tom moody

Archive for the ‘books’ Category

review by daniel albright (in and out of pull quotes)

I've been working on an informal bio of the late Daniel Albright, a college prof of mine and writer I subsequently became addicted to. I've found quite a bit of material online, including some feisty reviews he wrote for the New York Review of Books. The following post is a detour from the bio but it's a funny example of how publishers massage pull quotes.

In 1983, Prof. Robert M. Adams, one of the founding editors of the Norton Anthology of Literature, produced a volume of English history meant to accompany and contextualize the anthology's writings, titled The Land and Literature of England. Albright, at that time teaching literature at the University of Virginia, wrote a rather scathing NYRB review disguised as a good review, or at least, good enough for the publisher to cobble together some prominently-placed quotations (still in use -- this screenshot is from the current volume):

adams_landandliterature_backcover_crop

What's missing from the clips is an overwhelming tone of bemused contempt. Albright's main beefs are that Adams gives too much space to politicians at the expense of artists in his history, that he has a taste for conventional and orthodox thinking, and he is more interested by artists who deal with historical subjects than airy-fairy or abstract ones. The sly humor in this review of an admittedly pedantic text borders on cruel, and the mocking tone continues in an exchange of letters between Adams and Albright after the former wrote to correct some misimpressions in the review.

So you can get an idea of what's going on here, below are those pull quotes with chunks from the original review excerpted immediately afterward. The review itself is paywalled -- $4.99 -- excerpted under fair use.

"Professor Adams seems to have read the whole library and yet...retained his pith, vigor, suppleness, and good cheer."

Not many people would be capable of writing a book like this one. Professor Adams seems to have read the whole library and yet, instead of turning to dust along with the crumbling books, retained his pith, vigor, suppleness, and good cheer.

"In addition, he knows how to tell a story..."

In addition, he knows how to tell a story:

And their foot soldiers used bows and arrows to rain death from a distance on the Saxons, who had no way to reply. As long as the shield wall stood unbroken, neither cavalry nor arrows could do much execution; but sometimes, after an unsuccessful cavalry charge, the Saxon foot could not resist the temptation to pursue, and then the archers did deadly damage. After a full day of heavy fighting, Harold lay dead with an arrow in his eye…. His mistress, Edith Swanneck, was summoned to make identification, and though the face was mutilated beyond recognition, she knew, by certain marks on the body, that indeed it was Harold.

It is not until some thirty pages later that we hear that the principal source of historical knowledge for any account of the Battle of Hastings is the Bayeux tapestry; and Professor Adams does not mention the historiographical difficulty posed by this fact. One might hesitate to reconstruct the Trojan War if Homer’s Iliad had been lost and only Penelope’s weaving survived; and it is not clear that the weavers of the Bayeux tapestry knew as much about the Battle of Hastings as D. W. Griffith knew about the founding of the Ku Klux Klan; but probably Professor Adams did well to respect the urgencies of storytelling in a book that treats history in relation to literature.

Adams wrote the magazine to gripe that he knew of the extensive writing on the Battle of Hastings and blamed a picture caption for creating the impression that the source was the Bayeux Tapestry. Albright didn't relent, getting in a last crack that the text quoted above was a "cartoon."

"One of the real delights of this book, Professor Adams’s eye for the flinty detail..."

I have not yet spoken of one of the real delights of this book, Professor Adams’s eye for the flinty detail. Students, and readers well past their student years, will be grateful to learn that a fifteenth-century humanist, John Tiptoft, requested on the scaffold that his head be severed, in honor of the Trinity, in three separate strokes; and that the last entry in Napoleon’s schoolboy notebook for his geography class was “Saint Helena, a small island in the South Atlantic”; and that a French wit said of the conservative Lord Liverpool that, if he had been present at the creation, he would have cried, “Mon Dieu, conservons le chaos!” Such examples could be multiplied.

Coming immediately on the heels of a complaint that Swift has been reduced to mediocrity in Adams's account, and immediately preceding a criticism that the book has some "astonishing omissions," the above passage seems ironic -- "flinty" reads as lurid, batty, or irrelevant. Perhaps Albright actually liked these details but it's not all that clear.

"Much of the pleasure....lies in [the book's] rich texture of cross-references between history and literature..."

Much of the pleasure of Professor Adams’s book lies in its rich texture of cross-references between history and literature. Perhaps it would be ungracious to ask for even more. In his reference to the Old English “The Battle of Brunanburh” he might note that Tennyson translated it into modern English, with the help of a crib written by his son. Professor Adams quotes with gusto the climactic lines of “The Battle of Maldon”; Auden translates these same lines in an ode (“Though aware of our rank and alert to obey orders”). When Professor Adams tells the complicated story of Henry II and his two sons, Prince Henry and Richard the Lion-Hearted, he might mention that this history is the basis of Pound’s ambitious attempt to write a long Imagist poem, “Near Perigord.” Professor Adams would like to see something of a circular form to English literary history: he proposes that the rest of the twentieth century may be a recapitulation of the fifteenth (that is, empty of talent), and on his last page he speaks of Seamus Heaney’s poems about bog people as a renewal of prehistoric vitality. The references I have suggested might help to improve the feeling of the convergence of beginnings and endings.

"Exhilarating."

After reading Professor Adams’s exhilarating book, I was chiefly impressed with the disparity between the achievements of the English political life and the achievements of the English literary life. No culture known to me has produced a body of literature superior to that of England; while the political narrative seems, with a few exceptions, a mean tale of temporizing, squalor, sordor, hollow glory. Professor Adams says in his foreword that history is “a matter of fascinating interest in itself,” and so it is, the shimmer of the snake’s rippling scales. In Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra a frightened eunuch runs up to Caesar to tell him that the library of Alexandria, the greatest repository of knowledge in the world, is on fire. Caesar tells him that it is a shameful history—let it burn. Were I tempted to give the same order, I would not want to see Professor Adams’s history perish.

- tom moody

July 19th, 2017 at 7:30 am

Posted in books

jack reacher, you are no travis mcgee

If you're stuck in an airport, Jack Reacher novels will kill a few hours but aren't otherwise recommended. Lee Child, the author, conceived the character as a way to make money after he was laid off from his TV job -- a dubious provenance that seems to impress some writers. The runaway success of the franchise gives a reading of the zeitgeist, at least: readers identify with a big tough guy who beats the sh*t out of people who don't ascribe to Hollywood ideals of liberal humanism. Think Billy Jack without the hippies.
Before leaving TV, Child wasn't much of a thriller reader, he admits in an introduction to one of the books, but he found a blueprint in John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series. Like Trav, Reacher is a single, rootless, white knight for hire, except Reacher doesn't do it for money, he just stumbles into these situations where wrongs need rightin'. MacDonald wrote pulp but he had convictions, expressed in long, precocious rants about economics and politics, so engaging they caused the action momentarily to stop dead until the author ran out of gas (MacDonald even joked about this). MacDonald also had a lifelong theme, which was the dark sexual undercurrent in Ozzie and Harriett America: the McGee books first appeared in the early 1960s, around the same time as his novel The Executioners, which became the movie Cape Fear. No pulpster beat MacDonald at describing a nymph or satyr sucking someone's fortune dry.
Child has opinions, too, and they are occasionally well-expressed, but it's hard to trust such a mercenary concoction as Jack Reacher. It all seems focus-grouped. If a villain is a hunter, he doesn't just hunt deer, he lazily picks off armadillos from a truck, justifying the character's eventual humiliation. A stalker of teenage illegal aliens won't simply kill them but must also behead and partially flay them. For a child molester, nothing less than a barn full of abused victims will do.
The karma of the market played an amusing prank on Child, though. In the books Reacher is a 6 foot 5 inch, musclebound, formidable guy in his thirties. In the movie versions he is played by a diminutive egomaniac in his mid-50s.

- tom moody

July 11th, 2017 at 9:59 am

Posted in books

the burglar, 1955-7

photo via IMDb

Following up on a run of reading David Goodis novels, checked out his self-adapted film version of The Burglar (he wrote the screenplay, the director was Paul Wendkos). Made in '55, it sat on the shelf until '57, when the career of Jayne Mansfield took off with The Girl Can't Help It. She is physically miscast here but her acting is good. Dan Duryea plays Nat Harbin, a gloomy burglar who heads a small, dysfunctional crime family, consisting of himself, a fence, a heavy, and "Gladden," a girl he's looked after for years as a de facto sister. In an extended flashback (better in the book, too sketchy in the movie) we learn about Nat's past as a destitute orphan adopted and mentored by a professional thief named Gerald Gladden. Gerald dies during a botched robbery and tells Nat he must always look after his daughter, who is simply called Gladden. Nat wrestles throughout the story with his loyalty to a dead father-figure and the exploitation of Gladden as part of the burglary team (she cases potential locations).

Nat's angst is less compelling in the film than the book. We don't really get a feeling for the horrific grind of his youthful poverty before Gerald "rescued" him, as conveyed in Goodis' captivatingly anguished prose, nor do we really understand why Nat seems so conflicted about Gladden. We see Duryea resisting the advances of the ultra-sexy Mansfield, but in the film he looks twenty years older than she does. In the book the characters are close in age and Gladden isn't a bombshell, but a "thin" young woman who could be a sister, friend, or lover, if the two could only get their feelings straight and stop being haunted by Gerald's ghost. In both versions, Nat and Gladden separate and dally with other partners, leading to a dark conclusion.

- tom moody

July 9th, 2017 at 10:57 am

Posted in books, films

book quotes

E.L. Doctorow, The Waterworks, 1994, page 91, Random House ebook. The narrator, a newspaper editor in 1870s New York, talks about a talented but obnoxious painter:

Harry was a boor. It has been my experience that artists are invariably boors. That is the paradox … a mysterious God lets them paint what they will never understand. Like all those Florentines and Genoans and Venetians … who were scoundrels and sybarites, but whom this God trusted to give us the angels and saints and Jesus Christ himself through their dumb hands.

Arthur Machen Ultimate Collection, page 821, e-artnow edition, 2016, from the novel The Terror. "Merritt" is an industrialist from the Midlands vacationing in a seaside town in Wales:

Merritt gazed on, amused by the antics of the porpoises who were tumbling and splashing and gamboling a little way out at sea, charmed by the pure and radiant air that was so different from the oily smoke that often stood for heaven at Midlingham, and charmed, too, by the white farmhouses dotted here and there on the heights of the curving coast.
Then he noticed a little row-boat at about two hundred yards from the shore. There were two or three people aboard, he could not quite make out how many, and they seemed to be doing something with a line; they were no doubt fishing, and Merritt (who disliked fish) wondered how people could spoil such an afternoon, such a sea, such pellucid and radiant air by trying to catch white, flabby, offensive, evil-smelling creatures that would be excessively nasty when cooked.

- tom moody

June 28th, 2017 at 8:03 am

Posted in books

cuckoo's nest crit from the internet (before the Combine takes it away)

drawing by Ken Kesey from a 2002 edition of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Re-reading Kesey's classic after many years inspired a rush of pleasure and then a rush to the Internet for some other perspectives.

Let's start with the "villain," Nurse Ratched, who gets under the skin of the "good guy," Randle Patrick McMurphy, and also the skin of the reader. If you experience the novel as a teen you've encountered the Big Nurse archetype in schools but you have no idea how much she (or he) will persist as a feature of American life, in the workplace, politics, and social realms. Because Kesey made the character female the book will be seen as un-PC today but the author reminds us he also had a female nurse in the story who wasn't a didactic power-freak. From a NYT article, published the year he died:

...Mr. Kesey noted that his novel included another, more positive female character, "along with the big castrator of a nurse and the two prostitutes." "She was an Asian nurse who worked in the hospital's electroshock room.

"She is just as tough and snappy as anything," he said. "It is good to have one positive woman there."

Nowadays when most people think of One Flew Over it's the film version, which Kesey had issues with:

Mr. Kesey said he never saw the 1975 film version of his book, directed by Milos Forman and with Jack Nicholson as the lead, R. P. McMurphy. "It has been the smartest thing I never did," Mr. Kesey said, "because Jack Nicholson is great but he is not McMurphy -- he is too short." He added that Mr. Nicholson also seemed too shrewd for the character.

Nicholson may have been shrewd, but director Milos Forman significantly dumbed down the material. Ironically he was hired as an outsider (Czech art film director) but made the ultimate Hollywood good-vs-evil schlockfest, and became a Hollywood power as a result. His incomprehension of Kesey's complex story stands out in a 1975 Village Voice interview:

I asked [Forman] about his decision, implemented in the screenplay of Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman, to treat the story objectively rather than through the eyes of the Indian, Kesey’s point-of-view character.

"I didn’t want that for my movie," he said. "I hate that voice-over, I hate that whole psychedelic ‘60s drug free-association thing, going with the camera through somebody’s head. That’s fine in the book, or on a stage, which is stylized. But in film the sky is real, the grass is real, the tree is real; the people had better be real too."

"You know, I’m glad I didn’t know the reputation of the book when I read it, so I didn’t have this artificial reverence for the ‘cult classic.’ And I think it’s much better that it was made now than in the ‘60s. After a certain time, all the distracting elements fall away, all the transitory psychedelic stuff. And we can follow what it is really about. My film is very simple."

You know, transitory psychedelic stuff such as the book's brilliant but unreliable narration, via Chief Broom, whom Forman relegated to a bit part. Perversely, Forman's take on the story is based on an uncritical acceptance of McMurphy vs Nurse as a clash of primal forces, which was a paranoid schizophrenic's view. Take the Chief out of the equation and you have a comic book story instead of a multi-layered, critical story. Even the CliffsNotes-type sites on the Net understand this better than Forman did. Bright Hub Education has a nuanced theory about the Chief:

Bromden’s suffocation of the catatonic McMurphy ends the novel, and is popularly understood as a mercy-killing of a man whose soul has been stripped away. Yet a much darker reading of the novel shows the patients discarding a symbol they no longer have use for. McMurphy was the epitome of rebellion and subversion against the systems of control set in place. The patients are content to ignore his flaws and stand behind him against the equally-abstracted Ratched. Yet when the battle is over, when those that could help themselves have done so, the defeated form of McMurphy is left behind. He destroys himself to redeem his friends, and they in turn destroy him because he was never seen as a person at all, but an outmoded symbol.

Literary criticism of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has attracted both its share of accolades and controversies for its depiction of a hospital ward as a place of domination and control, and a rambunctious patient who encourages acting out instead of conforming. What makes this story so critically interesting is that it is not simply a polemic against institutional forces. Rather, it is an ingenious portrayal of fantasy and how people [got] caught up in the grandiose and lost sight of humanity. We sympathize with Bromden, the fake deaf-mute for his understanding, but at the novel’s end, we are forced to question that he may truly be the most blind of all.

And here's CliffsNotes itself, to tutor the hapless Forman on his perch atop the Hollywood food chain:

Perhaps the most telling difference between the film and the novel is the ending. The novel contains an episode missing from the film wherein Chief observes a dog sniffing gopher holes from the hospital window. The dog is distracted by a flock of geese forming a cross against a full moon. The dog chases the geese toward a road where it is implied the dog will confront an automobile with the inevitably tragic result that machine will triumph over nature. Coincidentally, this is the same course the Chief follows when he escapes from the hospital, giving the novel's resolution a degree of uncertainty as to whether the Chief will succeed in the outside world or succumb to a worse fate in a world increasingly overrun by dehumanizing mechanization. The film's conclusion, however, depicts Chief running from the hospital toward what the viewer assumes is happiness and liberty.

AV Club (which ultimately thinks the movie has "aged better") notes the Chief's contribution to the narrative:

The novel lays out its case with borderline religious fervor. In Bromden’s eyes, McMurphy is practically superhuman, a giant of a man with a great booming voice and seemingly inexhaustible lust for life, an avatar for all that is individual and righteous and masculine (yeah, we’ll get to that) in the world. His battle against Ratched for the soul of the ward plays out like an epic showdown between two brilliant, near-mythic opponents. Even the glimpses we get of McMurphy tired or acting in self-interest have a Christ-like feel to them, a certain garden of Gethsemane vibe. He struggles because whether he wants it or not, he’s responsible for all of them; and in the end, he has to sacrifice himself to free them.

Contrast that with the movie, where most of the running time has McMurphy acting like any reasonable person might if they were thrown into the nuthouse...

Chuck Palahniuk also weighs in that it's a three-way struggle, not a two-way struggle (with the Chief as angelic third party), and why this is important:

And of course we have rebels, loud and dashing, but they'll be silenced when they become too much of a threat. Arrested or lobotomized or wrongly accused of molesting children and thereby discredited. But always lost, killed, left bereft.

That's the pattern. That's always the pattern. But we're never stuck with just two choices.

With any luck, the rest of us will see what's happening and choose to find a third option. Instead of reinforcing a social system by rebelling or conforming, we'll become the Big Chief, and escape into some beautiful vision. A future that's not a reaction to or an extension of any mental ward where we find ourselves trapped at the present moment.

By losing the Chief, as Forman did, you also lose the Chief's paranoid-but-perceptive vision of The Combine, the larger system of social control for which the asylum is just a branch office. James Wolcott gave special attention to that in his 2011 evaluation of the novel:

It’s tempting to consign One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest to a souvenir piece from the dissident 60s, its protest energy, trippy prophecy, and twitchy paranoia bridging the marijuana grove between the Beats of yore and the hippies ready to sprout. [Argh, this Vanity Fair style of writing --tm] But when I reread it, it seemed more (curse the word) relevant than ever, the oppressive forces it mutinied against having only gotten more immersive and influential in our lives since McMurphy got zapped. Big Nurse has been supplanted by Big Pharma, the pilling of America fulfilling the novel’s vision of weaponized medication: “Miltowns! Thorazines! Libriums! Stelazines! … Tranquilize all of us completely out of existence.” And the Combine, the novel’s metaphor for the silent machinery of social indoctrination, manipulation, and management, stands as a rough draft for the Matrix, the vision of modern existence as a holographic fraud, a covert information grid operating on its own agenda.

Wolcott wrote this pre-Snowden -- the Combine's biomechanical tendrils have only grown more pervasive in the last half-decade. Kesey's favorite version of the play incorporated the Combine into the production, according to the NYT:

[The Gary Sinise version of the play] was not [Kesey's] favorite production, he added. That designation he reserved for a production he saw 15 years ago at a Sacramento high school, staged so that an elaborate display of grinding cogs and gears appeared in silhouette between scenes to illustrate the play's sinister ''Combine,'' a metaphor for society's grinding machinery.

...and it would be interesting to see a remake of the film with the Chief's "hallucinations" woven into the story.

- tom moody

May 22nd, 2017 at 10:18 am

Posted in books, films

Dead Mountaineer's Hotel

...is a Soviet-era genre-bending novel by Boris & Arkady Strugatsky, one of their more memorable efforts. A ten-little-indians style mystery with an oddball assortment of characters snowed in at a mountain lodge. Just how oddball is gradually revealed to a by-the-book police inspector.

An Estonian film version, "Hukkunud Alpinisti" hotell, with script by the Strugatskys, showed up on YouTube. Made in the late '70s, yet it looks like an '80s film, with aggressively modern set design, an electronic score, and stylish costuming. Touches of Kubrick and Argento, as much as the budget allowed. The Strugatskys somewhat truncated their plot and characters but the story works, especially the surprisingly emotional ending.

Hukkunud_Alpinisti_hotell

- tom moody

May 19th, 2017 at 9:40 am

Posted in books, films

my am*zon reviews in html

A minor ingrate on the former dump.fm ridiculed the sidebar link here, "my amazon reviews, '98-'03" -- it was supposed to be a joke, oh well. These reviews were written in the innocent days before Jeff Bezos emerged as a totalitarian Sauron turning the American workplace into a high-tech surveillance hell.
The reviews were an experiment in attempting "pro" culturecrit in an unpaid environment and ceased when one of them had wording altered by a staffer.
Rather than continuing to link to the black evil that is am*zon, I've saved the reviews as an HTML file.

- tom moody

May 13th, 2017 at 9:50 am

drawing, from daniel albright memorial

albrightmemorial

Just learned that one of my favorite teachers, Daniel Albright, died a couple of years ago.
A memorial with readings, music, and reminiscences was posted: [YouTube]
The drawing comes from a series of pictures projected on the auditorium screen, interpreting a passage from one of Albright's books. (It reminds me a bit of Erika Somogyi's work)
I'll have more to say about him -- I just ordered a few of his tomes that I hadn't read yet. I've plugged him a few times on the blahg over the years.
Several of the reminiscers describe him as a genius and there's really no other word. When he lectured he held you spellbound -- you could feel your brain expanding.
In his younger years (when I had him as an undergrad advisor and my brain was still expanding) he primarily focused on English lit. He was in his mid-20s when he wrote a book on "Yeats' creative imagination in old age." That's one I ordered -- I've always been curious about it but never found it in a library or bookstore.
Gradually he broadened his criticism to include music and painting. At the end of his life his focus was interdisciplinary studies. His pursuits took him from Virginia to Rochester to (after 2003) Harvard, whether I gather his courses were popular.
I like his writing on poetry and music and modernist theory in general. I don't really care much about the interrelationships of the arts but appreciated that he would also take the flip side of the argument, explaining why and when it was good for a discipline to remain entrenched in its area of competence (to use a phrase of Greenberg's, a critic he admired but didn't agree with).
An astute Am*zon commenter said, regarding Albright's last book Putting Modernism Together: "A great project but this original and talented thinker is finally unable to let go of the canon." You could do a lot worse having someone to explain the canon to you, but the frustration isn't with Albright's conservatism so much as it is selfishly wanting to see that brilliant mind probing outside the established greats.

- tom moody

April 9th, 2017 at 8:11 am

Posted in art - others, books, theory

quip of the week

Jeffrey St. Clair, Counterpunch:

Stephen King’s It was one of the five scariest books I’ve ever read, along with Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Clive Barker’s Damnation Game, Tom Holland’s Lord of the Dead (featuring Byron as a very temperamental vampire) and, of course, In My Time by Dick Cheney.

- tom moody

March 31st, 2017 at 9:05 am

Posted in books

belter history

The cable channel formerly known as the Science Fiction Channel has a new series, The Expanse, which is pretty adroitly done, despite overuse of the trope of "blowing people away" (via pistol, railgun, or airlock), which occurs with as much regularity and emotional impact as a Moe/Curly face slap. The series adapts books by two sf late colonizers writing under the name James S.A. Corey. When it's time to borrow, borrow from the best, and the Coreys owe a large debt to earlier writers for their conception of "the Belt" (as in, asteroids) and Belters.

Larry Niven used "Belter" in the '60s, mostly in short stories in his "Known Space" series. Wikipedia's summation:

The Sol Belt possesses an abundance of valuable ores, which are easily accessible due to the low to negligible gravity of the rocks containing them. Originally a harsh frontier under U.N. control,[citation needed] the Belt declared independence after creating Confinement Asteroid, a habitat with spin gravity that permitted safe gestation of children, and Farmer's Asteroid, the Belt's primary food source. Almost immediately a lively competition began between the fiercely independent "Belters" and the technology police of the U.N. Several years of tension and economic conflicts followed, but soon settled into a relatively peaceful trade relationship as the Belt has so many resources that the UN and the Earth need.

C.J. Cherryh also had gritty Belters in her books Heavy Time (1991) and Hellburner (1992). Wikipedia, again:

[The novels] are set in the Sol system at the beginning of the "Company Wars" period in the 24th century. Heavy Time introduces ASTEX, a division of the Sol Station Corporation, ... engaged in asteroid mining for minerals to support the Earth's economy and the war effort. Disputes over mining rights, corporate corruption and economic exploitation are key plot elements in the first novel.

Both Niven and Cherryh depict Belters as scrappy, independent operators, comfortable in tight spaces and hard vacuum suits, mining the rocks and constantly struggling with more sedentary Earth bureaucracies. The whole concept is basically bunk since radiation exposure and bone density loss make it impossible for humans to live in space for long periods, but as long as romantic conceptions are dying hard, might as well acknowledge the early dreamers.

- tom moody

March 18th, 2017 at 10:33 am

Posted in books, films