Friday, May 25, 2012

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

I've had this one on hold at the library for months so when it finally arrived yesterday I reluctantly put aside my other reading material to make sure I could get through this one and pass it on to the next person who has been waiting to read it for months. What started as a chore quickly became a joy as I found myself reading the book in two sittings in less than 24 hours unable to put it down, utterly transfixed.

It wasn't that I liked the characters…in fact they kind of got on my nerves…and at one point I remember thinking maybe I shouldn't, by my own criteria, like this book as much as I do. Like…it's a book about a kind of pathetic middle class retired man having a mid-life crisis, obsessing over his past failed relationships and not being very self-aware and kind of pathetic and whiny, which usually would just sort of annoy the shit out of me…yet the story is told in such a way as to draw you in completely. I sort of figured out the "secret" to the plot early on but wasn't totally sure how it would reveal itself so I had to keep turning the pages, like it was a mystery, because I needed to know what happens in the end. But it wasn't just the thrill of the story that drew me in…it was the way Julian Barnes uses a story about someone's past coming back to haunt them as a device to talk about the nature of time and memory and history and storytelling and discuss philosophical questions about the meaning of life. I will definitely read more of his books in the future.

The Time of the Doves by Mercé Rodereda

The Time of the Doves tells about the Spanish Civil War from a working class female point of view using stream of consciousness prose and grippingly vivid storytelling that assaults the senses. It takes place in Barcelona and was written in Catalan. This is maybe the best novel ever, even in translation, like Woolf meets Stein crossed with Graham Greene. Rodoreda seems to carve words as if they are made of physical material to construct a place and time that make you feel you can see, hear and taste the world her characters live. The sadness of history is captured here; you will cry real tears. I've never read anything quite like it. Utterly beautiful and profoundly moving. Life and Death and Love and War.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Violence Girl by Alice Bag

Alice Bag wrote her memoir Violence Girl as a series of blog posts. She doesn't consider herself a writer. In that sense, this is a DIY punk book!

Growing up in the 80's hardcore era, The Bags were not well known to me for some reason. I don't know if their records were out of print or what but I don't remember hearing them until after Bikini Kill started. At the time, the NW was extremely isolated and there were huge gaps in my knowledge of punk history, which was not yet well documented and largely accessible only through private collections and oral history. I don't remember The Alice Bag Band from The Decline of Western Civilization for some reason either. I saw the movie a few times as a teen, once when it showed at Evergreen before I started going to shows (possibly when it came out?) but I mostly remember Darby and Black Flag. In the late 80's/early 90's Olympia got a video store and suddenly you could rent a handful of punk movies, which we circulated to no end (along with Over The Edge, which we watched constantly.) When I interviewed DC punk/artist/photographer Cynthia Connolly for Jigsaw in the mid-90's she talked about going to shows in LA and raved about how influential Alice Bag was. That's when I started wanting to know more about The Bags and more about some of the female contributions to the early LA punk scene that I had missed out on by being too young and not living in California. So this book was a revelation to me. I wish it would have been around when I was a kid but it's really cool that it's available now.

Violence Girl doesn't talk about punk until you are already over a hundred pages into the story. I remember yelling on the couch: "SHE IS TALKING ABOUT PUNK ROCK!!!!" But the build up is great and the book totally pays off. Up until that point we get to know her as a misfit Elton John freak growing up in East LA not fitting into the Chicano/a community she was born into and we get the complicated story of her family, which was loving but also filled with violence. She writes about her experience with candid honesty, wisdom and humor. Another aspect of this book that I appreciated a lot was getting to hear about Alice Bag's life long interest in philosophy. One of the most exciting moments of the book for me was hearing her recount her falling out with Darby Crash, for philosophical reasons, who made fun of her because she believed in god. (She was raised Catholic, he was a Nihilist). When she performed and read from her book at the Olympia Timberland Library I hoped she would talk more about this but recognizing that someone probably doesn't want to talk about their dead friend in a public setting I didn't really want to bring it up in the Q&A so I just asked her to discuss philosophy a bit and she talked about how she has always been a very philosophical person, interested in exploring ideas and really analyzing what things mean. This tendency really comes through in her book, which is constructed as a series of anecdotes that are insightful as well as entertaining.

If you don't know about her Women in L.A. Punk site you should totally read everything on it, it's completely great and inspiring.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

The House of Mirth (1905) by Edith Wharton centers on Lily Bart, a woman who is disempowered by society but tries to use her femininity to get what she wants. In that sense, the plot evokes the question so famously posed by Audre Lorde: Can the master's tools be used to dismantle the master's house? Although I agree with Lorde's anti-racist critique of feminism, I have never quite made up my mind about the usefulness of this metaphor: isn't it possible that a house could be dismantled using the same tools that built it, even if those tools were not meant to be used for that purpose?

Those who find Lily Bart unlikeable or weak or think the story is out of date may not view marriage as an economic institution or identify with the plight of a woman who is at the mercy of her reputation, which often determines her relationships to the men in her life. I sympathized with her situation and felt great empathy for her failed struggle to overcome her material circumstance.

The House of Mirth is a study of manners and a critique of society. In that sense it is about power. Wharton wrote with excellence and command and at times this book is amazingly hilarious. I also found it extremely sad and depressing. It kept me up late one night crying and crying and crying in some kind of recognition of eternal female suffering. As fake and superficial and ridiculous as Lily Bart is, I felt the sadness of her life as totally real. The ending is unbearable.

This is as good if not better than anything I've read by Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters. It takes place in 1890's New York. Highly recommended.

The Gospel of Anarchy by Justin Taylor

The Gospel of Anarchy goes from a sexist softcore porn male fantasy tale of dumpster diving Floridian punks in Gainesville to magical realism...that centers around a cultish version of anarchist-Christianity...? After taking that turn it gets really boring. Like Jonathan Franzen or Mary McGarry Morris, the writing style is bleak, dystopic, vacant…not so much my thing...if this is a critique or depiction of the vast American suburban emptiness and alienation of sprawl, then ok but it feels sort of cheap, cliched and cynical. The characters are hopeless and don't seem fleshed out. Like, if we live in a giant hamster wheel of chain stores along the interstate…we are still human right? So where is the humanity in this story? As far as dystopia goes, I like Stepford Wives, because at least there is an analysis of power happening and it's funny and clever. I don't know if the mysticism of this book really gets to anything real. When I looked up the author it seems that he is kind of a poseur who doesn't get alternative rock representing the underground to the mainstream…he lives in Brooklyn and supposedly no one in Gainesville has ever heard of him but he seems to get ok reviews and know a lot of MFA-ified literary people? As much as I hate to give a book a bad review in its entirely, I guess I have to give this one a thumbs down. I really didn't like it. Another reason to seek out punks who write fiction I guess.

Cambodian Grrrl by Anne Elizabeth Moore

What happens when punk rock feminism travels across international borders?

Cambodian Grrrl: Self-Publishing in Phnom Penh tells the story of Anne Elizabeth Moore's trip to Cambodia to teach zine making to teenage girls. I saw Anne read at the Olympia Timberland Library before I read Cambodian Grrrl. I remember feeling like the audience for the book was white, privileged Americans and wondered if her reading would have differed had the crowd at the library been more diverse. Reading the book, I questioned how the teenage girls in the book would represent their own experience of the zine-making workshop. Most of all, I wanted to read the zines the girls had created. My favorite part of the book was the epilogue where Moore includes writing by the girls about zine-making.

I came away from the story feeling like zine making as self-publishing is a cultural practice that travels across international borders well because it encourages each person to represent themselves on their own terms. I guess this could be seen as a form of individualism, in that it focuses on art/media/culture as self-expression, but I don't think there is anything necessarily inherent about self-publishing that requires zines be personal. I was drawn to Moore's political writing most of all. As a result, I ended up doing some research on Cambodian history, specifically the Killing Fields, which Moore discusses in the book. The oral history of the Khmer Rouge she captured was powerful.

Moore's recent iteration Independent Youth-Driven Cultural Production in Cambodia (IYDCPC) seems to show the project evolving beyond the per-zine:

"(IYDCPC) is an international institute based in Phnom Penh that encourages multidisciplinary creative responses to issues related to popular culture, with a particular focus on media, advertising, marketing, youth, gender, democracy, human rights, and globalization in Southeast Asia"
I look forward to seeing what happens next and hope to read Cambodian zines someday.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Jimmy James Blood by Missy Anne

The best novel about working class northwest youth.
Jimmy James Blood by Missy Anne is a self-published first novel from a local Mason County author. The Total Bummer Bookclub called Jimmy James Blood "Shelton, Washington's version of Bastard Out of Carolina" and that's pretty accurate. It is a coming of age story that uses the natural landscape of the pacific northwest to explore the theme of poverty and environmental destruction familiar to those of us who grew up in logging/timber towns. In that sense, it is very similar to The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy but also reminds me of Winter's Bone or maybe The Beans of Egypt, Maine. There's a little bit of S.E. Hinton or Over The Edge at work too but without the sappy romanticism. For me it evokes the heartbreakingly tragic Jon Jost movie The Bed You Sleep In most of all, which remains the harshest yet most true-to-life portrayal of the northwest I have yet seen captured on film. The book really takes it to another level when Vera Violet escapes to St. Louis where she learns about urban poverty struggling to survive working at an inner city school in a low income neighborhood that resembles an industrial wasteland not dissimilar from Mason County.

Shelton is just up the highway from Aberdeen. Missy Anne is the literary voice of the dispossessed NW youth that we've come to know so well through song. Intrigued? You should be! This is a fantastic book. I read the entire thing in one sitting. I still can't believe I know the person who wrote it.

Summertime by J.M. Coetzee

I guess I'm supposed to know who this writer is since he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2003 but really I don't know, I just happened to pick up the book for some reason and decided to read it on vacation. I wish I could say that I'm up on contemporary fiction but actually I'm not. I remember thinking I should probably be paying attention to small press fiction instead of wasting my time on stuff like this. It wasn't that memorable, other than that it takes place in South Africa and the main character is named after the author. This was kind of pretentious/narcissistic or whatever but also what I liked most about reading the book. It sort of inverts the narrative structure of The Sorrows of Young Werther, in that it tells the story of a man's life from the point of view of three women who are remembering him in terms of their relationship to him. This is what the story is about really. In Werther, Goethe never lets Charlotte act on her own, the reader only knows her through Werther's eyes, but that is not a part of the storytelling I don't think, it just sort of is. Man = actor Women = object that is acted upon, Etc. Using the device Doris Lessing made famous in The Golden Notebook, the reader also reads Coetzee's notebook entries and ends up having to piece together different perspectives to complete the picture.

Salvation CIty by Sigrid Nunez

This is the first novel Sigrid Nunez has written from the point of view of a male character and, while she does a great job, there are so few fiction writers that are as good as she is at writing female characters that I felt a little sad to be missing out on that aspect of her work this time around. But so what, right? She is a writer and her job is to tell stories and this proves that she is getting better at it all the time. Salvation City takes place after a flu pandemic that wipes out a bunch of people. Cole is a teenage boy whose parents die. He ends up living with some wing nut Christians who want to raise him in accordance with their belief system. He tries it out for awhile. A bunch of stuff happens to make him understand how the world actually works and he grows up some. Watching Take Shelter and then Melancholia sort of reminded me of Salvation City...maybe cross that with Naked if it had been created by Flannery O'Connor instead of Mike Leigh.

Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music

this book review was published in maximum rock-n-roll may 2012

Ellen Willis was a feminist and a rock critic back when rock-n-roll and feminism were generally thought to be opposed to one another. Growing up in the 70's and 80's, I remember this dichotomy well. As a teenage punk rocker I went through a heavy rock-n-roll stage in the mid-80's -- Black Flag had long hair, Red Kross and The Melvins covered Kiss, Saint Vitus were ripping off Black Sabbath and I was learning to play drums -- pretty soon I was skating to Led Zeppelin and Cream instead of JFA and The Big Boys. Maybe not coincidentally this is also when I started to question sexism within punk. I stumbled upon a used paperback published by second wave feminist Shelia Rowbotham called Women's Consciousness, Man's World (1973) that provided a feminist analysis of the 60's counterculture. Playing in an all girl band at the time, it didn't seem like the 80s punk scene was all that different in terms of male domination. I loved rock-n-roll and punk but there were not enough girls in bands and way too many in behind-the-scenes support roles (not to mention the groupie economy). I was totally boy crazy yet wanted a girl revolution and I didn't want to have to take sides! I started my fanzine Jigsaw as a possible solution to this impossible conundrum. Discovering Ellen Willis reminds me that criticism is a means of resistance, a way to change society by asking questions and writing yourself into existence. Her voice is essential to those of us who negotiate our love of music with our feminism.

This is not to say that Out of the Vinyl Deeps is full of political diatribes about gender/power. That just happens to be part of what Ellen Willis writes about here. Mostly, this is a book of stellar rock criticism by a super smart, aesthetically engaged music fan that happens to be a feminist and loves to dance and hang out and listen to records. Her ideas are complex but she is clear and not fancy or academic. Her writing voice is analytical and inward.  Some of the hippy vernacular is there but she generally doesn't write in a conversational way; she's an essayist, so there's a traditional literary form to most of her pieces. Contrary to the narcissistic, kinetic, explosive style of some of the male rock writers at this time, she's self-aware, reflective and careful with her choice of words but her writing loses none of its urgency. Instead of telling her readers what to think, she offers her perspective, grounded in her experience, all the time questioning what things mean and why. I imagine her spending a lot of time being social and then purposively isolating herself in order to distill her experiences into thoughtful critique. The time spent alone necessary to write seems to have given her the space to be both a feminist and a rock-n-roll fan. The result is compelling and necessary. You get the feeling that her work truly mattered and made a difference in people's lives. It definitely enhanced the cultural narrative of her time, leaving us with a document that reflects both cultural struggle and aesthetic lineage, making it excellent for anyone interested in the history of feminist thought and rock-n-roll/youth culture.

Reading this book, I'm certain that it was necessary for Ellen Willis to write in order to exist. I'm not talking about survival in terms of food and water and paying rent, but cultural survival, carving out a space to breath in a world that hates women and spreads misogyny into every aspect of our lives, including our personal relationships, fashion, politics and even our favorite songs. By publishing her thoughts instead of keeping them to herself, she helped move things forward. In that sense, this is a radical book. I hope it inspires more feminist music criticism. We need it.

Sempre Susan by Sigrid Nunez

Sigrid Nunez is one of my favorite living novelists. It turns out she briefly dated Susan Sontag's son David when they were very young. Her memoir of that time is fascinating and lets you get to know Sontag more than reading Sontag's own diary does, which is stiff and does not feel true to life or intimate in comparison. The glimpse into Sontag's character was memorable but this is mostly interesting to me in terms of Nunez's own journey whose accomplishment as a writer of terrific fiction grew to overshadow this moment in her life.

She Came To Stay by Simone de Beauvoir

“Each conscience seeks the death of the other" - Hegel
She Came To Stay by Simone de Beauvoir uses the love triangle to explore the philosophical concept of The Other. People, maybe especially feminists, seem to find it annoying. The main character, Francoise, loses her mind when her partner, Pierre, falls for Francoise's attractive young student Xavierre, even though Francoise and Pierre are in a committed open relationship. The self-destructive romantic obsession Francoise experiences as a result is described in horrible detail. There is no happy ending. Confession: I've read it three or four times already and I'm sure I will again.