Timing really does matter – in so many things. For instance, beyond the obvious, like filing your taxes on time. Or, getting to t...morePlanet of the Zombies
Timing really does matter – in so many things. For instance, beyond the obvious, like filing your taxes on time. Or, getting to the opera before they shut the doors & you’re consigned to the lobby. It also makes a difference in when you experience what many feel is a cultural phenomenon. Beyond enticing Brad Pitt, luring him to invest a small fortune in adapting this zombie fest from an “oral history” into a flick with a cogent story line, it also enthralled a slurry of critics. Gilbert Cruz’s review for Entertainment embodies the love affair the reading public had with Brooks’ zombie extravaganza. He wrote: “Brooks subconsciously references worldwide crises from 9/11 to tribal civil wars to Hurricane Katrina, producing a debut that will grab you as tightly as a dead man's fist.” If that’s not a ringing endorsement, I don’t know what is. So, maybe if I’d read Brooks’ “Oral History” when it was first published back in 06 I might have been more awed by its story line. After all, the living dead, merrily gnawing away on whatever piece of sentient flesh they could sink their dripping incisors into, was still a relatively nascent entry to the pop horror scene. But, I didn’t read it back then. And, I was hardly gripped by the sense of awe some claimed to experience. It was another classic, text book case of expectations exceeding delivery. I don’t fault Brooks. How was he to know that zombies would become the craze of the country. How was he to know that the aforementioned Brad Pitt & Vanity Fair would upstage his macabre invention. Not possible. Regardless, the walking, lurching, munching dead have lost a bit of their pizzazz. But to an extent, the excuses I’ve made for Z are just that – excuses.
I do believe the reason Z achieved such cult status was because of its unique position in the evolution of the zombie zeitgeist. It led the parade & as such received the accolades. However, just because it was the first one down the block to shout “look what I found,” does not make it an exceptional or even better than average read. Agreed, clever concept. Compliments to Brooks on linking back the various governments’ failed responses to the “zombie virus” to other botched government interventions to life’s real tragedies. What Brooks failed to do was to present a coherent narrative populated by individuals, living or zombie that we gave a rat’s ass. Instead, he presents a series of vignettes only connected by drooling, never-say-die (even though they are so dead) zombies who find the most ingenious ways to screw with your day. So, while there were plenty of chuckles and a real sense of appreciation for the various ways a zombie could cause a bad hair day, in the end, it was not really a novel; no, it was a glibly facile outline of the premise for a big zombie movie. I’m sure it made his Dad proud. (less)
Either Moses or Bob Marley pops into my head when I think of Exodus. I prefer associating Exodus with Marley, cause I dig the Rastafarian groove...moreExodus
Either Moses or Bob Marley pops into my head when I think of Exodus. I prefer associating Exodus with Marley, cause I dig the Rastafarian groove of the tune – Moses wandering all over the desert always reminds me of my own directional deficiencies. Some identify Exodus with Leon Uris & his epic treatment of Israel’s creation. For those of you too young to remember either the Uris flick or book, don’t worry, I’m sure Netflix carries it. Regardless of your favorite Exodus icon, symbolically speaking, they all cover the same ground – crossing over. Crossing over into the promised land or as Marley sings: “So we gonna walk - all right! - through de roads of creation.”
McCarthy’s The Crossing harkens back to that same biblical reference – crossing over to get to that “something.” Only for McCarthy that something is always evolving, never quite palpable, always forcefully present, and always upon retrospection, divinely depressing.
To carry on with that biblical tradition, let’s return to the beginning – in this case, our Moses - Billy Parham, McCarthy’s steely main dude. In the beginning is the wolf. Typical ranch fare – wolves eating the livestock – sneaky critters, got to deal with em’. While I can’t say too much about the wolf & Billy without divulging story highlights, I can share a couple of things: the wolf is instrumental in Billy crossing over & equally, if not more importantly, Billy’s involvement with the wolf defines his character throughout the rest of the novel. By the end, when McCarthy is wrapping it all up, you can’t help but think about the wolf & Billy & where he has arrived & along with Billy you want to cry.
If like me, you decide to read The Crossing as part of his Border Trilogy, one of the first differences you note between the second installment & the former is that unlike the solemn rectitude of All the Pretty Horses, McCarthy laces The Crossing with mordant humor. It seeps through at innocuous moments. Once when crossing the border there’s this exchange: “You taking that dog with you said the guard. If he wants to come.” Billy replies. Later, during an otherwise tense episode there’s this bit between Billy & his brother: “How bad are you cut Boyd said. It’s just a scratch. He cut thru my boot pretty good. This country’s hell on clothes. It’s gettin that reputation with me.” After the solemn rigor mortis & lyrical, sweetly stultifying melancholy of Horses, laugh out loud moments was the last expectation. But, these flashes of cowboy humor do not come without a price. They are used more as barbed traps, scented with sweet meat to lure, only to snap shut with a vengeance, ripping away that divide between reader and characters.
Another exodus-like theme echoing throughout is the sense of separation - there’s always this sense of painful estrangement. His main characters separated from one another. The characters treading upon the land, separate from it, though living in & on it. Quite like Moses separated from his flock & inevitably, at the end of the journey, separated from the promise of his final destination, McCarthy’s characters too are denied in many ways their ultimate cross over.
I can’t but help compare the spirit of The Crossing to its earlier incarnation. Even though All of The Pretty Horses was far more pensive, philosophical almost, The Crossing achieves a higher plateau of the quasi mystical state, leaping beyond the heightened physical activity of the story. Even in that pulse quickening vibrato, McCarthy manages to dwell deeper within his characters’ psyche, striking a chord ringing true at certain truths that are understood, but too difficult to explain. Giving credit where credit is due, this is where McCarthy excels – hints & shadows, using ordinary everyday acts to suggest a deeper meaning beyond just the physical act transpiring. There are the contrasts like ragged edges of light dancing elegantly on the dusty verdes sharply separating the oft repeated acts of kindness – a tortilla, or chicken or bed for the night, or small offering of coins against the violent, sudden slash of a blade swiping at a large artery or piece of face you’d rather keep.
A biblical scholar might attempt to draw even more parallels between the path of Billy Parham & Moses. Lord knows there’s ample ground for all sorts of inspired linkage between the two. The odds are McCarthy never intended Billy to be such a strictly allegorical figure; but if that was the intent, McCarthy planted plenty of those larger than life dimensions. Among them: he is too pure; too driven; too without obvious sin; polite to a fault; circumspect. He is lost in time – wandering aimlessly. Never knowing what time it is or day or even month. In one episode all of the stores in a town are closed – he asks why. Well stores are closed on Christmas. He’s clueless. Yet, beyond all of that, he’s riveted to an inner, unknown voice that commands him to fulfill those ancient rituals which the rest of us all know & sometimes honor & mostly conform to, unless reality proves too resolute. Then, most of us succumb. But not Billy. He perseveres. In the face of it all. Neither logic nor reality matters. Like water, he advances. (less)
Context is everything. In the hands of a different author, All the Pretty Horses could have been played for laughs. The...moreThey Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Context is everything. In the hands of a different author, All the Pretty Horses could have been played for laughs. The main characters & plot line would have been perfect fodder for a modern buddy movie. Here’s what we’ve got: a couple of teenage boys living on ranches in Texas decide to split for Mexico on their horses where they meet up with an even younger kid (a runaway they suspect) who joins them on their adventure. They encounter many dangers along the way, meet a slews of bad guys & in the end emerge alive, if not relatively unscathed (well, not entirely, someone’s always gotta bite the big one, right?). Imagine if Hunter S. Thompson had written this horse epic. To borrow an old, wooden cliché, it would have been a barrel of laughs. But clearly, that ain’t the case here. McCarthy doesn’t write comedy. Think Blood Meridian, The Road, or No Country for Old Men; if you laughed while reading any of those, you’re one sick pup. I guess the only reason I even bother to make such a stark & one might add, awkward comparison, is that McCarthy’s tome is the antithesis of a romp through the old west. It’s a lot of things, but light reading ain’t on the list. And for some, by the book’s end, a little comic relief might arrive as a godsend.
Now, lest you think that I’m hounding this American classic, definitely not the intent. I’m probably just stuck in a funk, cause it was so damn depressing. Yes, the writing was lyrical, magisterial almost. But it was so melancholy. It was drenched in a foreboding mystique that let you know, even before anything went south, that indeed, it would take a turn down a rat’s hole. The thing is, he does it with an incredible sense of realism. There’s one scene (I’m not giving anything away here) where our three amigos are out on the range, days since their last meal when they shoot an emaciated jack rabbit for dinner. They skin it, wrap it in its own skin & then cook it underground. Why? Because that’s how the Indians did it. Or, so says the youngest hanger-on. And as the rabbit is cooking the grass is rippling in the evening breeze & they’re arguing about how it will taste & that raw oysters was the weirdest thing one of them had ever eaten. Very there.
I also must add that I’ve never read anything quite like it. Now, his repeated use of strong, declarative language did remind me of Hemingway at times, but except for that faint resemblance, it was quite unique. In particular, his cadence created its own special rhythm. And, I’m sure no one is surprised when I observe that the rat-a-tat-tat of his words falling down upon the pages was quite literally like the sounds of hooves, rumbling in the distance, horse’s hooves, of course. They are everything – his horses. Their gait. The way they flow, chomp at the bit, froth & shake their great heads. They move the plot. Form the basis of the story. Underline the tension. Make the love story possible. After all, look at the title.
The horses play such a pivotal role in his novel. If allowed, I could go on, waxing rhapsodically about the symbolic nature of these great “beasts of burden.” It may be enough to say, that the “breaking of the horses,” elemental to the story line, casts a perfect pallor of irony over the course of events. For while the horses are “broken” it is they who emerge whole & saved. But enough hints at what happens in the book. Suffice to say, if the horses could talk, what a story they … And again, if the horses could speak they’d do so in a lyrical way, massaging out the sound bits as swallowed gasps of pain spewed in hurky-jerky spats of rain-splattered bleakness. McCarthy leads us into darkened gullies, no place to hide, light, a precious commodity, not readily available. Like justice, something sought & tangentially grasped, yet elusive & though within grasp, never fully realized.
Please permit me a little artistic freedom here. First, the only connection between All The Pretty Horses & They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, (both the title of my critique & the book & subsequent film) is their shared expression of pain. I draw the two together not because of the obvious horse references, but because each of these artistic endeavors uses horses so effectively to convey human suffering. At the end of They Shoot Horses Don’t They, a despondent man takes the life of an equally despondent woman after she asks him to do so. When the police ask him why he killed her he says: "Because she asked me to." The policeman persists. Robert answers, "They shoot horses, don't they?" And while no horses or women are shot in McCarthy’s epic I can well imagine any one of his characters uttering pretty much the same words. (less)
Long before Martin catapulted to the pinnacle of the Medieval Arthurian fantasy infused genre he had already identified himself as a...moreThe Crown Seekers
Long before Martin catapulted to the pinnacle of the Medieval Arthurian fantasy infused genre he had already identified himself as a respected player in the television industry. He honed his story telling skills there, working on the classic Twilight Zone & later on the hugely popular Beauty & the Beast. He held a number of diverse positions during his halcyon TV days; he was a writer, story consultant, producer – an all-purpose, jack-of-trades journeyman. This experience proved invaluable. It shines through the development of his characters, the pacing of the plot & the keen understanding that just like in a network series where the goal is to get the viewer to return for another episode, as a writer there is that similar goal – get the reader to turn the page – more than that, addict the reader to the epic unfolding. And so Martin does, serving up a bitches brewed stew of feints of magic, buried in punk realism, imbued with classic fairy tale sensibilities, whimsically pasted against a pastiche of accepted Western folk lore masquerading as Arthurian England while all along protected safely within a JR Ewing Dallas syndication repeat.
Yes, indeed, reading A Games of Thrones is just like going to those old Saturday matinee serial cliff hangers that kept you coming back for more. Martin deftly achieves this & more. Each of his chapter headings is titled with one of the main characters. So, as the reader, not only do you get to know at the beginning of every new chapter that whose point of view will be expressed, you also get to experience the joy of knowing that you’re either going to be rooting for your protagonist or howling in exasperation, aghast at the moral turpitude of the villain. In other words, it’s a lot of fun. The characters are all classic retreads, yet he makes it work. There’s the good lord serving his king; his children in hues & shades of good & not quite; his wife, strong, noble, loving with a touch of grating aristocratic menace making her all the more human. And then of course the story is replete with a nefarious bunch of baddies we all just love to hate. We’ve got the ice bitch queen, so cold & nasty she leaves glaciers in her wake. Her entire family is so evil you’re convinced Martin will figure out a way to roast them all in hell to the applause of every reader. Let’s not forget the gnarled, dyspeptic dwarf, cunning & sly & in the same breath as funny as any comedian who’s graced the stage. No second guesses here, this miniature, warped creature disguised as a man, is totally without any moral compunction, yet still he manages to elicit a wavering degree of respect, in spite of his unctuous shenanigans, there’s something amusingly attractive about his persona that make you want to forgive him for his excesses – sort of.
Watching these entire sundried, wonderfully crafted characters circle round the chase for the throne excites & delights. It is all the more alluring, aware that A Game of Thrones is merely but the first shot across the bow in a saga that will stretch for six more books – the last two not written. There’s a palpable sense of anticipation, mounting with each page turned, every paragraph completed. You know you’re on your way to a uniquely, ever-rewarding adventure that will keep you on your seat’s edge for many months to come.
Now, is A Game of Thrones a brilliant piece of literature? More succinctly is it literature? I don’t think so. Further, I don’t think it matters. It’s a rip-snorting, romp of a read that will get you on the phone with your local cable operator, asking how soon will it be before you can have HBO in your living room to watch this magical tour de force play out on your very own flat screen. (less)
Toward the end of this momentous, detailed narrative of how the atomic bomb was conceived & executed, I grappled with how I...moreWelcome to the Machine
Toward the end of this momentous, detailed narrative of how the atomic bomb was conceived & executed, I grappled with how I might succinctly share my impressions of its magnitude. In an obliquely inspired & somewhat ironically hinged connection I thought of Pink Floyd's "Welcome to the Machine." At the time, the eponymous named tune of the album, presented my son & I a unique opportunity - a rocket ship ride to the stars. I'd pull our large stereo speakers close together & the two of us (Jason was 3 at the time) would lie down on the floor as I cranked up the volume. For those familiar with the stadium pleasing anthem you might recall that given the right leap of fancy, it was quite possible to imagine the opening overture as the sounds associated with a rocket blasting off into space. And then came the haunting lyrics that echoed in my ears as I finished reading this terrifying tome: "Welcome my son, welcome to the machine. Where have you been? It's alright we know where you've been, You've been in the pipeline, filling in time ..."
And so have we all since a coterie of this planet's most brilliant physicists ushered into our world the discovery of nuclear fission.What Rhodes does a brilliant job of is to magnify in excruciating detail both the level of complexity & the dedication of our national resources to creating our first weapon of mass destruction. While conceived over a decade and a half, the bulk of the atomic bomb project occurred at the Los Alamos labs in Santa Fe, New Mexico. At the height of its production powers the lab exceeded in funds spent & materials produced the entire automotive industry. It was no small task to create an atomic bomb. Indeed, it was a Herculean effort to produce this machine of death -perhaps the most ingenious & evil creation hatched in the 20th century. By the conclusion of this important & at times difficult to digest story (Rhodes goes into great technical detail - much of which floated beyond my comprehension) the reader understands quite well that a door has been opened that can never again, be closed.(less)
I recently read Baker's novella "The Anthologist" which captures the minutia of a poet's existence. Entirely character driven, wi...moreIntimate Conversation
I recently read Baker's novella "The Anthologist" which captures the minutia of a poet's existence. Entirely character driven, with only a threadbare plot, i was nonetheless impressed enough by his writing prowess that I opted to pick up Vox which had the reputation for being a steamy. erotic novel. "The Anthologist", almost PG13 tame seemed to be an fascinating counterpoint to this novel I contemplated. So, to clear the air, it's hot & steamy & erotic. It's also beautifully written with these sentences that curl down the page, flowing like water over a tub's edge. The two participants, callers to an adult sex hot line, are articulately detailed in their descriptions of what turns them on & the lengths to which they go to experience their pleasure. Without much surprise, there is a bond of need between these two individuals, who except for the rub of their voices over the phone have never known one another & most likely, never will. There is an intense neediness within their need that both know they have the ability to satisfy, at least within the limited confines of their torrid conversation. And so they do.(less)
Perusing through the recent October issue of Vanity Fair I spied an article that grabbed my attention: "How to Create a Literary Star" by Kei...moreBatter Up
Perusing through the recent October issue of Vanity Fair I spied an article that grabbed my attention: "How to Create a Literary Star" by Keith Gessen. Turns out it was a personal tale about the author's college buddy who had been working on this novel for what seemed like forever - 10 years to be exact. His friend, Chad Harbach, had extended a long story he had written for acceptance into a M.F.A. program into a gargantuan sized novel. This epic baseball extravaganza consumed Harbach's existence, rendering him almost penniless (he was down to less than $100 in his savings account), till he landed a mega million dollar deal. Harbach had stepped up to the plate, fallen behind the count 0 & 2, fouled off an innumerable number of fouls before smacking the ball out of the park.
His own personal triumph mirrors in so many ways the struggles his characters encounter.And what a cast of characters! There's the star, record setting shortstop, whose errant throw goes astray, almost kills a teammate, sending our erstwhile hero into an error dizzying tailspin. It just so happens that the teammate he beanballs is also his roommate & the new par amour of the college President. And, as plot fate would have it, the college President has a daughter who is also involved in this multi-leveled, overlapping seeming melodrama. But Harbach skillfully maneuvers the plot beyond simple melancholy, posing instead the classic question - when the count is 0 & 2, what do you do. Each of Harbach's characters gets their chance to step into the batter box, metaphorically & otherwise & how they perform is the story he tells.(less)
My Dad started taking me to Dodger games when I was about seven. The Dodgers had not yet moved to Chavez Ravine & I thrilled to the Do...moreThe Greatest
My Dad started taking me to Dodger games when I was about seven. The Dodgers had not yet moved to Chavez Ravine & I thrilled to the Dodgers those first few seasons at the Coliseum, home of the LA Rams & USC Trojans. The Coliseum was not designed for baseball. Dimensions were all wrong.You could lift a home run over the left field fence a mere 241 feet away. To compensate for the short distance the Dodgers installed an unusually high fence that inspired the catcall: "Hit it to the moon." The Dodgers happened to have a left fielder at the time named Wally Moon who became famous for hitting homers over that tall fence. When he came up to bat the crowd would roar: "Hit it to the moon, Moon." And every now & then he would oblige .It was there, at the LA Coliseum that I was first introduced to Sandy Koufax. No formal invitation - c'mon I was a seven year old kid. No, that is where I have my first memory of seeing Sandy Koufax pitch a ball game. Now, the thing is, that may or may not have happened. Because as Leavy writes in her endearing biography Koufax inspired mythical recollections. Famous players like Ernie Banks remember with crystal clarity at bats that never occurred. Hitters who succumbed to Koufax during his perfect game remember going down swinging when they actually saw the ball go whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. So, please forgive me, nearly 53 years later, if my memory is a bit shaky & chooses to enshrine Mr. Koufax in a witnessed game I may never have attended. And that is one of the beauties of this marvelous book. It reignites all of those old memories - true & imagined. She delivers Koufax to us, entirely intact, firmly fleshed out, the ball player we all loved, admired & respected. He was truly the greatest left handed pitcher ever to grace a ball field. He did it with class, grace & humility. As does Ms. Leavy - a tribute shared with clear-eyed wonderment; really, just another adoring fan, kneeling before a baseball deity. (less)
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Poetry but Were Afraid to Ask
I fashion myself a poet. Never made a dime from anything I've written, but hav...moreEverything You Always Wanted to Know About Poetry but Were Afraid to Ask
I fashion myself a poet. Never made a dime from anything I've written, but have had some poems published & friends & my wife tell me that I've got talent. However, after reading Baker's The Anthologist my confidence has been shattered. His main character (an alter ego), a poet & veritable encyclopedia of poetry knowledge, dissects the nuances, history & intricacies of rhymed & free verse poetry in such a way that my futile attempts & output is rendered irrelevant in comparison. So much for this being an ego building book. Aside from those minor distractions The Anthologist is a wonderfully warm, witty monologue (for the most part) that lacks any real action or plot development. It's really more of an extended character study embedded in a thesis on what constitutes good poetry & who the kooky characters were that created all of these memorable lines English professors like to commit to memory & spout at a moments notice. As for me, I don't even remember the lines I've written, much less anyone elses. (less)
I was really looking forward to reading this book & gaining a better understanding of the history of our relationshi...moreMis-Adventures in the Mid East
I was really looking forward to reading this book & gaining a better understanding of the history of our relationship with those countries that now constitute the Middle East. For the most part Mr. Oren (Israel's current Ambassador to the US), does a splendid job tracing our involvement & the evolving interdependency of our country and the nation states of the Middle East. He eloquently & with a dry wit fashions a wry narrative that stitches together the unseemly alliance of Christian evangelism and a shackled imperialists quest for power & hegemony. While there is nothing humorous about reading of the staggering deaths & defeats that early American missionaries encountered in their treks to the Holy Land (the final & most important destination for most), one cannot but laugh in an uncomfortable way at the comedy of errors that befell these early travelers.
What emerges most though, seamlessly rippling through all of the accounts, is an unflattering portrait of the indigenous people's of the Mid East - Muslims, Christians & Jews. These negative impressions are made real as they are expressed through the words of notables such as Mark Twain, Teddy Roosevelt & other such luminaries. These are uncivilized people - dirty, reeking of bad hygiene, unscrupulous - and further, unwilling to be converted to the right type of Christianity. Now, whether Mr. Oren consciously or not, sought to portray these individuals as less than Westerners may be debatable; what is not, is that they are set up as the perfect foils for a twentieth century finale we are all too familiar with. (less)