Literary Review

The Other 1984

ChristopherFace it, the '80s were a seriously crap era. All I can think of is music with lots of synthesizers and actually having to take Madonna seriously. Which is just one reason to appreciate what Allison Burnett accomplishes in his novel Christopher - A Tale of Seduction. He plunges us right into Orwell's apocryphal anno, 1984. In a month-by-month diary, he inhabits the psyche of one B. K. Troop, an avowedly gay (queer? homosexual? bent?) narrator who has one of the most delightful, insightful, and -- to use that much maligned term in literary fiction -- enjoyable voices I've come across in a long time. Fresh. He's so out, he's in. He's self-loathing and self-loving at the same time. He's world-weary but, under that coarse, New York-before-condominiums world, he's a real romantic.

Plum Wild

Hot WaterIn 1930, still dripping from the bath he took in the stock market crash, P. G. Wodehouse (evidently known to his friends as "Plum") decamped for Hollywood. There he'd spend just a little over a year lounging in the pool, collecting huge checks, hobnobbing with some Broadway and Brit folk he knew, and, basically enjoying himself. He caused something of a scandal when he told an interviewer that he made a fortune for just writing "titles" for movies. Nevertheless, possibly out of frustration, maybe out of boredom, he concocted the non-Jeevesian comic tour de force Hot Water, one of the most infernally complicated, trivial, lighter-than-air, insignificant, and completely delightful comic novels I've ever read. It's important to note that there is no Jeeves here.

Corporal Bemelmans's War -- and Ours

War BookIf you're looking for an example of how we, the citizens of the United States, wage war on some of our greatest writers, you need look no further than Ludwig Bemelmans and his out-of-print masterpiece My War with the United States. Yes, he's the same guy who created the Madeline series of children's books (and they are nice ones). But there's more to him, much more. In the 1930s, '40s, and '50s, Bemelmans was that rare specimen, a total original, a writer of memoirs and stories so personal and so poignant, and so damn funny, they rival anything written by Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Chandler, and Thurber, all wrapped into one. And what's more, these things sold. They were big time.

75,000 Watt Prophet

Jean ShepardHe was Howard Stern's crazy grandfather, Don Imus's hip cousin, and Wolfman Jack's uber role model. He was the first reporter to hang out with the Beatles when mere mortals weren't allowed within a mile of them, Charles Mingus dug him so much that they improvised a talking/jam together the likes of which has never been equaled in jazz, and he had such a quibble with movie Dr. Strangelove that Stanley Kubrick's mother -- his MOTHER -- demanded that Stanley go talk to him about it (and after that Kubrick became his friend and begged him to be the voice of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which he turned down). Shel Silverstein, the hippest kid-poet this side of Alice, looked up to him like a guru. Andy Kaufman called him a true comic genius. And, oh, along the way he authored a collection of anti-sentimental fiction/memoirs that redefined the genre, gave Mark Twain and David Sedaris a run for the money, and led to the classic modern holiday movie A Christmas Story, and all that is still just scratching the surface of Jean Shepherd, someone you probably have never heard of.

An Englishness at Home and Abroad

Tony Fletcher/Tom Hingley
26 November 2012
Waterstones Deansgate, Manchester

Just around the corner from this evening's Manchester proceedings, I once saw an elderly British actor make an early afternoon appearance in the hallowed arena known as the Royal Exchange Theatre. The thespian in question was Dirk Bogarde, who was promoting one of his self-seeking, closeted novels, with which he interspersed his equally closeted and self seeking volumes of autobiography. Bogarde wasn't averse to selling himself, although he was very particular about the parts he chose to throw into the marketplace.

All This And Something More...

Tony Fletcher 
A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of the Smiths
(Crown Archetype) 

For a band whose dying gasp came over two decades ago, the Smiths' brief, entire career has been barely scrutinized. Initially there was the stodgy Severed Alliance by Johnny Rogan, which has long just about sufficed in the absence of anything more, and there has been a ceaseless, incoming tide of books about the songs, and the aura which surrounds their apostle-like leader, Morrissey, when all that was really required was a clear-headed history, a factual consideration, as to why they sprang into life. Tony Fletcher has finally created that with A Light That Never Goes Out, a reasoned, logical, and unhurried recreation of their initially unlikely route to fame.

Journey through the Past

Neil Young
Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream
(Blue Rider/Penguin)

If you want a (mostly) chronologically structured and exhaustively detailed biography of Neil Young, you want Jimmy McDonough's Shakey, a nearly 800-page tome published in 2002. If you want the full flavor of Young's mind and obsessions and thought patterns, full of quirky insights -- and what fan doesn't? – you will be unable to resist Waging Heavy Peace. Though either flawed or willfully eccentric, depending on one's perspective, it's mostly a compelling read.

I have a sneaking suspicion that part of the reason this book is non-chronologically structured and doesn't cover all of Young's career is that he read Dylan's Chronicles, Volume One, which does the same thing. But Chronicles is far more tautly structured and thorough in what it does cover. Young just rambles and free-associates.

The Endlessly Fascinating Life of Glenn Gould from Twenty Perspectives

Colin Eatock
Glenn Gould: Twenty Interviews with People Who Knew Him (Penumbra Press)

There have been a lot of books about Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist who revolutionized classical music in his 30-year career. Eatock counts 31 and admits that some of the people he interviewed had to be convinced that adding another one was worthwhile. But this one's different. It is by far the most multi-faceted, and also the most personal. Somehow, Eatock persuaded friends and colleagues -- and even an ex-girlfriend -- of the pianist to talk in depth about the highly private Gould, who would be celebrating his 80th birthday now if not for a fatal stroke 30 years ago.

R.I.P. Ray Bradbury (August 22, 1920 - June 5, 2012)

"You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you."

So said Ray Bradbury. Of Waukegan, Illinois. And, it must also be noted, of Planet Earth.

Bradbury was a nerd. He was into Zen. He has been branded a Sci-Fi writer. Minimized. But for his 92 years, he wrote like he was more than drunk. He wrote like he was infected with an Ebola Virus of Words. A stylist? I'll leave that to the English Departments. A font of ideas? Bradbury didn't just spin them out, he birthed them with a fury and vision no writer of our era has matched. His invention and dystopic vision could go trope to trope with Philip K. Dick, his humor rivaled Roald Dahl, his grasp of the fact that many of the facts of life could only truly be revealed through Science Fiction was right there with Arthur C. Clarke. Truffaut adapted him -- and so did Hitchcock.

Peter Bergman 1939-2012

Comedy has lost one of its great innovators -- Firesign Theatre founding member Peter Bergman died Friday, March 9, 2012 due to complications from leukemia. He and his cohorts reinvented comedy with surreal, multi-layered socio-political critiques and wild wordplay. Phil Austin, Bergman, David Ossman, and Philip Proctor debuted as the Firesign Theatre in 1966 and became cult heroes by breaking or ignoring boundaries with their surreal, complexly layered material. Their work forms an ongoing critique of modern society, media saturation, and technological alienation, but they are far from overly intellectual, lacing their routines with crazy puns, twisted pop-culture references, and warped -- or invented -- folk sayings and catchphrases. To appreciate their Dadaist comedy requires a long attention span, willingness to follow free associations, and attention to detail.