Here's a book I knew I would like the minute I held it in my hot little hands. For one thing, it's short - 120 pages, fairly large print. For another,Here's a book I knew I would like the minute I held it in my hot little hands. For one thing, it's short - 120 pages, fairly large print. For another, it's symmetrical - 20 stories, 5 for each season of the year. And finally, having read one story from it in a seasonal collection already, I knew it was both magical and sarcastic, a combination as golden as snide and abstract are shit. (Ok, it could be argued magical and sarcastic and snide and abstract are po-tay-to and po-tah-to, but let's not split hairs here.)
It took me three weeks to read Marcovaldo, because almost every story made me want to go back and read it again, not because it was hard to understand but because I wanted to experience the reading of it again. This is truly a book to savor. Some of the short stories (none are over 10 pages, most clocking in under 5) are merely funny in a subtle way, like "The Wasp Treatment" and "The Lunch-Box." Some, like "The Forest on the Superhighway" and "Smoke, Wind, and Soap-Bubbles," are caustic commentaries on industrialized society. Others - "The Good Air" and "The Wrong Stop" come to mind - are visceral, haunting journeys of Marcovaldo, a man who wants to see through the churning gears into a natural world that he's never seen except in fancy, and his family into a consumer culture they don't understand but charge dutifully into. Some reach almost terrifying levels of dementia, when the line between romantic idealism and harsh reality blur with Marcovaldo and his already-jaded family stuck at the borderland - see "A Saturday of Sun, Sand and Sleep" and "Marcovaldo at the Supermarket."
And then there are "The Moon and GNAC," "The Rain and the Leaves," and "Santas Children," the centerpieces of the book which do all of these things. All three come toward the end of the book, after the tone, setting, and characters have been subtly put into place. They have a few things in common - all have a conflict between the family unit and corporate culture, with the same winner each time; they each reflect an urbanization of myth, with neon lights and potted plants replacing cosmos and beanstalks; and each presents a subtle, heartbreaking moral judgment on the society they are set in and the losses man has swallowed in achieving it.
I'd been teaching In Cold Blood for two semesters and used the preface to this to introduce In Cold Blood, so I figured I might as well read the restI'd been teaching In Cold Blood for two semesters and used the preface to this to introduce In Cold Blood, so I figured I might as well read the rest of the book. This is late-period Capote, mostly a mishmash of personal essays, anecdotes, and a novella-length true crime story.
First of all, the preface makes Capote seem like a self-involved jackass (which he by most accounts was - remember the postscript to the movie saying he never recovered from writing In Cold Blood?), but it also reveals his dislike for his own work, including In Cold Blood; he even says he went back and rewrote much of the novel, Unanswered Prayers, that ironically was never finished. About the work included in this book, he says basically two things:
1. He wants to "combine within a single form - say the short story - all he knows about every other form of writing"
2. Instead of consciously leaving himself out of his writing, "I set myself center stage, and reconstructed, in a severe, minimal manner, commonplace conversations with everyday people: the superintendent of my building, a masseur at the gym, an old school friend, [Marilyn Monroe, Robert Beausoleil, the two sides of himself - you know, everyday people]…"
So the book is divided into 3 parts, the first and third being mostly brief snapshots and anecdotes that seem kind of retrogressive to me, harking back to his early days writing about Brooklyn Heights, only now he's moved to the Upper East Side. The Marilyn Monroe piece is mostly trifling and I'm sure did no favors to her reputation, but has a clever, moderately powerful turn-of-phrase ending it. "Mojave," the only pure fiction included in the collection, is easily the worst apple in the bunch; it says a lot about the scarcity of good writing Capote was doing by this time, and really should have been relegated to post-mortem collections. The Beausoleil piece, like a few others in the collection, is pretty much just an interview transcript from his conversations with Charles Manson's cohort, but has some interesting, fairly astute comments from Beausoleil about Perry Smith and Capote's relationship with him. "Hello, Stranger" is also emblematic of other pieces here, as it reveals a growing, unsettling antipathy Capote has developed for the inhabitants of the world and his writing - an alcoholic old friend of Capote's comes to him for advice about an sexual encounter with a minor that never happened and his ensuing nervous breakdown, and Capote's foremost observations are that the guy is now thirty pounds overweight and used to have Capote write his English papers in prep school (he in turn did Capote's math problems).
The one piece that I would say could have been published by anyone outside a decrepit Truman Capote was the true-crime novella, "Handcarved Coffins." Most of it annoyingly also follows the interview/stage directions format (I guess that's what Capote was referring to when he said he wanted to transcend genre), but the plot itself is engrossing from the start. More than In Cold Blood it seems almost too implausible to happen, and unlike ICB Capote consciously makes himself a central character of this story of a renegade ranch owner-turned-serial-killer.
Overall, Music for Chameleons falls directly into the Read-It-If-You-Like-Capote category. It probably reveals more about his own (late-life) personality than any of his other work and has flashes of good stuff, but is almost laughably self-referential and self-congratulatory, especially the last piece, a silly dialogue between Capote (TC) and himself (also TC).
(At this point, John pats himself on the back profusely with one hand while typing with the other):
John Proctor: That was an excellent review, John. Plenty of pithy witticisms sprinkled over specific references make this perhaps your best yet.
JP (sighing): I dunno. Sometimes I think nobody even reads these things anyway.
JP (with a chuckle): Well of course they don't. That's the nature of book reviews, and why you haven't published anything of substance yourself yet.
JP: So why do I even write then?
JP: The more important question is: Why don't you stop writing?
(At this, JP instinctively reaches for the mouse and clicks on "Preview," then "Save")
My friend J.D. hates Steve Earle. I mean, he writes entire sections of comic books he sells at his band’s shows devoted to hating on Earle – the leftiMy friend J.D. hates Steve Earle. I mean, he writes entire sections of comic books he sells at his band’s shows devoted to hating on Earle – the leftist, terrorist-loving, drug-addled, out-of-it Steve Earle that exists in J.D.’s own quite-strange mind. It could be professional jealousy, as J.D. fronts a Nashville rockabilly band that (to my knowledge) has never been invited to open for Earle, or it could just be that J.D.’s a bit of a backwoods arch-conservative and it’s purely ideological.
I say all this because I feel it’s important to say that I don’t hate Steve Earle. He writes some of the most stirringly romantic rock and roll/country happening anywhere near Nashville (barring, of course, the Old Crow Medicine Show), and I tend to agree with a lot of his ideology, if not his stridency. But this, his first venture into the literary world, reveals his limitations. He can condense a story, an emotion, even a basic truth into three chords and a melody as well as most anyone, but the man is not a story writer.
And, to be fair, he strikes out soundly from a few different angles. There are the thinly-disguised cheesily romanticized biographical pieces that should have never made it past a decent editor like , say, the title track (er, story) and “Billy the Kid,” thin cardboard characters acting out his political dogmas like “The Red Suitcase” and “The Witness,” attempts to makes stories out of songs like “Taneytown” and “A Well-Tempered Heart,” and a few variations thereof.
And here I’ll admit a little professional jealousy of my own – as a writer, I have to say it pisses me off to see people who should never see publication past a vanity press getting book tours and big-press circulation entirely because they’re good at an entirely different medium. But I guess Rick Moody struck back on behalf of the writers with his Wingdale Community Singers, a band equally bad as the collection. And that’s something, I guess. ...more
A true behemoth of New York City lore, Empire City isn’t so much a textbook (although I used it as one) as the product of a couple of historians lovinA true behemoth of New York City lore, Empire City isn’t so much a textbook (although I used it as one) as the product of a couple of historians lovingly digging up primary documents and arranging them to tell four centuries of NYC history. Compiled by Kenneth T. Jackson (frequently seen on history channel documentaries about the city) and David S. Dunbar, it has first-person Joe Schmoe accounts, political documents, critical essays, travel journals, fictional selections, and plenty of ephemera, and divides them into 5 majors epochs: the Colonial Period, Rise to National Dominance, Industrial Metropolis, World City, and World Capital.
The first part, the Colonial Period (1624-1783), covers the largest span of time in the fewest pages. Due to the language of the period though, the primary documents here are perhaps the hardest to trudge through. But there’s some great stuff here, from an account of Henry Hudson’s maiden voyage up the Hudson, to a few initial colonial social contracts between the city’s first citizens, though accounts leading into the Revolutionary War. Jackson ends the epoch with his own heart-wrenching, ironic account of the slave ships of the British Army, where American prisoners were served rotten food as a deal between British General Howe and a New York City mercantilist when said mercantilist found out Howe was having an affair with his wife.
Things get moving at a much quicker pace in the second part, Rise to National Dominance (1783-1860), with documents of the laying out of the street grid in Manhattan, DeWitt Clinton’s then-revolutionary idea of using the public schools to educate the poor as well as the well-off, and plenty on the notorious Five Points district. There are also lots of accounts of European travelers having a look around at the Great Experiment (including a certain Victorian novelist who almost ruined his career with his account), but more important to this section are some of the first writers of the American literary tradition, including Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, and Herman Melville.
Industrial Metropolis (1860-1898), the third part, starts off with a selection of writings by a couple of relatively obscure black citizens of New York who might be credited as the start of the long, proud line of African American literature to spring from the tight racial relations of New York City. An account of the Draft Riots of 1863 follows, and the bulk of the literary work of this section is decidedly political, with most sides drawn between representation and/or endorsement of the capitalist model that, let’s be honest, NYC was built on (George Fitzhugh, Horatio Alger, Edith Wharton), and a worker-based outcry against the dehumanizing effects of that model (Thomas McGuire, Henry George, Jacob Riis). On a lighter note, there are accounts of the building of Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge, as well as a poem in praise of the Statue of Liberty and an early view of Coney Island before it was ever lit up.
The last two parts take up more than half of the book, which is understandable as by this time the printing press was heralding the rise of mass media and New York was replacing Boston as the literary capital of the world. It’s no surprise, then, that a decent portion of part 4,World City (1898-1948), is composed of giants of the American literary tradition, including Henry James, Henry Adams, O. Henry, Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Dorothy Parker, Thomas Wolfe, Henry Miller, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joseph Mitchell, and John Steinbeck. It’s filled in nicely with Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s Ten Misconceptions of New York, Le Corbusier’s chimeric fancies about filling every space with a skyscraper, the compact that established the Port Authority, numerous documents of the horrendous worker treatment and tenement laws of the turn of the century, and “Brooklyn Could Have Been a Contender,” a modern essay by John Tierney that imagines a world where Brooklyn hadn’t accepted Manhattan’s conditions for consolidating into the New York City we know.
If part 3 showed the roots of the Harlem Renaissance, the fourth part and then the fifth, World Capital (1948-2002), reveal the bulk of its fruits; they’re represented with selections by Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and James Weldon Johnson in Part 4, and James Baldwin, a searing poem by Federico Garcia Lorca about Harlem, and a slew of white writers who were influenced by them including Bernard Malamud, Jack Kerouac, and Tom Wolfe in Part 5. The rest of World Capital could probably be second-guessed more than any other section simply because of the wealth of material being written in and about NYC in the last half-century, but I don’t have many complaints. This part is especially heavy on city planning arguments (what was that old saying? Something like, “New York would be the greatest city in the world, if they ever finished it.”), with Robert Moses on one end of the spectrum and the Young Lords on the other and plenty in between. I got a little nostalgic to see they included Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” the first thing I ever read on the subway when I came to the city. And they even were prescient enough to include a short essay by Junot Diaz of recent Oscar Wao fame, a cool little piece where he reveals some of the origins of that great novel with his mashup of New York City and science fiction imagery. ...more