Archive for April, 2010

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles – Review

April 28, 2010

I’m not sure what to say about The Sheltering Sky. Part of me wants to refute that it is an existentialist novel, or maybe an anti-existentialist novel in that a few characters who seem to go through life attempting (or not attempting) to form their own definitions end up either dead, insane, or insanely unlikable.  But I don’t believe making a statement regarding existentialism was Bowles point.

Bowles was an American expatriate. Born in 1910, he came from a fairly affluent background, went to University in Virginia before splitting his life between Paris and New York in the 1930s and 1940s before settling in Tangier. I think this important in looking at his first novel, The Sheltering Sky. Rather than being about existentialism, I think it is about how Bowles came to view America and that he took this conceived vision of America and juxtaposed it with North Africa to highlight Americans as shallow, center-less creatures who crave being told what to do, how to do it and when to do it.

First, take Port. While the engine of the group, the one who most often makes the decisions for his wife Kit and his friend Tunner, he also finds himself at the hands of the natives he finds himself dealing with. The first major event of the novel has Port out by himself where he is approached by a native who he follows out of the city to a little collection of tents. Port doesn’t want to go, he doesn’t trust the guy, but he goes anyway. He is placed in a tent with a woman he clearly intends to sleep with, discovers she is trying to rob him and takes off. In the process of escaping he loses his wallet anyway. He finds himself at the mercy of other travelers (a bizarre mother/son tandem who steals his passports), of French officials when trying to find his passport, and from various locals that he interacts with.

Tunner is directionless throughout the novel other than his awkward attempts at seducing Port’s wife, Kit. Asked to go on the trip by Port, he is later clumsily maneuvered away by Port when he feels Tunner has become a hindrance. At the same time, he also stays in Africa until Kit is found at the end of the novel, though also from shame, trying to avoid the inevitable confrontation with their mutual friends at home NY. Also, he is the one who not only discovers that Lyle (the “son” in the mother/son tandem) is a thief and actually does something about it –  he hits him, repeatedly.

Kit, meanwhile, is bizarre. She is suffocated throughout the novel. She wants to react how she wants to react but continually finds she is restraining herself. FIrst it is because of Tunner, then it is because of other company they are around, then it is because Port is sick…and she is always miserable over it. Which all leads up to the outright bizarre third section of the novel where Kit goes off into the desert after stripping herself nude and bathing in a public pool. She goes off into the desert, gets herself picked up by a couple of men with a lot of servants and camels who take her to a city deeper in the Sahara where she is put up as a concubine. The guy’s three other wives hate her. She is loved brutally during the entire trip. She can communicate with no one because of the language barrier. She eventually escapes, sends a telegraph asking for help then immediately panics at the life she is going back to. Nevertheless, she is found, cleaned up, taken to a consulate where the woman assigned to pick her up at the airport and get her set up at a hotel realizes (or just believes) in an epiphany of confluence of light and shadow that Kit had gone mad. This woman runs off inside the hotel and by the time anyone goes back to the car, Kit has disappeared.

Meanwhile, the natives don’t seem plagued by any remotely similar problems. They just live. They make decisions, there are repercussions, and life goes on. For the occupying French it is pretty similar. God is never really mentioned with any particular group – there is no counterpoint to the idea of having the freedom to construct meaning through your own decisions or through the decisions of some supreme being.

Perhaps there is an argument for the type of decisions made by different culture but this is where I believe the novel moves from an existential novel to a novel about culture. And not just any American culture but the culture of the upper-middle/upper class Americans, a culture Bowles knew fairly well. Port inherited a lot of money when his father died and gave up writing to just travel. Or, not to travel but to just simply exist. When given the opportunity to truly break away from their culture, Bowles has his character fall into a life of sexual and social domination and isolation before apparently going mad herself.

In its own way, I wonder if Sheltering Sky isn’t similar to Great Gatsby. Only where the intellectual (or even spiritual or moral) inadequacies of the social elite are shown how damaging and destructive they are to everyone around them in Gatsby, we are shown how dangerous the outside world is to them in Sheltering Sky.  Like Oblivion, I have a feeling this is a novel I’ll be thinking about for a few days now.

Apple IPad – hands-on

April 25, 2010

I finally got my grubby little mitts on an IPad yesterday. It’s a cute little thing. Very light, pretty comfortable. Found some of the controls awkward. Tried typing, which was alright but only comfortable when done one-handed. My complain with it is pretty much the same, though: a lack of use/functionality.

Give it a stylus and I think it would excel as a notepad. It’s size is perfect for even tiny desks and it weighs next to nothing. Instead of having the ruffled pages of a couple of notebooks crammed into a backpack, this thing could be a wonderful substitute.

But beyond notetaking, it seems pretty limited. It’s not overly powerful, it doesn’t have even a USB connector and to set it up with an actual keyboard and what not you have to go out and buy a bunch of accessories.

What it seems to be targeted at is stuff like Kindle and the Nook, devices which have also drawn my ire. As a media viewer, it’s nearly ideal. The screen is a good size for personal viewing, very bright and, after a fwe minutes of acclimation, the system was easy to navigate. I didn’t have a problem with text, though I think Kindle still has a better screen, but I’ve also never had much of a problem reading off a computer screen for long periods of time so I might not be the best judge for that.

So I guess my question comes down to do you want to spend that kind of money just to watch/read downloaded content? I’ve already made taht decision regarding the Kindle and other e-readers – it’s just not worth it to me.

The device I’m still curious about is the Lenovo U1 Hybrid. Significantly more expensive base price than the Ipad (though similar prices when all of the accessories for IPad are bought) but with more function built into it.

The Secret of My Endurance by Charles Bukowski (reading)

April 24, 2010

The Passion by Jeanette Winterson – Review

April 23, 2010

Last night I watched an episode of Homicide: Life on the Streets where Bayliss and Pemberton are investigating a death related to erotic asphyxiation, Lewis and Crosetti have a case revolving around a man who shot another man over a pen at the library and where Munch is troubled by Bolander’s happiness while dating a woman half his age. In its own way, it is very similar to Winterson’s The Passion.

With The Passion we are given two lead characters around whom many other characters orbit, Henri and  Villanelle. Henri  is a young Frenchman who joins Napoleon’s army and becomes the personal server of Napoleon’s meals, always chicken. His friends are Domino and Patrick; Domino who believes only in the moment, the future and past holding no power or meaning. Patrick is a former priest with one normal eye and one eye that has the ability to see perfectly for miles. His other encounter of note is with the Cook who is a drunk and is essentially removed from the Grand Armee for not doing his job, something he holds a life long grudge against Henri for.

Villanelle is a boatman’s daughter, a definition that, despite her father being deceased and her mother re-married to a baker, has a continuing significance throughout the story. Her orbit includes a woman with whom she has an affair with and who steals Villanelle’s heart  as well as a husband who sells her to one of Napoleon’s generals and a man who wagers his life against a stranger’s and is sentenced to death by dismemberment, beginning with his hands which are delivered to the bar some time later, displayed in a box, and holding a roulette ball in severed hand and a domino in another.

Throughout the novel we are given different versions of differing passions that drive th existences of the varying characters. Napoleon seems to have this passion for indulgence. Beyond his attempting to take over the world and throwing his soldiers into meat grinders to win whatever battle he was facing he would also eat chickens whole and would attempt to re-shape whatever places he conquered to fit some image of his own design. It is what could be described as a very stereotypical male passion for dominance and control, a passion that ends in failure as Napoleon is ultimately defeated.

in a similar vein, though on a smaller scale, is the cook who we come to find has a similar passion for possession and control. And whoever challenges this passion finds themselves, as Henri does, to be on his eternal bad side. Though, like Napoleon, the cook ultimately meets with failure, also.

Henri’s friends, Domino and Patrick have very different, personal and less infringing passions. Domino’s is to simply live in the moment, regardless of what or where it is. His life motto can be summed up with a simple “Live for Now.” Patrick, meanwhile, seems to just want a drink, some eye candy and someone to tell his stories to. The lack of power or “fire” in either man makes it hard to label either as having passions, and it’s likely notable that both die in the novel before either of the central characters. But their lack of passion along with their relatively quick demises and, comparatively, painless lives could eventually be seen as a positive in relation to the pain of the passion misdirected of Henri.

Henri loves Napoleon the way a little boy loves an older brother or uncle who always seems to do the Big Amazingly Cool Thing That You Yourself Couldn’t Imagine Doing. Then he falls in love with Villanelle, a love that’s not returned in the same manner and which ultimately destroys Henri.

The only character who makes it through the novel relatively whole is Villanelle. She loses her heart for a moment, but she lives and gets it back. She ends the novel raising her child. It becomes clear that Winterson is saying something about the healthy and unhealthy embraces of passion in life, and it also appears to be saying something very anti-masculine. Napoleon’s passion brings him to ruin. The cook’s passion eventually kills him. the lack of passion in Henri’s friends lead to meaningless, un-connected lives. The man in the casino loses his hands (and, we assume, his life) because of a misdirected passion for a thrilling bet. And Henri finds himself committed and slipping into derangement because of a passion that isn’t reciprocated but which he can not let go of, despite repeated opportunities to do so.

Villanelle, meanwhile, lives a good life. Even in misery, she seems capable of finding a certain contentment and while she guards her passions, she also embraces them and allows them into her life. Her “healthiest” love affair happens to be with another woman who is left alone for long periods of time by her husband who is constantly searching for rare maps, books and whatever else and, last we are informed, has disappeared in search of The Holy Grail – what could be interpreted as a fool’s quest and destined to never be seen again or to also end in failure.  Villanelle’s mother is also a relatively happy, stable woman. She has a husband she loves, she has her passions yet she also displays the ability to work through life in a practical manner.

The only man in the entire novel who seems to be happy is Villanelle’s step father who is a baker. The man being a baker does not seem like a coincidence. While the term “chef” does carry certain connotations of a big fat guy in white slaving away at food over a hot stove (or fire, another masculine image having to do with power), a baker is different. It seems more feminine, having to do with sweet goods and breads and cakes and cookies. When someone mentions a bakery, you think of some women working in a shop churning out wedding cakes. And when a man is doing this job, you often hear him referred to as a pastry chef, not a baker. This connection to what could be considered a feminine profession, or at least field, almost has to have a connection with the stepfather’s happiness.

All of which brings me back to this episode of Homicide. The asphyxiation case is a passion uncontrolled. Someone is introduced to a situation that they are not accustomed to and, which we discover, can not handle. A woman dies. In a library, a mentally disturbed man wants a pen that another man doesn’t want to give him, so the mentally disturbed man shoots the guy and leaves but without the pen, because stealing the pen would be wrong. It’s a uncontrolled passion for pens similar to the passion Napoleon had for controlling the world, domination, feeding and fulfilling the passion at any cost. Then there is Bolander just looking for love and finding a woman who reciprocates and who, literally on a violin and a cello, make music together.  A passion that is both reciprocated and healthy. Like Villanelle. Like The stepfather and her mother.

Which makes me wonder if this idea that women are in some way more innately able to incorporate a healthy dose of passion into their lives than men is a greater concept of western culture. Has the symbol of a woman as “mother” or as “nurturer” become something we easily associate with passion. With love. While men are ugly and violent and need help in this area. It is something we see in the common refrain of “if only a woman was president” when someone is lamenting the state of society, usually in relation to some ongoing military conflict, as if the passion of power overwhelms a man and that a woman would be more able to direct this passion in a positive direction.

As a final note, thinking about the television series Homicide, they often dealt with passion misdirected or misapplied. A child is murdered, it was usually by someone having a sexual lust for the child, a perverted passion.  A gang member is killed, drugs are involved, it’s another passion misdirected towards an addiction or towards power or towards money, which is really the same thing as power. This is something I’m not sure any other cop show has truly looked at on television. Most are procedurals that supply a base motive and focus more on detectives moving from Point A to Point B where we cheer for the good guys and against the bad guys. The “bad guys” are almost universally depicted as clearly bad, there is no moral ambiguity, there is a clear lack of humanity while “the good guys” stand as the guardians of humanity, sorting out the impurities as they crop up. Homicide was more daring than that. Like Winterson’s The Passion, it looked at the world through a wider lens. While either may be just as biased in their questions, they are more complicated in their answers.

Katie Makkai – Pretty (reading)

April 22, 2010

Eric Darby – Scratch and Dent Dreams (reading)

April 21, 2010

The Gone-Away World – Review

April 21, 2010

I enjoyed Harkaway’s brick of a novel. For anyone who has read Catch-22, it is clear that this is a descendant of it, a relative somewhat further down the family tree on some outlying branch but still firmly entrenched from Heller’s side of the trunk. The problem is that it’s at least 50 pages too long,  Another problem is that the first half the book is rather slow. Considering what it does, I’m just not sure it’s needed, which deals directly with the first problem. If it’s not needed, cut it.

It’s a curious novel. Something could clearly be done with the duality of nature, considering the story arc and several of the story components. But nothing is done with it. In fact, a story arc during with the literal duality is introduced is neatly (and abruptly) tossed aside.

In fact, the way the novel almost purposefully skirts the philosophical/moral/every day questions of its central plot device, as if Harkaway had no desire to explore things beyond writing a page turner.

And maybe he didn’t. And that’s okay. And it’s still a good, fun, quick read. But, still, you feel you are lacking something when you’re done with the novel. You are left with many MANY questions regarding how the characters carried on after the events in the story, how the crisis changed Gonzo (one of the central characters), how the world and what that says about the people remaking it.

Will you be able to guess many (all?) of the turning points in the plot? Likely, yes. You will know what characters will come back later, what characters are good or evil, and who will prevail.   And you will be left wanting to know more about several situations while not needing to know half of what you’re given about other situations. But it’s still a fun read.

Jeffrey McDaniel – Today’s Poetry Reading

April 20, 2010

Saw this guy at Cleveland State earlier this month. Good reading. I found a vid of the actual reading but it wasn’t of a poem I found overly enjoyable. He also read this poem there, as well as a viciously hilarious excerpt from a novel he hasn’t finished. I wish I had a recording of that novel except.  Anyway, here’s Foxhole Manifesto by Jeffrey McDaniel.

Consider The Lobster (collected essays) – David Foster Wallace

April 16, 2010

I swore off DFW material but I couldn’t help myself. I had finished Oblivion, I had Consider the Lobster sitting there, waiting. I picked it up and I started reading it and I was hooked. I’m not sure what can be said about a collection of essays except that when an essay about an awards banquet for porn movies is the least interesting essay and the most interesting is a 60 page review of a dictionary that turns into a synopsis of a language war between prescriptivists and descriptivists, you know you have something special.

The elephant in the collection, though, is probably “Up, Simba!” It was an article originally commissioned by Rolling Stone for Wallace to go out on the campaign trail and find out what the whole John McCain thing was about way back in 2000 when he was upsetting the W political applecart.Now, why Rolling Stone would look at anything Wallace has ever written and thought that he would return with something that is, first, what they had in envisioned from the outset and, second, of a reasonable length, is beyond me.  The thing is huge. At the time Wallace was told that to publish it as is it would likely take ALL print space in the magazine. All of it. Which meant it had to be heavily edited.  I have no idea what ended up in the magazine but this piece, the whole piece, paints a very odd portrait of McCain as not only a maverick but of an occasionally far right magnet. Some of the things he supported from being very pro-gun to, bizarrely considering the era, vehemently anti-drugs (as in, wasn’t that war an 80s thing?) he had all of the hallmarks of a great GOP candidate. It’s something where his lack of popularity with the GOP can only be explained by how it has become so rabidly marginalized in its views. It also spoke to how frightening he should have been to the left but that he had such a weird aura about him that he was a genuinely interesting candidate from the middle – despite his clear leanings towards the right. In the end, it’s still about as interesting as the porn awards essay but it’s also Wallace at his best, finding a way to step back and take a look at something that is at the same time reflective and insightful while also distanced enough to convey a genuine openness to interpretation. It’s an essay that welcomes the reader in and asks them to take part, a trait that is shared throughout the collection.

A quick websearch turned up the following link for the full text for the essay Consider the Lobster (via It’s as good of a place as any to start to see if you would be interested in the rest of the collection and how can anyone pass up a free essay questioning the morality in killing any animal for food?

Dastgah by Mark Mordue – Review

April 8, 2010

A travelogue published in 2004 but written largely from just before the terrorist attacks of 9-11 and just after them, it’s a look into a world that less than a decade later may not even exist. As it stands, it is prescient look at an area just before, as the time worn adage goes, everything changed.

Reading through it, I wasn’t sure how to break it up to talk about it. I considered breaking it up by destination, talking about who he encountered in each place, what he saw, where he went, etc. etc. but breaking it up takes a way what gradually revealed itself to be the overwhelming arc of the journey – the discovery of a common humanity in the farthest reaches of the world. And how our, the industrial western world’s, occasional lack of humanity is reflected back by this.

At a time when the over-riding image of the Middle Eastern world is of an area under the tidal pull of religious fanaticism, the only truly negative experience Mordue suffered was when he was gently mugged at an ATM in Paris. Before that he would journey through India (twice), Nepal, Turkey and Iran. He will have visited tiny villages in the middle of nowhere, he will have witnessed the aftermath of a person losing a battle with a tour bus and he will have survived the streets of India and all of their roving, one -man one stop shopping stores where whatever you want is either up a sleeve, in a pocket or around the corner. By and large, everyone he meets greets him with an overwhelming kindness, partly because they wish their nation to make a good impression on him but, you get the feeling, that it is simply seen as the right thing to do, the human thing. And this human thing is repeated in his smaller, quicker jaunts through the Western World after his bank card is stolen and friends of friends of friends allow him to crash on their couch or their floor and allow him to return to his feet first in Paris and then in NY.

the chapter on Iran is perhaps the most interesting in relation to current events. Mordue paints a picture of a nation divided with a growing youth movement seeking a transparency and openness that its predecessors and, frankly, rulers are not comfortable with. The impression is that Iran is a nation that has come to its revolution independently and inevitably, a nation that is perhaps far more Westernized than its aging rulers wish to believe a nation of people desiring greater western freedoms.

Woven into the adventure is the ups and downs of Mordue’s relationship with his girlfriend, the push and pull of it, the occasional strain of the travel and the binding of it. Throughout the text you are never sure if their relationship will last and you wonder why it is strained so, why Mordue at times seems so ready to move away from it. Looking back through the book, I’m not sure we’re given a definite answer as to how this turned out for Mark but he does provide an answer in the acknowledgements. I won’t mention what happens but, if you’re curious, look there.

In blurbs for the front/back cover, Wim Wenders touches upon Jack Kerouac a couple of times, as well as Paul Bowles. I can see the comparison to a Paul Bowles character but I’m not entirely sold on the Kerouac comparison. Mordue certainly seems to be a bit lost, to be searching for something, but he also doesn’t seem to have the same desperate energy in finding it. I wonder if part of this comes from the fact that Kerouac was often surrounded by friends and contemporaries in his travels and adventures while Mordue was with his girlfriend and how the dynamics of each as travel companions are evident in the comparisons. This isn’t to say that either is better than the other, just that the energy is different.

Dastgah is taken from the name for the complex form of classical music created in Iran. It is a combination of memorized parts that make up the basics of every “song” but which can be interchanged and woven together randomly and on the fly by a group of musicians. It is the musician’s responsibility to not only know these different sections well enough to play them but to also know his fellow musicians well enough to instantly recognize where they are going and how to join in with them. It also works as a nice metaphor for life. We are all given pretty much the same parts to work with. We must all learn the different notes we have to play but the construction of life is the random use of these notes and how well we react and weave ourselves in amongst them. Dastgah is a record of one person’s learning the notes and discovering new ways of weaving his parts into the whole. full of life’s minor and major victories and defeats and some of the horrors that simply exist outside of either of those, it is a riveting read of a journey through life.