Thursday, September 30, 2010

Myers and Tanenhaus on Franzen

B.R. Myers tears apart Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. "[T]he novel is a 576-page monument to insignificance." Ouch.

It's easy to take his point. I didn't much care about these damaged & damaging people, their squabbling and snapping. Reading it was like watching television. Mostly without the commercials.

Contrast Myers's review with the breathy enthusiasm of the Sam Tanenhaus review that graced the cover of the New York Times Book Review, August 19, 2010.

After what must certainly have been a careful reading, Tanenhaus concludes that Freedom " ... illuminates, through the steady radiance of its author’s profound moral intelligence, the world we thought we knew."

Hmmm. What is the "world we thought we knew" anyhow? Thought who knew? And who knew what? etc.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Chomsky and Howl

Noam Chomsky interview with Tom Ashbrook of On Point Radio (the NPR show). Sept 28, 2010. Chomsky is 81 years old. Dry of speech, he speaks with the humorless cadences of a superior intellect. A true scholarly hero of our time. radio interview with the Howl filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Sept 24, 2010. The film opens Friday, October 1st.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Random Notes Written Shortly After Finishing Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

It’s like how you close a plastic bread bag on the loaf, cinching the bread snug and giving the bag a twirl around to tighten its noose, then wedging on the annoying, sharp-edged plastic wrapper tag, the thing that inevitably breaks after a few re-sealings.

It’s like the 4 oz lemon vodka martini drank while reading the last 75 pages, cold, potent on an all-afternoon empty stomach, the butter crunch-coated  peanuts inadequate in their role of absorbent agent.

It’s like the supper not yet eaten, not even cooked, the corn sliced from the freshly steamed ears and sautéed in butter with lime juice, salt, and little nuggets of feta cheese that ooze into melty crust when they stay too long in contact with the skillet face; and fried eggs and buttered toast; a yellow meal. And beer. Like the beer that Walter Berglund supposedly drank only three of by the age of 47 (one of many improbable details encountered over 562 pages).

Here comes Richard Katz, a character ill-suited to his pedestrian name, an unlikely rock star and lacking in conveyed charisma – but who nevertheless lives in this story like the dark circles under a tired person’s eyes. 

It’s the drizzle of an oddly humid late September night in New England, thick cloud skies bringing darkness even earlier to a strangely summer-like evening. 

There’s little Joey, perhaps the most unlikely of all the characters in this saga of our times, the 19 year old war profiteer, the cool one. "[T]hen he went back to Paraguay” and made the deal for the truck parts and sent them to Iraq. As simple as that. As if any 19 year old American boy could actually accomplish such a task in these times of perpetual adolescence when men are teenagers and teenagers are children and everyone has their face stuck in a gadget. How many Americans even know where Paraguay is? And is it landlocked or does it have a coastline? 

And yet. And yet Joey’s money-making scheme, his little University of Virginia young Republican money-making scheme actually brings home perfectly the reality of the contractor fraud and corruption swirling around the Iraq War. Without the polemics. 

The fighting, oh the fighting. But not in Iraq, in the home. All the homes. The bickering. The surfeit of snarky comebacks and gotcha’s. All adding up to capital D Dysfunction. Like television. Reading Freedom was like watching good television drama (is that an oxymoron?) – except better because of the words on the page. Page after page. Pages you don’t want to stop reading. Or watching.

Here’s one of the amazing things. The main characters are people you both dislike and have a great deal of sympathy for. You can understand them, dislike them, ache for them, revile them. Which means – you can connect with them. Notwithstanding the improbability: Connie never getting pregnant by Joey despite fucking, seemingly nonstop, from the age of 14 ‘til the tender age of 21 (when the novel leaves them by coming to the end); Patty’s entire relationship with Eliza, or her attraction to Richard Katz; Walter’s saintliness; Joey’s teenage disobedience. Etc. All possible. But all (to this reader) a little too contrived, a little too unlikely. Yet every character was within this reader’s grasp of understanding/seeing/knowing/relating to. 

Walter’s road rage. Franzen nailed that one. 

But do parents snark at their kids the way Patty snarks at Joey and Joey snarks back at Patty? 

My fridge is making noises, a god is barking in the drizzly neighborhood beyond the backyard fence, cars slash along rain-soaked rt. 12 a block over. It’s my rainy Tuesday night when I’d intended to go listen to James Howard Kunstler (one of the snarkiest of the snarks) reading from his new novel The Witches of Hebron at the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge. Bagged Kunstler and the commuter rail for home-shaken cocktail and a few final hours alone reading Franzen. 

This is an American night after all. I could have ordered pizza. Watched TV. 

Funny how the back dust jacket of Freedom is resplendent with blurbs about Franzen’s other book, The Corrections. Was that really necessary? Does this one have to thrive or sink on the basis of a successful novel he wrote almost ten years ago? But that’s just publishing. 

This is no review, just some impressionistic comments in the soon aftermath of reading.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Tony Judt Dispatches One Final Snarky Pedant

Tony Judt, the renown and respected historian and intellectual, died last month at the age of 62 from Lou Gehrig’s disease. He wrote many books and essays, and he was a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books right up until his death.

Never one to back down from an intellectual tussle, Judt took on one last snarky pedant before his death. Check out his withering riposte to a pissy letter sent in response to one of Judt's last essays (from the July 15th NYR). The exchange appears in the September 30th, 2010 edition of the NYR.

Friday, September 3, 2010

World's Oldest Beer Discovered

Shipwreck. Baltic Sea. Champagne and beer from the 1800s.

Fidel: "Great Injustice"

Allen Ginsberg would have welcomed Fidel Castro's recent admission of responsibility for the wave of homophobia and anti-gay persecution that quickly followed the triumph of the Cuban Revolution. After all, Ginsberg himself was thrown out of Cuba in 1965 for being, among other things, gay, and for having the audacity to suggest publicly that being gay was okay.

Castro denies being homophobic himself (a plausible enough assertion) and insists that he was absorbed, in the years following the revolution, in more serious issues like CIA assassination plots and the missile crisis, and that he simply did not do anything to stop or restrain the homophobia that, he insists, was an ingrained kernel of Cuban cultural life.

"Homosexual acts" were not decriminalized in Cuba until 1979, far to late to spare many, many individuals from persecution, harassment, arrest, internal exile, and incarceration. The whole thing, Castro admitted, as a "great injustice."

It sure the fuck was.