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Habeas Blogus

Book reviews, more for my memory than anything else.

Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut

Started 4/14, Finished 4/19

I'm not a Vonnegut scholar. If you had a look at my pitiful take on Cat's Cradle, you remember. I find him perplexing, because I don't want to take anything he says at face value, and because I am not a product of the times or political philosophies he lived in. That said, I find his work charming, occasionally transcendent, and almost always out of reach. That may be because it's so very within reach that I miss the trees trying to explain the forest.

Breakfast of Champions is "about" several characters' journey toward a science fiction convention, at which point the world is forever changed by a violent outburst, an unpublished novel, and Vonnegut's God narrator. I say "about", because what he's going for throughout much of the novel is an attempt to "call out" the novel form for its oversights, its shortcomings, and its inadequacies. I had just finished Michener's The Novel, so I was somewhat prepared for this kind of thinking: that the "novel" as it is is dead, that a new form must take its place, one where (for example) the point of view isn't just of one or three or ten characters, but where all characters have equal weight. The God-like narrator gets his share of potshots, as well as the particularities (and uselessness) of "description" (penis size is often listed when he describes a male characters, given as naturally as hair color). He plays with timelines, gives you hints that he's not being honest, and then tells you that none of it matters because he, Vonnegut, is just sitting in a bar making the whole thing up on his Big Chief tablet.

All that said, none of it occurred to me until just now, when I sat down to write this review. This book took its sweet time to get going, as did Cat's Cradle. The beginning sections didn't work for me, though I'm sure I'd find meaning in them if I reread them. Processing the myriad images, trying to dig meaning out of it, all of that was overwhelming. It's been only long after the fact that I could process them, make them coherent in my own memories. The statements, diatribes, and rage against all things establishment, they're all obvious, but they seem simplistic at first glance, like they don't fit in anywhere. Upon reflection, however, the images and characters and storyline don't make sense without the rage. It's as though his anger at the world has compelled him to create a world of such disorder that it both rejects and reflects the real one he sees when he looks up to sip his beer and have a toke.

There are a lot more people commenting a lot more intelligently about Vonnegut than I think I will ever be able to, but it's become apparent to me just what we've lost with his passing. I can't pretend to feel as much sentimentality as those who have been reading him for years, who grew up with him and let him help them define their generations (2 or 3 generations, probably), but I think his work will outlive me and my generation, that's for sure. I'm looking forward to reading his other works, and to possibly looking into some Real Literary Criticism of Vonnegut, to see how the experts break him down. It'll either be interesting or stupid, which is exactly how I believe Vonnegut saw the world entire.

Book #12 will be The Cement Garden, by Ian McEwan


Thursday, May 17, 2007

True Evil, by Greg Iles

Started 4/11, finished 4/13

Sorry, Mr. Iles, this one isn't up to your usual standard. Now if you'd made the snake-wrestler into the good guy, then we might have something...

Book #11 will be Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut.


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

I Am Officially an Adult

These events apparently didn't count:

  • Paying for my own car insurance
  • Getting a discount on car insurance just for being 25 years old
  • When I started earning Real Money
  • Earning my bachelor's degree
  • Getting married
  • Buying a house
  • Having a child
  • Saying to said child, "What did I just tell you??!!" (that only officially made me a parent, not an adult)
  • Having a second child
What was the event, that final straw that made me into a full-fledged adult? Short answer is the picture below, now hanging in my bedroom. Long answer is below that...

Za Maestra, Claud Labes

I'm walking around the Montmartre area of Paris, fighting jetlag and enjoying my little stopover, when I see her in this gallery.

It feels as though sharp rocks are not just in my shoes, but under the skin of my in-step, like the ground is striking the soles of my feet with a ball-peen hammer. I'm not walking; the cobblestones are being thrown at my feet, propelling me along in directions I'm only barely choosing.

As soon as I see her I stop. My feet thank me. I stare at her for about half a minute, then take one, five, eight tortuous steps into the gallery. An older gentleman is on the phone, complaining about a slow day. He gestures me to a little blue chair near his desk.

I'm sitting there, trying to see how much of his conversation I can make out (not much), hoping he'll stay on the phone another ten minutes. I'm looking at the painting, and my feet are screaming at me.

"How can I help you, Monsieur?" he asks me in English.

"I wanted to see about this lady," I answer in French.

"French or English," he says, with as little interest as if I had started reading the phone book.

"Comme vous voulez," I answer. We switch back and forth throughout the conversation.

"I wanted to see about this lady with the cello," I repeat.

"Are you a serious buyer?" he asks.

"I don't know. I won't know until I find out what the price is, because I don't know if I'm even in the right league."

He takes another look at me. I'm carrying a $4 umbrella, purchased at a souvenir shop. I'm wearing a tattered and pilled sweatshirt that I intend to leave in Paris when I depart, and my hair is a complete mess. Think about a blonde Einstein with a bushy pony tail, minus sufficient IQ points.

"I can't let it go for less than 350 Euros."

I reach into my pockets. I have about 60 Euros. And credit cards.

"Do you take credit cards?"

"Yes, but I don't like to."

We look at each other for a few more minutes. I'm looking him in the eyes, not fidgeting, not shifting my weight, consciously suppressing all instincts of bodily motion, like I try to do when, say, playing poker.

"If you have cash I can let it go for 300 Euros."

"I don't have that much cash," I say.

"If you go to the Champs Elysées, you won't find this quality for under a thousand. It's exquisite. Claud Labes, you know, from Montmartre."

"Is he still alive?" I ask.

He laughs. "Yes, very much so?"

"Are you Mr. Labes?"

"No, but he is a good friend of mine. No, I am a painter, but my art is different." He gestures around. The small room is decorated floor-to-ceiling with the kinds of, what, post-impressionist? paintings that I can appreciate, but am ultimately not interested in.

There are at least eight more Labes paintings, mostly of young women playing instruments, and I try to see if I can get as excited about the smaller, no doubt less expensive ones. I can't. Something about the lady's hand holding the bow... well, I found it intoxicating.

"Monsieur? What shall it be? This painting is exquisite. You won't find quality like this for such a price anywhere else in Paris."

Oh how I would come to know this combination of words over the next month in India...

"I can't get that much cash today. My bank has a maximum amount it will allow, and I've already withdrawn some."

Now, this is a true statement, but it's meant to put the ball in his court. If I want to incur deadly transaction and finance charges, I can always to a cash advance on a credit card, but that's a very last resort. I already know I'm going to buy it, one way or the other.

"Two hundred in cash, one hundred on credit card," he says. "Shall I wrap it up?"

"I don't have that much cash on me."

He shrugs. "I paid 250 for it. I can't sell it for less."

I nod. "Is there an ATM around here?"

"No," he says. "Nowhere in Montmartre. Nowhere on the hill. You can go to one, right down here, to the left, then down the stairs, then by a little bistro. An old man like me, I couldn't do it in two hours, but you're a young man. You can do it in fifteen minutes."

My feet look up and me and threaten me with curses and shaking fists.

I ask again how to get to this ATM, but the directions are useless. I don't know how to get directions in this country. I'm an American, and therefore need street names and distances. It's a severe limitation, this need for such specificity.

I tell him I'll be back, then I leave, clearly walking in the opposite direction from what he told me. I'm not even sure I'll be back at this point. I go up the street and see Sacre Coeur, then walk around it, trying to get to the apocryphal Funiculaire de Montmartre. What are the odds that the same thing can happen?

Well, it's out of order. So I look at the stairs. My left foot has changed its name to Fidel Castro and my right foot is now Fletcher Christian. I put down the uprising and begin to walk down the stairs. If you've ever seen Amélie, you've seen the stairs in the elaborate path down which she leads her amant to retrieve his notebook. They're daunting. They're painful. They're not easy even if you're in perfect health.

Once I go down these stairs, that's it. No painting for me.

So I go down. I stop in a few bookstores and a bakery. I make it back to the hotel and sit down for a few minutes. I turn on the TV. I grab a snack from the bar area. I walk back outside, up Pigalle, to Clichy, and consider returning to the Cimetière to see her. Again.

None of this is taking my mind off of the painting.

I go to a hair salon, thinking that if I go in, I can officially say that, for a three year period in my life, I would only get my hair cut in Paris.

They're full, and can't take anyone at the moment. As I walk out, I see like a shining beacon, an ATM. I walk over and withdraw 140 Euros. I now have 200.

I look toward the hotel and realize that it's a bit downhill. I look the other way, and it's uphill. Sacre Coeur is in that direction. I begin to walk. I walk slowly, lecturing my feet the whole time on the need for discipline and the rewards of hard labor. I reach a very steep staircase and just stare at it for half a minute.

I start up the stairs, letting several (much) older people go ahead of me.

I turn up one street, then another, then I recognize the youth hostel I always wanted to stay at, but which is always always full. Then I turn up another street, and somehow my feet have stopped hurting. I think their spirit has been broken. Or they've fallen off and my shins haven't started to complain yet.

Once I make it to the galarie I see the proprietor leaning back in a chair, hands clasped behind his head, just watching the people walk by. For a moment the thought occurs to me: forget the painting, just buy the whole damn gallery and change your life!

When he sees me he stands up. "I didn't think you were going to come back," he says.

It's been over two hours.

"Can I offer you 180 in cash and 120 on credit card?"

He doesn't hesitate for a moment. "Yes, yes. I can, yes sure yes."

I give him the money. He compliments my French. I give him the credit card. He compliments the design on the card (it's the Wells Fargo wagon). He is all smiles and friendliness, and says he's going to close early after this. I feel good about myself, and I also hope I did a good enough job of talking down the price. From what he said, he's not making much margin, but it's starting to sound like... like I need to forget about it and start appreciating what I've purchased.

He invites me to sit at the cafe next door and have coffee while I wait for him to take it off the frame and roll it up.

I have a strong Cafe Crème and a lovely apple tart while I wait. When the old man gestures me back in, I see what I've obligated myself to. The painting is 30 inches wide, 3 inches in diameter when rolled up, wrapped in a double-thickness of paper and a big plastic shopping bag. I'm going to carry this tube, which won't fit into any suitcase, all around Paris, then onto the plane to India, then all around Bangalore, then all the way back home. I'm going to be asked questions about it at security checkpoints. I'm going to have to fit it into the overhead bins of the airplanes, hoping nobody sets anything on it or insists on seeing it.

But so far none of this bothers me. I search deep within my core for traces of buyer's remorse. None.

Let's skip ahead. It's May 16th. It's nearly 8 weeks since I bought the painting. My father is a professional framer, and even after my 45% discount it cost more to have the picture framed than I paid for it.

It's oil on canvas, framed with three different kinds of moulding, including one which is upholstered with a suede which matches one of the shades of olive green taken from the painting.

With the blessing of my wife, I hung it on my wall last night. I'm working from my home office today, and every time I turn around I catch a glimpse of it, I feel like it might be the best purchase of my adult life. My wife and I stood looking at it last night, arms around each other, and we both arrived at this thought at the same time: Adults buy fine art. We are living adult lives now.

But enough about us. What do y'all think about the painting? I didn't intend this post to be an actual narrative; I intended only to get Claud Labes into a better Google position than he has now. Searching for him seems to yield nothing, and I want it to yield the image I posted above. I want to share my great find with the billions of people who will never see my bedroom.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Novel, by James A. Michener

Started 4/6, finished 4/11

This was a lovely read. I've only read one other by Michener, The Source, a brilliant history of monotheism and the "big three" religions. I'd recommend that one to anyone.

I'd recommend The Novel to fans of Michener. I'd do more than recommend it to writers, though. I'd probably assign it as required reading if I were teaching a class on "The Novel", both for its examination of the business of writing, and for its nontraditional structure and points-of-view.

It takes place over a year-long period, between the completion of a novel and the beginning of the promotional phase of the final product. Along the way, we get insight into a writer's process, the publishing business, and the different people involved in the production of the written word.

The Novel is divided into four parts, roughly equal in length, and each narrated by a different first-person voice:
  • The Author
  • The Editor
  • The Critic
  • The Reader

And you would think that each section would slip into an easy-way-out "day in the life" account of the dreariness and self-importance of each personality. Michener never gets lazy. Each narrative section builds upon the previous section, but each section is wholly contained in that person's point of view. There is no narrative omniscience or mugging by the characters who appear in other characters' sections. The interests of the different characters are segregated, compartmentalized--and understandable.

With the Author, Lukas Yoder, you see a man whose rise from obscurity to worldwide fame was arduous and inspiring, and owes a great deal to the Editor. You're then surprised to find that the Editor who stuck with Yoder through four books that didn't sell 5,000 copies between them, doesn't particularly like his books. She's his champion, the editor of all our dreams, the cheerleader who will never let him down. And she's doing it (gasp) because it's good business.

The Editor, in fact, doesn't really talk about Yoder, except in terms of the baksheesh his eventual success gave her in her own career. Her section is more of a biography, a history of a career in a business that (even in the late 80s) was moving from a mid-list, many-talented group of publishers to what we have today: about 5 giant bohemoths who run the whole damn thing.

The Critic dislikes Yoder's work, but greatly respects the man. As he does his own fascinating and often tragic work as a professor of literature, he comes to understand the difference between Yoder, whom he sees as a hack, and some of the newer authors (I suspect he is either modeled upon or loosely inspired by Vonnegut) who are transforming the fundamental nature of the novel. The beauty of this section is seeing the inner-workings of a mind that refuses to accept a straight narrative. It's a mind that I would disagree with to a great extent, but without whom Vonnegut and the like never would have existed. My response was "well, at least Yoder probably wasn't as bad as Dan Brown".

The Reader is a wealthy widow whose grandson is a brilliant young mind in the literary world. She is devoted to him and, as a result, forces herself to understand his work, his life, and the works of the writers he admires so much. She is fierce and confident, and works against all instinct to pry open her own mind enough to accept the new generation of writers.

Not only does it come together beautifully in the end, but you can't help but wonder that this is James A. Michener. As I read it it became obvious that Michener thought himself the Lukas Yoder character. He felt trapped in his own style, his own genre, and at the same time he was contemplating retirement, he was asking himself whether or not he could add something to the canon of the "new works". Michener wrote so many novels I don't even know if you can count them all. I'm not joking when I say that every single time I've looked for a Michener book at a bookstore or Amazon, I've come across one I've never heard of. The Novel was the same way. I had never heard of it when I saw it on top of a stack of Michener books at an outdoor book market in New Delhi.

But most Michener follows a pattern: let's describe the foundations and eventual evolution of a society in a way that is interesting, sympathetic, and truthful (at least as I see it). I thought the Source was brilliant, but I couldn't even get a hundred pages into The Covenant (there was this one sentence near the beginning that I can't get out of my mind for its clumsiness: "Like a swarm of beautifully colored birds, the black-and-white animals scrambled up the dusty bank on the lake and headed for safety"). My father tells me that after a while, Spain and South Africa and Hawaii and Texas and the South Pacific all sound like the same place. That you should space out your Michener reading, so you have a chance of keeping it separate in your mind.

I think the Novel is Michener's grand departure from Michener. I can't say it's the best book I've ever read or even in the top 20 or 40 or 100, but structurally, it's fascinating. Michener's commitment to each character's persona is quite a technical feat. At the end you feel like you've learned something, and if you're a writer this can be a lot like reading Miss Snark: you need the information, but you don't want the information. The information can help you, but the information can also help you quit. That's where it's up to you, or me, or whoever is trying to make it in this business.

Book #10 will be True Evil, by Greg Iles