ambition. But it achieves one thing than most celebrity memoirs fall far short of – it makes you feel like you’re actually getting to know the real Neil Young.


FREEDOM, a book review

I haven’t done many book reviews lately, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading books. I read a number of books this year, many of which I enjoyed but none of which inspired me to react. Many books are pleasant enough to read but don’t leave a memorable impression. A few are memorably great, and deserve loud praise. It’s very rarely, though, that I work my way through a doorstopper of a novel in a state of sustained aggravation. One such novel which I feel compelled to eviscerate is Jonathan Franzen’s acclaimed Freedom. Not only because it’s not very good, but also because it’s symptomatic of far larger, and much worse,  literary trends.

First off, and somewhat off topic, for those not heavily into the literary fiction scene, Jonathaan Franzen achieved a level of tabloid notoriety when his breakout novel The Corrections was selected by Oprah Winfrey for her Book Club, an invitation the author expressed so much displeasure about that it was rescinded. In the ensuing media shitstorm Franzen published  (in respectable publications such as The New Yorker) a series of essays justifying himself. Those essays represent the bleating of a thoroughly medium-level talent insisting that he is, in fact, too good for the mainstream and middle-brow readership Oprah’s Book Club would have brought him. While I don’t hold Oprah Winfrey in very high regard as a tastemaker, but Franzen’s positioning himself as a far too serious of a writer for the likes of her fan base was downright pompous and elitist. Now,  a genuinely groundbreaking and challenging author – a David Foster Wallace, perhaps – could have made that claim for himself and got away with it, but the truth is, Jonathan Franzen is a good writer but far from a great one, and by no means too good to be appreciated by the masses who respect Oprah Winfrey’s book recommendations.

So, based on that particular fiasco, I have developed a bit of a bias against the author. On the other hand, I found The Corrections quite enjoyable, and have also very much liked many of his personal essays. Why then, did his latest offering, Freedom, rub me so much the wrong way? Perhaps -no, most definitely – because it belongs to a certain thriving literary genre I like to call The Unbearable Angst and Suffering of Being Affluent and White. Also because the book is full of casual sexism of the it’s-not-me-talking-it’s-the-character type; because the only non-white character is also the only person to die, for no particular reason; because depression is the only real-life problem anyone ever has to deal with; and because the necessity of earning a living is a valid concern to literally no one.

The best parts of the book come early on (they were actually published in The New Yorker as stand alone stories and you can find them there) as do the most affecting events. Early in the first half of the book, Patty Emerson, a star high school athlete, is raped at a pool party. She seeks help only to bump up against the selfishness and indifference of her own parents, who condescendingly advise her to “just let it go.” The parental betrayal hurts more than the rape, and Patty never forgives. For a good, long, entertaining time, we follow Patty as she throws herself into sports, seeks friendship and love, and strives her damndest to create an identity as far apart from her parents’ as humanly possible. Even though Patty inevitably descends into alcoholism and depression, she remains the wittiest, most interesting and best developed character in the novel. It’s painfully clear how one traumatic event can create a lifelong chain of damaging ripples, causing pain to people in ever increasing circles. 

Unfortunately, for the last two thirds of the book, we are  asked to follow the narratives of Patty’s milquetoast husband Walter, their unbearable douchebag of a son, and an old college friend turned foul-tempered rock star. None of those three are remotely likable, and all three continuously make terrible decisions that make no sense except as plot contrivances. There’s conspicuously much ado made about the male characters’ incredibly difficult struggle to view women as human beings; the author repeatedly spells it out for us as the men seek to find some tiny little thing that would somehow humanize the women whose pants they’re trying to get into. The female characters, meanwhile, are ruthlessly judged by physical appearance in a manner that, frankly, goes above and beyond the minimum required by a reasonably skilled writer to convey a character’s chauvinistic attitude. At one point, the horndog old rocker, seeing that his best friend appears to have a much younger girlfriend in tow, cruelly scans her for some physical defect (a fat ass, to be exact) that would make his own ego less sore for not being the center of attention. (This same character also repeatedly feels ashamed for experiencing sexual desire towards a woman close to his own age.)

There are also prolonged and extremely boring asides about the shady doings of a Halliburton-like company contracted to import something or other to Iraq, lessons in songbird conservation and mountaintop removal, and a colorful chapter in none other than Beckley, WV, complete with racist hillbillies.

It’s true that the themes in Freedom are universal ones; family bonds, marital dissatisfaction, feelings of insecurity and alienation, the search for an identity of one’s own. But being on some level universal does not automatically render those things interesting or worthy of minute description, especially when they come attached to such dull and unlikable characters. The main problem is that there aren’t really any problems. These people are their own worst enemies. Nothing stands between them and fulfillment except their own chaotic emotions, pointless old grudges, and too much alcohol. When everyone is a white, wealthy, able-bodied, heterosexual, well-educated American citizen, and nobody has an ounce of personality or does anything remotely out of the ordinary, there’s really not much to write about. There’s only so much drama to be milked out of two boring people being vaguely unhappy with their marriage. It’s really the apotheosis of the Generic Literary Novel, and that’s the main thing that infuriates me about Franzen and his acclaimed, bestselling novels.The big question is, why is this exact sort of content accepted as the default topic of Serious American Literature? Unhappy white people have been touted as the standard of universal experience in American literature for decades, and it might have been at least somewhat interesting the first time John Updike did it, but it’s way past being interesting now, especially with so many other narratives that are currently considered ‘special interest’ hovering at the fringe of popular acceptance. There’s just no excuse for the literary establishment to continually shower money, acclaim and publicity on mediocre white dudes writing about the suffering of other mediocre white dudes. Oprah’s Book Club, by the way, has done great things to publicize works by writers of the non-mediocre-white-male variety, and by that standard, it’s she who’s too good for the likes of Jonathan Franzen.

The Girl Who…

As I was incoherently saying earlier today, there’s a dearth of strong female characters in, well, everywhere. It’s no secret that Hollywood writers still uniformly think that women are too ‘adorkable’* to chew gum and walk – see Sandra Bullock, Meg Ryan, Katherine Heigl, Zooey Deschanel, et al. I also can’t think of very many strong, smart, self-sufficient female heroines in literature either. Alice in Wonderland and Pippi Longstocking come to mind. Lucy Pevensie. Arya Stark. Lyra Belacqua. Hermione Granger. Matilda Wormwood. Somebody write in and remind me of a kick-butt heroine who isn’t a small child. The only instance I can instantly remember of a grown woman standing up for herself and being strong is Lady Eowyn from The Lord of The Rings. Nearly every female character in every book ever written is either a dirty slut or a miserable helpless victim. It may not be fair to fault writers who lived 150 years ago for insufficient feminism – they wrote about the times they lived in. The Sexual Revolution wasn’t that long ago. It’s no wonder we’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

Now, in what the entertainment industry will surely dismiss as a freak occurrence with no rational explanation, we have the massive popularity of a book and movie franchise that wouldn’t exist without its convention-shattering heroine. I’m talking about Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series, which introduced us to Lisbeth Salander, the first truly, fully modern fictional heroine. Larsson’s books are compelling enough mysteries, but there’s no shortage of those floating about. What there is shortage of, and what these books offer, is an original character, an amped-up version of today’s cool young woman. Lisbeth is a deeply, perhaps irrevocably troubled person, and that is part of her appeal. As Larsson bluntly states on the first page of his first book, a staggering percent of women find themselves on the receiving end of some kind of violent and degrading treatment. It’s a lucky woman indeed who makes it to old age without being abused in one way or another. Most of us can relate to being made to feel helpless and weak. However, the image of the stereotypical weepy, self pitying victim is in itself degrading. As if a woman who has been raped or otherwise assaulted should just curl up and die, or continue feeling helpless, worthless and violated for the rest of her life. What I think readers love about Lisbeth Salander is her absolute refusal, no matter the horrible things that have been done to her, to give in to the victim mentality. She’s been abused, but she’s no helpless victim. She fights back with every weapon at her disposal. She continues, against all odds, to be herself.

Her role as a righteous avenger is only part of her appeal, although it’s the most obvious one. But besides having a talent for annihilating those who oppress her, Lisbeth personifies what I think of as an ideal new woman in countless other ways. She breaks practically every convention of how women are portrayed, across the board. First off, she is not conventionally attractive, a cardinal sin for any woman, fictional or otherwise. She’s less than five feet tall, malnourished, heavily pierced and tattooed, badly dressed, and has a bad haircut. She has zero social skills, an almost worse sin, for after physical appearance a woman’s worth is measured in charm. A woman should be like a kitten society says; soft, cuddly and endlessly, brainlessly amusing. Lisbeth is not amusing. She’s sexually liberated. She fucks whoever she wants to, whenever she feels like it, with no emotional investment. As is her prerogative, but that’s still considered shocking. The fact that Larsson has written a heroine with the sexual morals of a man is in itself a great leap forward. Society is still trying to wrap its collective head around the idea that a woman can and should freely pursue her sexual desires, outside the love/marriage institution. The fact that Lisbeth continues to enjoy sex despite having been raped is another huge fuck-off to victim culture. She sees no reason to let one man’s depraved actions destroy her own capacity for pleasure. She’s not interested in love, either. She does fall in love at one point, but it doesn’t work out, she feels bad for a while, then she gets over it. As we all do. No hand wringing, no baby-come-back. Having a love interest is traditionally a defining feature of any fiction featuring females, with the possible exception of the Miss Marple stories. How can a woman live without being defined by the man who owns her heart? Very easily, it turns out. Finally, Lisbeth’s greatest strength is her brilliant mind. She’s not defined by her looks or her sexuality or who she’s in love with. If there’s anything to define her by, it’s being a genius. A thoroughly modern one, a wizard on the computer who ferrets out evildoers’ secrets to use against them in self-defense. She gets by on her own resourcefulness, never waiting around to be rescued. This might be the first time we’ve met a heroine who is so completely her own person.

Obviously the thanks for Larsson’s popularity rests entirely on Lisbeth’s shoulders. For as I might have mentioned before, he’s kind of a crappy writer in many ways. The three Millennium books have a lot of faults, which I’ll admit are par for the course in the thriller/mystery genre. Larsson’s prose is supremely clunky, his dialogue graceless. There are long bouts of boring and unimportant exposition. There’s his habit of cataloging every sandwich, cup of coffee and Ikea purchase. To be fair, though, the editing process was never properly completed, because the author died before publication. Also to his credit, Larsson had quite a depraved imagination, inventing an unusually compelling series of mysteries. The first book can stand alone, and has a somber wintry mood that is very different from the other two, which delve speedily into a convoluted and far-reaching conspiracy. The last two books move with immense speed, gathering clues and twists on nearly every page. Larsson was planning a series of ten books, and had supposedly nearly finished the fourth one at the time of his death. After unraveling the inner workings of Sweden’s Secret Police, I can only imagine what new evils he was planning to mine. As always, his subject is the abuse of power. It was writ on a small scale in the first novel, unfolding withing one awesomely dysfunctional family. In the final two, he tackled abuse of power on a government level, with the same righteous anger. The sense that Larsson isn’t just aiming to entertain, but is truly all steamed-up about inequity within society might also be a part of the series’ appeal.

Larsson was in the magazine business himself before he started writing fiction, and loved to uncover the dirty deeds of right-wing political organizations and the like. The hero and Lisbeth’s sometime parter, Mikael Blomqvist, is so obviously an idealized alter-ego of the author. He’s an impeccably moral journalist, an endlessly loyal friend, brave and brilliant and absurdly irresistible to women. His very incorruptibility is almost grating. He would be a rather dull protagonist if he didn’t have Lisbeth to spar with. Her near-anarchist ways make a good foil for his rather conventional thinking. He’s the classic good detective. All good all the time. Larsson’s world doesn’t have any room for shades of grey. It’s good guys and gals against pure evil. Lisbeth is the only really complex character in that regard. Everyone else is either or. Lisbeth likes to take morally suspect action, being capable of extreme violence and cruelty, but she’s more avenging angel than ethical conundrum. There’s never any doubt she’s doing the right thing, even when she’s being sadistic. (Acknowledging that a woman can be sadistic and violent, another trailblazing score for Larsson!) But, of course, a clear moral universe is what’s expected of crime fiction. The satisfaction of seeing bad guys get their due punishment is what makes the genre so addictive and pleasurable.

Speaking to anyone who might not get around to reading the actual books, there’s also movies available for you to watch. I have to disagree with the otherwise perceptive Joan Acocella’s assessment that the story lives better onscreen. For all their faults I think the books offer a more satisfying experience. However, the movies are also worth the time. Against all expectations I found the American adaptation far superior to the Swedish original. I don’t know who director Niels Arden Oplev is, but his adaptation is perfunctory and too genteel by half. The plot is overly simplified, losing too many relevant details. It’s a complicated story, but it didn’t need to be reduced to bullet points. I also thought the visual style was a little flat. The main weakness for the Swedish entry is the casting of Blomqvist, whose heroic characteristics the bloated and pockmarked features of Michael Nykvist reflect not at all. He looks more like a creepy rapist than the creepy rapist does. The American version has the benefits of a much more faithful and detailed adaptation job, the visual flair of David Fincher, director of perverse grunge classics Fight Club and Se7en. And  new-model 007 Daniel Craig is a much-improved Blomqvist – charismatic but rough around the edges. I thought that both actresses cast as Lisbeth Salander were excellent in their own ways, although Sweden’s Noomi Rapace might actually be a bit too beautiful for the role. Rapace plays Lisbeth as fierce and deeply angry. American Rooney Mara plays her more as wary and sad, looking at times like a drowned rat. I find Mara unrecognizable without black bangs, and that element of blandness is actually a strength when it comes to portraying a girl who is already iconic in readers’ imaginations. It allows her to create the character with no outside associations.

I find it delightful that people have embraced the Millennium books and made Lisbeth Salander a phenomenon. And I can’t help but bring up yet another wildly popular page to screen adventure that stars a young woman for whom self-sufficiency, intelligence, and physical strength rank far above cuteness and charm. I’m talking about The Hunger Games books. Although Suzanne Collins’s books are miles and genres away from Larsson’s they have similarities, in their heroines. Collins has created Katniss Everdeen, a girl who shares a lot with Lisbeth Salander. Like Lisbeth, she survives by her wits, cares deeply about doing what’s right, fights bravely against an inhumane and abusive power system, doesn’t need a man to take care of her, doesn’t give a damn what she looks like, doesn’t care about being nice, isn’t afraid to fight and kill if need be, and refuses to give up being herself. I think it’s no coincidence that both these young heroines have become household names, and are fiercely beloved and endlessly talked about. They are obviously filling a deep need for female role models that real women today can admire. Because the princess in the castle who dreams of getting married is so hopelessly obsolete it’s laughable, and so is the wily femme fatale who inevitably gets punished to being too up front about the feminine business of using her looks to manipulate men to her advantage. Because on both sides of the traditional virgin/whore schematic it’s the same thing going on; women using their only precious resource (their pussy, duh) to somehow finagle their way to a better station in life, whether by ensnaring Prince Charming in holy matrimony or turning tricks. That entrenched view of women is outmoded, outdated and no less disgusting for being perpetuated by singing critters in Disney movies. Well, today we have a generation of young girls (and boys) coming of age who’ve internalized the positives of first wave feminism, who’ve grown up with the expectation of equality, grown up expecting freedom and respect, and we want to see ourselves on the screen and in books.

*newspeak for ‘functionally retarded but still fuckable’

Two Bestsellers

(and their adaptations)

I’ve recently tackled, just to see what the fuss was about, two popular novels and their much buzzed film adaptations. Neither is destined to become a classic, but both have their strengths and both in their own way, speak to the Zeitgeist.

First, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, a look into the lives of black housemaids in 1963 Jackson, MI. Stockett, who is white, has attracted a bit of how-dare-she controversy for writing from the maid’s perspective, but overall her work has met with acclaim. I don’t see any problem with a writer tackling whatever perspective she chooses, but make no mistake, this is a book for white people. Though Stockett has enormous sympathy for her characters and the book is often moving, there’s no real sense of danger. We rest assured that although the characters are supposed to be at great risk, nothing truly bad will happen. The Help is no Color Purple.

This is one of those rare cases when I say go ahead and skip straight to the movie. The film adaptation is, like the book, thoroughly middlebrow, competent and unstylish, but rendered unforgettable by the justly acclaimed cast. The movie wisely plays to the book’s strengths, focusing on the faces of great actors like Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis and Jessica Chastain, all very deserving Oscar nominees (and in Spencer’s case, a winner.) It’s an actor’s movie. The women’s eyes tell the story far more movingly than Stockett’s pen. The characters, lovable or despicable, are the strength of the movie and they’re the strength of the book.

While the movie may be faulted for not having prettier camera angles, the book’s faults run deeper. The problem is, it’s not really about the civil rights era, as it purports to be. Though there are multiple rather obvious cultural signposts sprinkled throughout – MLK! Catcher in the Rye! – the struggle for equality is used mainly as wallpaper for the human story to play out in front of. And although it purports to be the maids’ story, Stockett doesn’t seem to trust that her intended middleclass, middlebrow (in other words, white) audience to follow along unless baited with the dating travails of an insecure white chick thrown in. Stockett wastes too many  chapters on the character of Skeeter Phelan and her boring boyfriend and hair problems. (In the movie, Emma Stone’s performance as Skeeter is excellent, and the boyfriend subplot is thankfully trimmed to a bare three scenes.) The assumption that the white masses won’t want to read about black people stuff unless there’s a saintly white character to invest in is insulting all around – I’m pretty sure that millions of people of all colors and creeds have enjoyed the work of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker without the token ‘Good German’ figure shoehorned into every story.

The other problem with The Help is what the actual main theme really is. It’s not about civil rights at all. It’s another entry in the whole “evil 50’s”. Though the action takes place in 1963, it’s clearly about how life in 1950’s American suburbs was a soul-destroying hell somewhere on the level of the Spanish Inquisition. As presented by popular movies like Revolutionary Road (in which just being alive in the fifties is seen as cause enough for suicide) and the inexplicable glamorization of Sylvia Plath (the fifties drove her to it!) the fifties and early sixties were an unimaginably torturous time of mindless conformity and wealthy women going insane inside their gilded cages. Until the Sixties came along and magically made everything all better, an event usually represented in movies by The Beatles’ appearance on Ed Sullivan, or just one of their songs. Which is exactly how life is portrayed in The Help.  (Except that it’s a Bob Dylan song this time.) Those poor brainwashed, overgirdled white ladies and their misguided quest for a nice car and a wealthy husband, unable to be fulfill their intellectual potential or be their true selves underneath all that hairspray. Wah. Recycling that old rubbish about middle class conformity at the expense of the truly interesting and unexplored reality of the maids lives is a waste of ink and pages, but it serves a purpose. The heady mixture of racism, ignorance and downtrodden suburban womanhood allows us to get all steamed up about how awful our grandmothers’ cloistered little lives must have been, then congratulate ourselves for being so much more enlightened than that. As if racial discrimination wasn’t alive and well, if slightly less overt. As if mindless white housewives don’t still leave their homes and children in the hands of disenfranchised, underpaid maids and gardeners, now more likely to be Latino than African-American, but still underpaid and disenfranchised. As if conformity and ignorance were historical anomalies that have gone away never to blight our suburbs again. Somebody needs to write about the help without whitewashing, without distraction, without making anyone feel better about themselves.


My second target is The Hunger Games, the latest phenomenon to burst out of the YA ghetto and into popular consciousness. I’ll admit that I only read the first book in the trilogy (and I have to say I’m roundly sick of everything being a trilogy.) There’s probably stuff in the last two books that puts the first one in a wider context and adds new perspective. But I only read the first one, just in time to catch the movie. In this case, I’ll take the book.

If you’ve been living in a cave recently, it’s all about a dystopian future society called Panam, sprung up in the wake of what used to be America, where the Superbowl has been replaced by adolescents fighting to the dead gladiator-style on live TV. Which is a shrewd and not entirely farfetched takeoff on our current ‘reality’ obsessed entertainment culture. The series has caught on across demographics partly because it’s original, fast-paced and violent and largely on the appeal of the heroine. Suzanne Collins has created, in the figure of Katniss Everdeen, a heroine for girls and for boys – strong, smart, moral and fearless. The book is a survival guide as much as an adventure story. Through Katniss, we learn how to live by our wits; rigging traps, building fires, scavenging for edibles in the wilderness, hunting, fighting, hiding, healing. Surviving. The book is suffused with its heroine’s will to live, and her will to do right. It’s also probably no coincidence that, at a time when the poor (which is nearly everybody nowadays) are beginning to feel not just neglected and poorly-done-by, but actively oppressed and pissed off about it, everyone is reading a novel about a country in which common citizens are little better than livestock for a decadent elite to play blood sports. Surely more than a few readers relate to the anger of the innocent Tributes forced to kill each other for entertainment, to the despair of their families trapped helplessly in an unfair controlled society. If there’s one unbreaking theme here, it is as the title implies, hunger. Hardly a page goes by without mention of food. Katniss is always hungry. Her life is ruled by food, or rather its absence. There’s a harrowing backstory of near-starvation, in which a burnt loaf of bread becomes a life-changing totem. The most lovingly written, sensual scenes are eating scenes. Suzanne Collins has captured what it feels like to live a life of wanting.

The only fault I really have with The Hunger Games, which I think will keep it out of the pantheon of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, is lack of context.  Critics have said that what makes those books fantasy classics and The Hunger Games not, is that their worlds are desirable and Panam isn’t. True enough, I doubt anybody wishes Panam was real the way we wish Middle Earth was real, but that may not be the point. Those books continue to hold our imaginations because they have the heft of mythology. (Even the insipid Twilight series boasts a compelling mythology.) Their universes are painstakingly detailed, rich with history, seemingly bottomless. Collins’s Panam on the other hand, is roughly sketched. There’s barely any history to explain how and why this world got to be so fucked up. There’s mention of the collapse of a previous civilization (ours), a war, a brutally suppressed rebellion, but it’s only a few cursory lines. Without its own mythology, this world feels bare. The worlds of Tolkien and Rowling feel satisfyingly real because their wealth of detail suggest any number of other stories besides the ones the author has chosen to tell. There’s so much more that must have happened, we think, so many characters and events that must exist outside the written page. We’re left hungry for more, and we spend time imagining what those other stories might have been. The Hunger Games don’t have that effect, because we just don’t know enough about Panam to imagine anything outside what’s been written. This is a problem. I imagine that it may be somewhat rectified in the second and third installments. If it isn’t, though, I’m afraid this series won’t go on to fascinate future generations but will fall behind as strictly a product of its time.

As for the movie, it’s thriller made without an ounce of style or creativity, redeemed entirely by the charisma of star Jennifer Lawrence. Although there are a few lovely shots of decrepit Appalachia in the beginning, the visuals are thoroughly pedestrian. The adaptation, although faithful (Collins adapted it herself), has a dutiful sense of hitting all the key scenes without adding anything meaningful or fresh. The violence has, understandably, been toned down, and with it much of the suspense. As with The Help, the primary pleasure of this movie is in meeting the characters. There’s a good strong supporting cast, including Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and surprisingly non-embarrassing Lenny Kravitz, but really the single best thing, the one force holding the entire thing together is Lawrence and her expressive face, physical confidence and star-is-born charisma.


Keith Richards’ autobiography has rocketed to the top of my favorite Stones books list, with good reason. It’s not like other celebrity memoirs, not written to make a buck, grind an axe, or make the author look good. It doesn’t have the anonymous bland tone that signals the hand of the ghostwriter. It takes off in a chatty conversational voice that is unmistakably Keith, and it shows, over 550 pages, what it’s like to be Keith. That’s an epic achievement in itself. Keith Richards has always cut a mysterious and slightly terrifying figure. Always on the run from the law, knife in boot, weaseling out of one scrape after another while all around him his associates drop like flies. Did he sell his soul to the devil? Ineffably cool, but not exactly likable. Well, now he’s managed to make himself very likable indeed, by making no apologies about his badness.

Life is no tour guide to rock star depravity. It’s a love story – between Keith and his music. It runs throughout the book, an undimmed, unabashed, joyful enthusiasm for all things musical. Keith Richards really fucking digs his job, and he’s never stopped being amazed at his success. Not his popularity or ability to fill stadiums, but just the ability to play and write songs and make great music and earn the respect of other musicians. There are constant long asides about the technicalities of guitar heroism, stuff about tuning and strings and dropped chords. As a non-musician, I’ve never understood the significance of those things, and this is the closest I’ve ever come to grasping it. It’s the best window on how those famous sounds came to be. That alone makes the old devil immensely sympathetic. Also, his disinterest in repeating the sordid old anecdotes. There’s some juicy bits there, all right, but they’re not the point. The notorious pissing on the wall incident doesn’t even merit a mention. Richards isn’t interested in what’s been talked to death already, he wants to tell the stories he thinks are important. Like a daring rainbound cat rescue, a childhood accident with a rock, or how he met his wife’s family for the first time. The death of Brian Jones is dealt with in a few lines – he’d been written off as a goner long before he took that fateful midnight swim – while the deaths of Ian Stewart, Gram Parsons, and Keith’s mother are given full requiem.

Besides music, the other long running love story is the one with Mick Jagger, of course. The notorious Glimmer Twins who used to be thick as thieves are now barely cordial, to Keith’s eternal chagrin. Mick Jagger has changed, not for the better, thinks Keith, while Keith has stayed steadfastly the same. It was Marianne Faithfull, in her own memoir, who called it out that those two were really the loves of each others lives. What I think we have here is the kind of passionate romantic friendship that used to flourish among the Victorians, a Platonic union stronger and more important than any marriage or sexual relationship. Each party complains bitterly about the other’s shortcomings, accusations of betrayal fly, sometimes blows are exchanged, but they always come back to each other. Keith repeatedly complains that Mick is jealous and hostile, actively trying to block potential ‘rivals’, but he seems unaware that his own criticism of Mick, Mick’s personality and Mick’s solo work comes off more like the bitterness of a neglected spouse than any valid point being made. The shocking and much publicized denigration of Jagger’s manhood does occur, but the context is more interesting than the slur itself. In the same paragraph Keith claims not to care about Mick’s affair with Anita Pallenberg on the set of Performance, brags about nailing Marianne and suggests that Donald Cammell’s suicide was good riddance. Reading between the lines, it’s clear the betrayal stung and stings still. The low blow is just a jab of payback. It’s a tragedy, according Keith Richards, that Mick Jagger had to grow up and become the monstrous ego demon “Mick Jagger.” After all those years and ups and downs, he’s still missing the kid on the train with the blues records.

Jagger has become the “Jagger” we know and love. He grew out of his blues purism and his stance against the world, accepted his knighthood, let the flattery and flashbulbs go to his head, and runs The Rolling Stones like a well-oiled money making machine. Richards has stayed the same blues-obsessed outlaw who goes to sleep hugging his guitar. He’s the one who exults in the honor of being allowed to jam with the locals in Jamaica, or the honor of playing with obscure but brilliant sidemen who haven’t seen the spotlight since the fifties. Jagger is delighted to have Wyclef Jean as a collaborator. Richards thinks it’s an honor to write with Tom Waits. They used to be The Glimmer Twins, now two more opposite men cannot be found, but together they still manage to form one badass entity called The Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger reveals bits of himself in his songs, but he will probably never open up and tell his side of the story. Thank God Keith Richards is open-hearted enough to share his life with us.

Bowie in Berlin

My other reading material has been Bowie In Berlin: A New Career in a New Town, written by a man named through some magical cosmic coincidence Thomas Jerome Seabrook. This is definitely aimed at the very, very serious fan. Seabrook assumes that we’ve already gotten our basic biographical necessities somewhere else and focuses only on the dark and fertile years between 1975 and ’79. During that time, as everyone doubtless already knows, David Bowie recorded what’s known as The Berlin Trilogy, and it’s the recording of those albums that is discussed in very, very deep depth. Admittedly, who played what instrument on which song and what they had for lunch later (rabbit stew) is pretty dry info, even for rabid fans. Luckily, Seabrook writes with enough wit and flourish to keep the reader engrossed, even when discussion turns to technical stuff about synthesizers. Seabrook has done some heavy homework – Bowie’s movements during those years are accounted for on a weekly, if not daily, basis. Oddly, all that homework didn’t include finding out what country the city of Warsaw is in – Seabrook refers to it as “the Czech capital”. Other than that glaring mistake, the book is thoroughly informative, entertaining and thoughtful. Recommended for fans who think they know everything there is to know about David Bowie and would like to learn more.

Sick Puppy

Carl Hiaasen’s Sick Puppy.

I actually read the majority of this book in one sitting right before Christmas, then came back to finish the final chapter weeks later. Hiaasen is known a premier ‘funny writer’ and this book is engrossingly lively and has some hilarious setpieces, like an unfortunate encounter between a fancy sports car and a garbage truck. The problem and downfall here is Hiaasen’s choice of subject matter. The corruption of Florida politics and land development isn’t very funny. Florida isn’t the only state whose fragile natural resources are being systematically destroyed by greedy land developers with plenty of help from a dirty government, but it’s a notoriously egregious example of the trend. I don’t know how much Hiaasen exaggerates the conniving ways of minor political figures, big-money lobbyists and other assorted scumballs, but I suspect not very much. Another problem is that the topic itself interferes with the story arc. It’s hard to make a happy ending, in which the greedy suits are vanquished and the pristine shoreline is saved from bulldozing, when the reader knows very well that in real life the system is in place and can’t be vanquished and the entire Florida coast is as good as fucked. The third problem is Hiaasen’s feat of making every single one of his characters thoroughly unlikeable. It’s par for the course that the slimy governor and his cronies are made as comically unsympathetic as possible. But the supposed hero is a mentally unstable ecoterrorist; the heroine is aggravatingly passive, drifting from one man to another with no more motivation than merely taking the path of least resistence; and neither of those two is very smart either. Even the antics of the title canine are more annoying than cute. (That reaction might just be me and the fact that I loathe Labrador retrievers.) There’s also something disconcerting about the tone. Hiaasen maintains a light, comic tone throughout, even when the story goes into some highly unsavory territory. The violent deaths of multiple characters are awkwardly played for laughs. It’s graceless but not disturbing (since those guys blatantly had it coming). That weird tone does go from awkward to just wrong, when in the big climax, Hiaasen intercuts repeatedly between violent rape and cutesy doggy hijinx. Hiaasen always writes about Florida, touching on various genre tropes, that much I know, but I don’t know if I want to discover if his other books are any better. I couldn’t put it down, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Book update

Time watching movies or online is well-spent. But time spent reading books is better-spent, and much, much harder to come by. Anytime can be movie time, or internet time. Reading time requires specific circumstances. Peace and quiet in a well-lit cozy place, that is. I know I won’t always have so many hours of quietude to myself. I’ve been trying to relish my reading time as much as I can. If my movie intake suffers, that’s alright. Keeping up with an influx of magazines takes hours out of the day. That’s time well-spent. I’m keeping up on my books as well…

I’d read a little Terry Pratchett a long time ago. The Carpet People, I believe it was, a book for children. Which was quite charming. Pratchett is rather acclaimed and prolific on the fantasy scene, and his Discworld series is very popular. There are closing in on forty of them, and they all take place on some kind of mythical flat-earth. The one I stumbled upon, Making Money, is a fairly recent entry and a direct sequel to something that’s come before, from what I could gather. I wouldn’t say it’s the most exciting fantasy novel I’ve ever touched – it deals with banking and the practicality of introducing paper currency in place of the goldish type. But I have to praise Pratchett’s style. He shares the absurd humor of Douglas Adams, always a welcome element. The funniness carries the book over the essentially boring bits about economy and gold-minting. Plus, there are Golems.


On a less fun note, I pulled out of the same donation bin (that’s how I like to acquire stuff) Mary Karr’s memoir The Liars’ Club. In which Karr vividly recollects an unenviable childhood dominated by an unstable, alcoholic mother. Karr’s father comes off throughout as a sympathetic, loving figure, while the mother is frequently terrifying. It’s  not until the end that we learn the dramatic roots of her extreme unhappiness. There’s the parental drinking and fighting, a decrepit grandmother who’s a horror in her own right, dizzying swings from poverty to material comfort and a few traumatic episodes of violence and sexual abuse. All together those things could make for a mawkish poor-me whine-fest, but Karr keeps her head. She makes no bones about having been a mean, unpleasant child, and she brushes off any temptation to feel sorry for herself. Sure, there were some hard times but there were also plenty of good memories and love. The memoir ends on a healing note, when mother faces her demons and it seems like everybody’s going to settle down and be ok. Karr has since published another memoir, chronicling her own adult alcoholism and poor life choices, which just shows how a bad legacy, no matter how well or perceptively examined, carries on from one life to another.

Also somewhat downbeat, Starting Out in the Evening, by Brian Morton. A work I had never heard of and picked up out of a clearance bin on impulse. The term elegiac comes to mind. Morton isn’t the most graceful writer, and at first I was tempted to put the book down. But plain language is no impediment to a good story (as we’ll talk about more shortly) and Morton explores the terrain of aging poignantly. The story revolves around three figures representing three stages of life; a geriatric novelist contemplating his own faded legacy, an upstart grad student intent on refurbishing that legacy, and the writer’s middle aged daughter still trying to find her own place in life. The simplicity of Morton’s writing at first makes the story seem prosaic, but by the end it has become moving. The old writer faces the indignity of his age, and his impending death. The star struck young thing becomes disillusioned when faced with her hero’s evident decrepitude. And the daughter wonders what she’s achieved and where she’s going. It’s a bit sad, but also in a way hopeful. Each character comes to terms with his or her stage of life’s journey, and it ties together to illustrate the inevitable trajectories we all must make. The book jacket promises “Now a Major Motion Picture”. May not sound like a welcoming take-off point for a movie, but I’ve added it to my future watching list.

Now for the big event. I’ve been hearing louder and louder buzz about the whole Stieg Larsson phenomenon. Of course, who hasn’t seen promos for the upcoming Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movie. I just had to know what all the fuss was about. So I bought the book. The book has problems. There are about 200 pages of deathly boring exposition before the plot clicks into gear. There are elaborate introductions for superfluous characters. Unnecessary  detail about the exact dimensions of Lisbeth’s hard drive, who lives in which house across from who, and Swedish guardianship law. Larsson also sees fit to include every instance when a character takes a shower or eats a disgusting-sounding liver and pickle sandwich. Then, the story barrels on for hundreds of pages beyond its natural stopping point (the big reveal and showdown, natch) meticulously tying up all the less compelling running subplots. Also, Larsson can’t really write. His prose is workmanlike, with a flair for dramatically unpoetic descriptions, awkward blocks of exposition between bouts of action, and dialogue that’s neither realistic nor artfully stylized. Nevertheless, underneath these technical shortcomings is a compelling thriller. After the first dull few chapters, I became completely engrossed. You’ve doubtless heard the bare bones of it; there’s a mystery, corruption, family psychodrama, and much touted gruesome violence. It’s in the case of the violence that the loudest criticism of Larsson’s work has come. The original Swedish title of the novel was Men Who Hate Women, and that about sums up Larsson’s main theme. Critics have claimed that Larsson exploited violence against women by making an entertainment of it, all under the pretense of deploring it. But he really does deplore it. Despite the bone-dry tone, the message comes through. Larsson’s books have caught on in a sea of blockheaded, similarly violent thrillers because he had a mission besides telling an exciting story in which girls and boys get raped a lot. He’s righteously pissed-off about the prevalence of cruelty and corruption that persists in a nominally civilized society. Besides, it’s an unfair criticism in the first place. Female victimhood and male depravity are the backbone of the mystery/thriller genre. Dead women are the engine of a million detective stories, and it’s only Stieg Larsson who brings that unspoken undercurrent into the open and makes it his boldly stated main theme. It’s the first angry feminist murder mystery. Though on the other hand, some feminists would deplore the book’s dour view of womanhood as a state of perpetual victimhood. It’s a condescension to portray women as magnets for constant abuse, they would say. Make of that what you will. It’s a flawed work, but one that’s undeniably struck a chord.



Frankly, Mr. Shankly

Everything has a lighter side. And now, the lighter side of The Smiths. (If MAD was still running The Lighter Side strip, that would be a great one. Or are they? Do they still exist?) The root causes of Morrissey songs are most often debatable, but this one is pretty clearly inspired by his short-lived flirtation with gainful employment. He’d labored briefly as a clerk in a tax office, hated it and spent most of his pre-fame life mooching off the government. It’s also thought to be partly inspired by The Smiths’ by-then strained relationship with their handlers at the Rough Trade record label, a relationship that would continue, in animosity, until the band’s demise in 1987. The legend goes that label boss Geoff Travis did indeed attempt to write ‘bloody awful’ poetry, thus earning Morrissey’s eternal contempt.

All these interesting facts I got perusing my brand new Mozipedia, which I have just purchased after a lengthy search. Author Simon Goddard is widely accepted as the world’s leading expert on all things Morrissey, which isn’t yet something you can get a PhD in, but probably will be within my lifetime, if not Morrissey’s. Goddard has written the self-explanatory Mozipedia, and Songs That Saved Your Life an exhaustive compendium of the when, where, how and why behind every song The Smiths ever recorded. Therein, according to Goddard, Frankly Mr. Shankly is “The Smiths at their most vaudevillian extreme” because “The manifest music-hall wit of its lyrics transpose even to Marr’s complementary, tongue-in-cheek score…” And so on in a similar spirit. If that seems overwhelmingly academic for a pop song, it’s nothing compared to Gavin Hopps’s treatise Morrissey: The Pageant of His Bleeding Heart, which is highfalutin to the point of being unreadable. Hopps has filled his book with mind-straining lines like (regarding Reel Around the Fountain):

“Morrissey’s use of ‘half,’ which is foregrounded by the parallelism with the previous section, quietly complicates everything and encourages speculation by tantalizingly telling us much less than it appears to […] we remain outside the narrative, and are left to read backwards from effect to cause across a comical aporetic boundary.”

I was left in some doubt whether Hopps has in fact written an honest-to-God PhD level assessment of the works of Morrissey if read as literature, or if the whole thing is a massive joke satirizing the self-seriousness, willful obscurity and incomprehensible jargon of academic writing. For being filled with footnotes in minuscule type and the contorted, syllable-heavy vocabulary of academia, Hopps’s book is nonetheless useless as research material, for not having an index (though a ten-page bibliography is handily present.) One wonders at the inherent hilarity of treating Morrissey – in the end, a pop star, devilishly literate though he is – with such scholarly reverence. Though how can I judge poor Gavin Hopps? In my own meagre critical output, my longest rants and raves have been about ol’ Mozzer. He is, in his own sick way, one of pop’s great pied pipers. Just like Bowie has been someone to dress up for, Morrissey is someone to write for.