The world of metal – even black metal – isn’t foreign to me. It doesn’t conjure up frightening images of animal sacrifice or Satanic black mass, nor d...more The world of metal – even black metal – isn’t foreign to me. It doesn’t conjure up frightening images of animal sacrifice or Satanic black mass, nor does it undermine my worldview and reality. By my own admission, then, I was bound to be disappointed by this book: I don’t see black metal as the nefarious, shadowy enemy of goodness and light, and therefore Lords of Chaos is (in my case) a book to be scrutinized with a jaundiced, even jaded, eye.
As a composition, it's unevenly constructed: the first and final thirds of the book are well-executed, but the central portions are meandering, unfocused, and disorganized. It is a volume in desperate need of an editor. There’s little analysis of the subculture: only superficial commentary on appearance or rudimentary linking of actions to purported ideologies. The melodramatic typifying of the individuals and bands in the black metal scene is intellectually lazy and unambitious: like a sideshow barker encouraging people to step up and embrace their revulsion, the author – Michael Moynihan – (disingenuously) portrays black metal as a serious subversive threat to the nicely-ordered Christian world.
Moynihan isn’t a particularly skillful writer, nor does he present a well-reasoned account of the history and sociology of black metal. It’s difficult to understand his ‘end game,’ and this isn’t a compliment to supposed impartiality or journalistic integrity: rather, it’s a demonstration of his failure to create a readable, engaging book on a compelling subject. He uses the same emotional rhetoric and scare tactics employed by metal critics (Satanism! Devil worship! Evil! Violence!) to drum up the shock value of the black metal subculture. Moynihan fails to offer meaningful criticism on any element of the scene, which speaks more to his lack of critical thinking and insight than anything else.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a disproportionate amount of time and energy is devoted to Varg Vikernes, the infamous ‘Burzum,’ and his ideological grandstanding. Vikernes emerged as the media’s poster child of the subculture, burning churches and committing murder, before issuing racialist and political screeds from prison. He exemplifies the fringe, and is all too happy to indulge interviewers’ curiosities. In a bizarre lack of editorial organization, Vikernes is used as a jumping-off point to a byzantine (and lengthy!) exploration of Nazi UFOs, Norwegian collaboration with the NSDAP, and other unrelated subjects.
The book is a slapdash of interviews and commentary that, together, create a portrait of the black metal scene emerging in the early 1990s. Norway occupies the forefront of the scene, with small segues into Finnish, American, German, and Eastern European black metal. The interviews contained in the book vary in length and relationship to the subject matter. Moynihan is neither discerning nor insightful with his questions, instead often leading the interviewee towards various conclusions. There’s an over-emphasis on the political elements of black metal, with a lot of authorial winks and nods about the proto-fascism and neo-Nazi beliefs. (less)
Oh, this is such a difficult graphic novel for me to review, because it accompanies near a lifetime of affection for the film. For years, it was my fa...moreOh, this is such a difficult graphic novel for me to review, because it accompanies near a lifetime of affection for the film. For years, it was my favorite movie: two young women edging into adulthood and growing increasingly disillusioned with the world. Rebecca and Enid’s cynical, deadpan wit and insight was a grand deviation from the behavior of other women in popular media; on some level, it reassured me – in the throes of the cautious insecurity of adolescence – that it was okay to transgress. It was also the very first film I saw where the women characters weren’t fixated on relationships or men (though there is, of course, a healthy dose of teenage sexuality); the central focus of their lives wasn’t on attaining some romantic ideal or objective.
All that said: Ghost World by Daniel Clowes has been on my ‘to-read’ list for years. Last evening, I finally settled in with the Deluxe Special Edition (containing the original comic, plus a few extra art pieces, commentary by Terry Zwigoff, and the screenplay), and went forth. It was like seeing beloved old friends. Despite being nearly twenty years old, it’s held up well: Enid and Rebecca, in the course of the series, navigate life after high school. They are close, intimate even, finding companionship in one another while occupying the same niche in an unremarkable city sprawl.
The narratives vacillate between social and cultural commentary (which, too, alternates between the insightful and superficial) and chance encounters with unusual characters, all against the future looming ahead. Enid is preparing to enter college at her father’s behest, a process she faces in a non-committal and ambivalent fashion. Rebecca – feeling abandoned and adrift – struggles with her place in Enid’s life and her burgeoning independence.
Clowes, unlike most male authors, is actually skilled in capturing the casual insults and affections of the close friendships between women; he sidesteps the common trappings of vapidity (far more the presumption of male authors than the reality of women, to be sure). The illustrations are bold and exaggerated, usually tri-color (black, white, and a chosen pastel) and bordering on surreal. Though Enid and Rebecca make their way through a few different places in their unnamed city, it’s an anonymous landscape and could feasibly be anywhere: the strip malls, fake 50s diners, and citizen eccentrics aren’t unique to any town, large or small.
Ghost World, too, is the kind of graphic novel that leaves readers cleaved between adoration and irritation; I’m inclined to think those who saw high school as “not that bad,” or even positively, will probably find little to like about find Ghost World. The feelings of alienation and isolation in adolescence are very real, legitimate experiences that – in popular literature – are so often couched dismissing agency. In other literature, women protagonists are overwhelmingly assigned traits of vapidity, rarely depth or wit; in this sense, Enid and Rebecca diverge from common behaviors and expectations of young adults.
To transpose grand intellectual traditions and expectations onto Ghost World is to miss the point entirely: it is a brilliant and insightful work, but it’s only as brilliant and insightful as its characters are capable of being. The entry into adulthood is plagued with ambiguities, unfocused anger, and an attempt to understand roles and relationships. Clowes so captures this transition without projecting a teleology on Enid and Rebecca. He lets them be, in an essential sense, without making them into ideological mark-ups of expectations and ambitions. In some sense, Ghost World fulfills the 'bildungsroman' archetype as a story of education. While nothing of note happens - there are no demons to conquer or trials to navigate, really - the social and relational tensions become the focal point of character development and growth. (less)
Is ‘mystic’ a polite way of saying ‘unintelligible’?
I first encountered Simone Weil while reading The Long Loneliness, the autobiography of Dorothy D...moreIs ‘mystic’ a polite way of saying ‘unintelligible’?
I first encountered Simone Weil while reading The Long Loneliness, the autobiography of Dorothy Day; Weil came recommended to me as another Catholic woman writer and social activist. Like Day, she is intellectually rigorous and contemplative about the nature of faith and its relationship with the world militant. However, there similarities drop off – Day is grounded in the mechanics of the physical world, the demands and oversights of its players, and remains driven and active against the prevailing injustices; Weil shutters herself away, playing ascetic and writing an awful lot about it. That Weil, de Beauvoir (Weil’s contemporary at the Sorbonne), and Day are lumped into the same category speaks to a fundamental misunderstanding of the three women’s contributions and outlooks and an intellectually lazy glossing-over of what each represents: they are grandly divergent individuals, only their sex and religious affiliation are common.
Waiting for God left me underwhelmed: it fell squarely into the category of literature that, for the life of me, I can’t figure out how or why it’s earned the attention and accolades of so many. It is unevenly written: a collection of letters to a Priest (and confident) and essays on faith that – while dense – are occasionally so circuitous as to be unintelligible. I don’t subscribe to the common notion that to be difficult to understand is equivalent to brilliance, nor am I especially inclined to believe I’m incapable of understanding Weil’s work. It’s an emotionally and intellectually immature work, thrumming with ambition, but failing to find focus.
Her naiveté is exasperating, which sporadically crept into delusion, about the nature of faith and her slavish devotion to the Church. She is dramatic, overwrought and even maudlin, lamenting her status and constantly delving into exhaustive, verbose bouts of spiritual introspection. Even if private, to make such a show of her faith and the ‘ecstasy’ contained therein is contrived: the lady, as it were, doth protest too much – I don’t doubt her faith or its sincerity, nor do I understand the compulsion to write at such great lengths about it. It seemed contradictory to chronically harping on Christ and divinity while writing excessively about oneself. For an individual so obsessively passionate about the suffering of others, perhaps I have little patience for her choice to – rather than contribute actively in charity or outreach – self-inflict similar suffering in solidarity with the oppressed.
Certainly, theology – especially personal theology – lends itself to doublespeak and ambiguity, because the nature of the spirit (and of sanctity itself) often eludes the confines of language. There are throngs of worthwhile 20th century apologists, individuals who thoughtfully and incisively delve into spiritual matters without becoming weighted down with solipsistic dirges about their internalized beliefs.
Waiting for God creates the distinct impression that Weil was psychologically unwell, if not experiencing bouts of psychosis or mania. I'm also likely not the 'right' reader for this book - it's steeped so heavily in excessive self-involvement and examination that I found it oftentimes difficult to find where, in fact, God comes into play - other than as a vessel for her to delve deeper into her own psyche and proclamations of enduring faith. (less)
The mythos (and thousands of volumes of accompanying thought) surrounding Franz Kafka’s oeuvre can make him an intimidating and overwhelming author fo...moreThe mythos (and thousands of volumes of accompanying thought) surrounding Franz Kafka’s oeuvre can make him an intimidating and overwhelming author for the uninitiated. As a testament to the formative nature of his works (within the realm of modern literature), his surname has entered the contemporary lexicon – Kafkaesque - to denote byzantine bureaucracy. And yet -- despite the attention and consideration heaped upon The Trial, The Metamorphosis, etc. -- Kafka is ultimately an accessible writer. Though he delves into the fantastic, the concerns and difficulties in his stories are anything but unusual: he addresses common, even quotidian, anxieties about purpose and control.
I adored Robert Crumb’s Kafka: his distinct illustration style, vacillating between caricature and grotesque, is befitting the subject. The text author, David Mairowitz, is skilled at distilling complex themes into approachable subject matter: he and Crumb seamlessly move between biography and literary criticism throughout the graphic novel. Without much (or any) prior experience, the reader will glean a thoughtful overview of the cultural, historical, and intellectual underpinning guiding Kafka’s repertoire.
(Summaries and basic analyses of The Trial, The Metamorphosis, Amerika, The Castle, "In the Penal Colony," and "The Hunger Artist" are interspersed throughout -- a strong selection of his most famous works).
The two creators work well together, and their contributions are complementary. Crumb’s artistry is absolutely perfect for capturing Kafka’s pervasive neuroses and obsessions; the exaggerated details and features evoke the thematic anxiety in Kafka’s short stories and novels. The autobiographical elements of Kafka are, so far as my knowledge goes, accurate portrayals of his relationships and personal idiosyncrasies and behaviors – especially the contradictions of his internal self-perception (manifest in his letters, diaries, and writing) and his external daily life.
Graphic Novels ‘on the margins’ – ones that address unusual or unexpected subjects – are a recent point of fascination for me. When I heard that there...moreGraphic Novels ‘on the margins’ – ones that address unusual or unexpected subjects – are a recent point of fascination for me. When I heard that there was one about the DPRK, Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang, I immediately requested it from the library.
First, the good: Delisle has a fascinating experience to recount. Part of a French animation studio, he lived and worked in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, for a few months to oversee animation projects. He visited many of the country’s monuments to Kim Il Sung, and was – as much as a foreigner could hope – witness to DPRK culture. North Korea is one of the final countries entirely separate from the Western world, and any glimpse into it, however scant, is fascinating. There’s so much potential here, which amplifies how very short Pyongyang falls.
At every turn, Delisle grandstands about the shortcomings of life in North Korea. He laments everything from the food available to the behavior of the Chinese guests at his hotel. At every turn, his clear discomfort at anything different is consistently displayed. I’d imagine he thinks himself a man of the world, but he reminded me of that stereotype of the American abroad for the first time, constantly complaining that a foreign country “isn’t like home.”
The commentary in the book is far from being nuanced and thoughtful: instead, it devotes itself to the failings of North Korea to emulate Western comfort, cuisine, behavior. He recounts his visit to the cultural shrines and monuments, which could have been interesting to read about – if they weren’t steeped in ethnocentrism. His comments on women – both local and foreigners – are repugnant and misogynistic, especially from an individual who laughably views himself as worldly and progressive.
When Delisle gives one of his Korean guides a copy of 1984, the smug superiority is palpable: here he is, the white European man, broadening the narrow view of the North Korean mind and experience. Delisle entirely disregards the abject danger he puts his guide in, and instead – I think – attempts to make a ‘point’ about how closed North Korea is, and how fearful of Western ideas its inhabitants are.
More than insight into the DPRK, Pyongyang is an unflattering reflection of its author. (less)
It’s unbelievable that Touching the Void and Into Thin Air are simultaneously recommended as exemplars of the mountaineering genre. Both relate to cli...moreIt’s unbelievable that Touching the Void and Into Thin Air are simultaneously recommended as exemplars of the mountaineering genre. Both relate to climbing and survival in a completely different manner; Simpson’s literary abilities fall dramatically short of Krakauer’s masterful storytelling. The two books are alike insofar as they recount mountain survival and climbing, but diverge dramatically in overall quality and presentation. Where Krakauer engages, Simpson simply tells: his recollections are deadened by his writing, which generally edges into clinical reportage.
Technical jargon peppers the entire volume, and is an entry barrier to understanding many of the book’s events: I relied on YouTube and Google to figure out different equipment and techniques used by the climbers. Without even a rudimentary knowledge of technical climbing, the average reader won’t understand (or be able to picture) many situations in the novel. More energy could have – indeed, should have – been devoted to explaining some of the techniques and background of the climb; the glossary included at the end of the book is insufficient and spare.
One of the most disappointing parts of the book, for me, was Simpson’s failure to further explore the personal impact of his experience. In the final quarter of Touching the Void, he refers repeatedly to "the voice," a kind of cosmic sotto voce that crashes through his delirium on the mountainside and guides his actions. This occurrence is one recalled by many survivors, including Shackleton during the Antarctic expedition (detailed in South and elsewhere): a transcendent, didactic presence that keeps the individual moving forward towards survival. The depersonalization and derealization during a traumatic, life-threatening situation creates a space for personal reflection and even change.
Simpson is a mediocre storyteller, which is (especially given the subject matter) a tremendous disservice: his survival is one of the most incredible ever told, yet he fails to find a meaningful way to recount it. The writing is poorly paced and dull: it lacks depth, the sentences are repetitive and drone ever onwards. He is one of the too-common writers that, while cranking out thousands of words, manages to say very little – until the final chapters, where he rushes through his arrival at camp and subsequent hospital stay.
In many ways, Touching the Void is only half a book: Simpson’s story doesn't ‘stop’ when he makes it back to camp, though it’s where the writing ends. The recovery and return to mountaineering, his personal development in the ensuing months and years, would be fascinating to learn about – and (dammit) Simpson barely delves into it. (less)
Let’s get this out of the way: inevitably, the comparison is drawn to Maus, Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel about his parents’ experience in the Holoca...moreLet’s get this out of the way: inevitably, the comparison is drawn to Maus, Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel about his parents’ experience in the Holocaust and the ensuing familial dynamics. There is room in memoir, literature, and narrative for multiple works about the Holocaust; Katin’s We Are On Our Own occupies a unique niche. They are both distinct pieces of art, and overlap in only the most general manner.
Katin’s storytelling is spare: 115 pages of illustration contain fewer than five pages of text. Minimal verbal provisions are given to guide the reader through the experience. Where Maus is a post-modern novel, We Are On Our Own is minimalist poetry.
Illustrations portraying the present-day are in color, while recollections are in black and white. The artistry is vibrant and expressive, far more impressionist than I was expecting. It is a testament to Katin’s talent and vision that the nuance and power of her mother’s experience (and her own) can be conveyed so effectively.
Katin’s father is at war, Miriam – in her infancy – and her mother escape Budapest, Hungary during the Nazi occupation and rising anti-Semitism. Relying on the kindness of strangers, they make their way (on forged documents and new identities) to a remote farm, exchanging labor for accommodations.
Katin successfully portrays the complexity of the war’s effects on civilians, opting to avoid the demonizing and canonizing of different sides. Her neighbor in Budapest embraces a casual anti-Semitism, lamenting the failure of the Nazis’ to eliminate the Jews from Hungary. She alludes to her mothers’ relationship with a Nazi officer, a man who brought candy and finery, in exchange for safety. We, as readers, witness the shift between the Nazi occupiers and coming Russian forces, and the resultant change in attitudes among civilians.
Finally, and what is most interesting to me, is how Katin approaches religion during the war and the ‘silence of God.’ Miriam struggles with faith, identifying her father’s atheism as her inheritance. Like other Jews of her age and station, she inhabits the space between Jewish culture and Jewish theology; she acknowledges the capacity for Judaism to lend itself to quiet agnosticism while identifying with its tradition. (less)
I have no background in poetry, and Wislawa Szymborska's Here was the first collection I've ever read. Despite being the work of a Nobel Prize Winner,...moreI have no background in poetry, and Wislawa Szymborska's Here was the first collection I've ever read. Despite being the work of a Nobel Prize Winner, the poems were accessible and eminently readable. The poems have left me thinking -- and wanting to re-read each, more carefully and considerately.
Poetry is a genre that, in the most hubristic years of my misspent youth, I had no interest in -- and then, my lack of knowledge gave way to discomfort at an entire genre about which I knew nothing. It's a murky literary area I've had no business exploring; too vast, too different, and my god, what an effort to limp through a few lines of text (that may or may not be coherent, anyway).
The facing-page texts, with Polish (verso) and English (recto), gave me the opportunity to compare the original and translated versions of the poems. The translations nicely capture the rhythm of the Polish, and -- while far from qualified to make a formal assessment -- did justice to the original works. I read each poem aloud, in both languages, and then tried to make sense of them. Some I had encountered before in the New York Review of Books.
The poems are short, staccato, works, that require focused attention: enough is provided, in a Picasso-ian sense, to make an image, but not enough to make it pretty. To be sure, these poems don't think for you, a major reason I enjoyed them as much as I did. (less)
The Endurance is a short, quickly-paced book about Ernest Shackleton’s failed expedition to cross the Antarctic. The book was originally intended as a...moreThe Endurance is a short, quickly-paced book about Ernest Shackleton’s failed expedition to cross the Antarctic. The book was originally intended as a companion volume to the American Museum of Natural History’s 2011-12 exhibition, but can be read and enjoyed on its own.
The 1914 Trans-Antarctic Expedition, lead and organized by Ernest Shackleton, has captivated scholars and adventurers alike. Even now, a century on, it remains one of the greatest stories of human survival. The journey of the 27-man crew is canonical and especially unusual for its extensive crew documentation: virtually all the members maintained detailed journals, and a filmmaker-photographer accompanied the expedition with the intention of making a documentary. Numerous books have been written about the expedition, including Shackleton’s own South, and Edward Lansing’s Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage.
Caroline Alexander is a deft storyteller, efficiently and seamlessly merging excerpts from crew members’ diaries with photographs and independent research. She contextualizes the events of the expedition against the world arena, providing a rudimentary social and political framework upon which to build the story. She had access to sources previously unavailable to other researchers, and skillfully unifies diary entries and independent research. The result is a comprehensive, thoughtful, and thorough recollection of the expedition. With unexpected intimacy, Alexander reconstructs both the physical voyage and the burgeoning relationships between the men. She has an acute sense for the social dynamics on the ship, and is skilled in her candid nuanced portrayals of the individual men.
The story is, too, one of profound individual and shared loss: the destruction of the ship, Endurance, the abandonment of the intended goal, and the elimination of the final shreds of human comfort. In the spare, unforgiving Antarctic landscape, every minute comfort is integral morale – and the loss of any part is devastating. Dogs were brought on the expedition, with the intention of using them for sledging across the ice floes and tundra. After the expedition’s original intent is abandoned, the dogs are no longer needed (and become a burden: consuming valuable resources). Ultimately, the necessary action is to cull the sled dogs: in the crewmen’s journals, this event is detailed as one of the most difficult tasks ever undertaken. Similarly, Harry McNish’s beloved cat, Mrs. Chippy (brought onboard as an unofficial mascot and ship-pet), is also killed: the personal loss suffered never quite heals and alienates McNish from the other crew members.
With these events, especially, the remaining artifice of humanity in the Antarctic is destroyed: the affection and caretaking for the crew’s animals. The elimination of the dogs and cat is one of the most final and damning demonstrations of nature’s detached, dispassionate brutality in the expedition. And yet, it is a testament to the mental and physical fortitude of the men that despite the setbacks, losses, and constant dangers, they remain generally good-humored and civil, publicly and privately. The characteristic English stoicism is present as the men to recount their brief descents in madness and near-annihilation in the elements: diary entries are terse (though often dryly humorous) and even clinical.
The chronology is also notable: Shackleton and his men left in 1914 and were outside radio contact for the majority of World War I. As the War progressed, the public perception of heroism, too, shifted dramatically. At the outset, the individual, affluent English explorers gleaned tremendous public attention and support; the advent of World War I re-defined heroism as military members, serving as a force of benevolence overseas. The wealth and aristocracy that had cultivated Shackleton’s celebrity, then, became another relic of the Romanticized Colonial past – eroded by the wartime effort and displaced by new icons and values.
In many ways, the Shackleton expedition marked the end of the great Romantic period of English exploration (resurrected dramatically, if briefly, by Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hilary in their ascent of Everest). The mechanized destruction of World War I, its revolt against the dreamy, Romantic ambitions of the late 19th century, left little space for the decadence of financed exploration. Alexander notes the difficulty Shackleton had in procuring rescue vessels for his men, in part due to the Great War. The British government provided funding in 1914, but (by 1917) was consumed with the war effort and unable (and unwilling) to devote additional resources the expedition: the PR value of rescuing the men didn't offset the manpower and cost necessary for such action. National attentions were turned elsewhere: to faltering economies, the war effort, post-war reconstruction.
After dispersing from the Falkland Islands , most crew members immediately entered military or civilian service to their respective countries. The book’s final act is devoted to the post-expedition lives of the crewmembers, ranging from abject poverty to business ownership (with one crewmember, not warmly viewed by his cohorts, finding profession as a spy). The eclectic crew, unsurprisingly, went on to equally disparate lives.
As an aside: I made the mistake of reading The Endurance on Kindle: the text is interspersed with photographs (taken by crewmember Frank Hurley), the beauty and detail of which is lost on the Paperwhite’s screen. This is certainly a volume to read in physical form, as the included photographs add tremendously to the work’s depth and emotion. Others have remarked on the impeccable print quality of the physical book, and I strongly recommend seeking it out in lieu of an electronic copy. (less)