Sunday, July 25, 2010

Reviews on the Run

It's been quite awhile since I've written one of these catch-all/clean-up posts, so some of the following is written not exactly at first blush with the books and movies I'm writing about. But anyway, here are some quick hits of things I've read or seen in the past four or five months:

  • The Fever, by Wallace Shawn: Who really knows what to do with Wallace Shawn? If he managed his career more like other playwrights (instead of playing iconic self-deprecating bit parts in popular films and television shows), I think that he'd easily be considered one of our greatest living writers. But another problem may be that, among all American writers today, he seems like he least needs recognition to feel good about his work; there is an assurance to his plays that may turn off or alienate those who are used to being asked by the artist for their approval. Of course, Shawn can afford—and in more ways than just financial—to be this self-directed, whereas many genuinely can't. But of all artists of the past fifty years who were born into privilege and connections, Shawn has to be something like a saint for how he has turned that privilege into a genuine artistic problem.
  • Blood on the Forge, by William Attaway: I read this novel of the Great Migration because I failed to read the back copy closely enough: I thought it was going to be set in Michigan or Illinois or something Midwestern (Attaway himself moved from the South to Chicago). It is instead set in the steel mills of the Pittsburgh area. However, it was well worth the read; it is very little wonder that the New York Review of Books Classics series has revived it. It is among those novels which give the lie to the supposed shallowness and tendentiousness of both working-class and protest fiction; I've been reading a lot of James Baldwin recently, and with books like Attaway's in mind, one has to begin asking just how many protest novels Baldwin really read before penning his philippics against Richard Wright. 
  • Dispatches and Kubrick, by Michael Herr: I just read Herr's memoir-essay on Kubrick, but I read Dispatches a few months ago now. I suppose it is very difficult now to separate Dispatches from Full Metal Jacket, but it was rather difficult to do so when I was reading it as well. At any rate, I find Herr's approach to sorting out the various moral problems of complicity, agency, and memory much more artistically and intellectually rewarding than Tim O'Brien's
  • But really, what one-ups Herr in a very provocative and original way with regard to these questions is Joe Sacco's graphic novel The Fixer, which is about Sacco's relationship with a sort of super-guide to post-war Bosnia, someone who helps him find the stories which are dramatic enough to dramatize. I read The Fixer at about the same time as Dispatches, and I probably should have written then about the way that Sacco was able to manipulate his medium to pursue some really provocative lines of thought and representation which Herr simply could not have except through his collaborations with Coppola and Kubrick on Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket (respectively, of course). While Herr's work was obviously extremely innovative for its time, its "characters"—depicted only in words, of course—fade more easily into the larger narratives; it is through actual visual representation that something like the individual dimension really comes alive.
  • The Ask, by Sam Lipsyte: I really didn't blog about this book? That's tough to believe because I feel like I had so much to say. The short of it is that I think it's a better novel than Home Land, but that is mostly at the level of plotting and secondary characters; the protagonist of The Ask is less believable in his actions but more especially in his words. At times, Lipsyte seems to be borrowing on the job he did in Home Land, allowing Milo a crack or a cracked thought which would probably not have occurred to him, or would only have occurred to him well after the fact. The Ask is, however, one of my favorite novels of the year so far.
  • Jakob von Gunten (also called Institute Benjamenta), by Robert Walser: If something has told you anything good about Walser, they were probably underselling him. He's incredible.
  • Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis: I will be reading more Lewis over the coming year, so hang tight for a real post, but for now, I just want to ask why Lewis is supposed to be only a fair-to-middling prose stylist. I think that for a long time people have read him for his social commentary and for his humor, and perhaps some of the later, quite popular books which I have yet to read suffered stylistically, but there are really fantastic lyric passages in Babbitt, and his ear for speech is not just very accurate, but admirably selective: the banalities he transcribes are, if it's not too contradictory to say so, the best banalities he could have chosen, and best not just in the sense of most representative or most typical, but also best in aesthetic terms. Even among dead or overused metaphors, some are still preferable aesthetically, and Lewis always manages to find them, or even things a little better than them. 
  • Shock Corridor (1963), by Sam Fuller: Why can't this film—and not the ultimately maudlin One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest—be our iconic representation of the madhouse? The more I think about this film, the smarter it gets. 
  • Twentieth Century (1934), by Howard Hawks: First of all, how awesome was Carole Lombard. Secondly, I kind of love old Hollywood films about Broadway; it's so strange to see Hollywood as actually having a sort of rival in terms of cultural power, as having yet to break up the theatrical circuits on which the stars used to glide. I saw The Band Wagon (1953, Minnelli) not long after, and while it wasn't very good at all, it depicted a similar arrangement.
  • So Long, See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell: Do yourself a favor: if you have a free afternoon, read this very short book. If I hadn't already said The Ask was so great, I'd probably be getting around to saying that this was my favorite thing I've read since Middlemarch. Well, close anyway.
  • Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett: Hammett was much better at killing characters than Cain or Chandler. They should have contracted him to be their hired gun.
  • Penrod, by Booth Tarkington: One of the more successful Tom Sawyer knock-offs of American literature. Unfortunately, it is also shot to hell with casual and not-so-casual racism.
  • Blacklist, by Sara Paretsky: I can't decide if I'll want to revisit Paretsky's other novels in the future or not. Blacklist was a very good thriller, and the mystery was quite compelling, but I also feel like this book's themes—the legacy of leftist politics and reactionary suppression of those politics—was so exactly targeted to my interests and ideas of what would make a good mystery/thriller that I'm worried I'll be disappointed with other books in the series.
There are actually a few more books and movies I want to say a few things about, so I'll probably write another of these capsule-type posts in the near future. But this should be adequate for now.


SEK said...

Good Lord, Andrew. It looks like we have nearly identical lists for our qualifying exams. (Not that you're reading for yours, but if you were, and those were the books you were reading, etc.)


since handke is on your list - i would say there are nearly a dozen of his books and plays that are essential - here the portals to a lot of material of his and about him on the web:

the new HUB to all Handke-blogs

and all