25 October 2012

"I Drink for a Reason," "Bird Cloud," "Out," "Midnight's Children," "If You Ask Me," and "We Will Not Cease."

I Drink for a Reason, David Cross
Bird Cloud, Annie Proulx
Out, Katsuo Kirino
Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie
If You Ask Me, Betty White
We Will Not Cease, Archibald Baxter

I Drink for a Reason, David Cross

Adapted from a series of blog posts, I Drink for a Reason offers conventionally cynical rants, lists of nonsense that stretch thin premises ("Ideas for T-Shirts to be Sold at Urban Outfitters"), and condescension enough to test anyone's patience. This book is disappointing, full of bile, and often boring.
What to Wear to a Funeral
No Tevas! That’s rule number 1. Black is considered to be the first color (or lack of) you should choose in your wardrobe. However, if you cannot find any black to wear and the funeral was given with short notice (sometimes a sudden death can come at a very inopportune time, such as between games 6 and 7 of the World Series and you need to get that shit blessed and buried in a hurry!), then wearing blackface is perfectly acceptable. Unless it’s a funeral for Cornell West. That fucker has zero sense of humor. Try not to get any on your teeth, though. That can be misconstrued as being offensive. As a side note, if it is Eve Ensler’s funeral, you can do her no greater tribute then arriving dressed as a giant vagina. Bleeding through a series of well-hidden tubes, if possible. Also, be stinky.
I feel like there exists a single word to describe this book, but I don't know what it might be.  I Drink for a Reason is the opposite of charming - "anti-charming," is that a word?  My vocabulary fails me, because it's hard to find a term for prose that is so completely repellent in tone - smug and slouchingly venomous.

"Boorish is the opposite of charming."

The worst aspect of the book, however, is the author's long harping over small insights.  After seeing an LAPD cruiser with a "Don't Abandon Your Baby" bumper sticker, Cross remarks:
Do we really need to be told not to abandon our babies? Especially by authority figures with guns and shoot-to-kill dispensations? I suppose the answer is yes. It’s one thing when a dear friend or family member asks us not to abandon our baby. Or even a much-loved celebrity, but the cops?
There is a very small amount of cleverness in recognizing that the bumper sticker's message is a bit silly and probably ineffective, of course.  But Cross goes on at great length on each little idea.  If the book were soup, the recipe would read: "Peel and dice one small white onion.  Add ten gallons water.  Serve."

Some jokes are legitimately funny, of course.  I particularly liked the optics in one riff on advertising, where the appearance of the joke is as funny as the gag itself:
I would buy the rights to a word, maybe the word maybe. And every time you used it you would have to pay me. And you would have to pay me in kisses. Or every time you used it you would have to say “David Cross’s maybe.” As in, “Hey, if we get there early enough, David Cross’s maybe we can get tickets.” Or, “Fuck you! Did you ever stop to think that David Cross’s maybe, just David Cross’s maybe that I love you? David Cross’s maybe you’re right.”
By the end of the book, though, you're disappointed that these bits of cleverness are so few.  I Drink for a Reason is a thin broth, and you should avoid it.


Bird Cloud, Annie Proulx

I was fortunate enough to meet Annie Proulx when she was on a book tour to promote Bird Cloud, a book that takes her Wyoming home as its subject.  She was just about exactly as you'd expect: gracious, pleasant, with a hint of bite to her quiet sarcasms.  Proulx is also, of course, an enormously gifted writer (I urge you to read The Shipping News).  Unfortunately, Bird Cloud does not employ her considerable talents in any effective way.  While the skill is clearly visible, the book can't decide whether it wants to be autobiography, history, or just a householder's extended whine.  Proulx appears to have tried to blend different approaches to create a holistic discussion of her windy and remote estate, but the result is an unpleasant amalgam, mixing intriguing anecdotes with entitled complaining.

Bird Cloud focuses on the area of Wyoming that the author purchased a few years ago, with intentions of building a final grand home on the property.  Building up to the purchase, she touches on her personal history, before launching into the tiresome discussion of zoning rights, lumber purchases, and contractor woes that consume much of the text.  The book livens once more halfway through, when it tacks into the past to expound the story of that part of Wyoming, including memorable tidbits about despondent Native Americans and Scottish big game hunters, but this interesting section simply highlights how much of the text is wasted on Proulx's litany of despair about the difficulty of finding the right type of wood for an enormous Japanese-style bathtub.

At its best, the book deploys Proulx's talent for description to great effect.  She has a keen eye for life, and recreates it for the reader with luxuriantly vivid adjectives.  This is most poignant in the end of the book, when she discusses wildlife around Bird Cloud, but is also realized in tales of uneasy encounters:
In some inexplicable way he was repellent.  His face was creased and seamed, his black hair combed over a narrow skull.  Slack stubbled cheeks, discolored teeth.  The bolts of fabric seemed viciously animated.  The man began to talk to us in an obsequious, intimate tone of voice.  His comments were inane, stupid.
"I know ladies like to rummage around with cloth."
This sort of excellent imagery, however, only serves to make the ponderous story of home renovation seem all the more tedious, and remind us of the narrative talent that goes to waste in much of the text.
We waited for the reverse osmosis water purification system.  By error the whole outfit went to Kansas where it was passed along to another freight company that suffered a break-in and wouldn't have another guard until the next day.  Don't call us, we'll call you.  But finally all of it arrived in early March which is not springtime in Wyoming but the snowiest month.  Gerald kept smashing a path through the drifts on the country road and managed to get in and out most days, taking a risk lover's joy in the nauseating slides toward the ditch, the scrape of ice and packed snow on his truck's undercarriage.
At times, it seems like a bad joke, especially when reading about the mounting costs of construction and fencing.  Lizzie speculates - with good reason - that Bird Cloud is just a way to pay for Bird Cloud.  And while I don't know the truth of that, I do know that you'd be better picking up some of Proulx's fiction, instead.


Out, Katsuo Kirino

This crime novel, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder, concerns a group of four women who work the night shift at a box-lunch factory.  When one of them commits a murder, the others are drawn into the ensuing cover-up and the ensnaring consequences.  The resulting story in Out yields as unremarkable a book as I have ever seen, with a workaday plot, forgettable characters, and writing that only occasionally aspires beyond mediocrity.

The better parts of the book are when it focuses on the quiet desperation of the working women's lives.  The arduous struggle of their daily toil and the claustrophobia of their difficult circumstances are reflected in their manual labors.  At its best, in these moments Out resembles Upton Sinclair's The Jungle:
About an hour into the shift, they began to hear sounds of distress from the new woman.  Almost immediately, efficiency began dropping on the line and they had to cut the pace.  Masako noticed that Yayoi, trying to help out, had begun reaching across to take some of the newcomer's boxes, though today she seemed hardly able to handle her own.  The veterans on the line all knew that smoothing the rice was a particularly tough job since it had cooled into a hard lump by the time it left the machine.  It took a good deal of strength in the wrists and fingers to flatten the little squares of cold, compact rice in the few seconds the box was in front of you, and the half-stooping position made it hard on the back.  After about an hour of this, pain would be shooting from your spine through your shoulders, and it became difficult to lift your arms.  Which was precisely why the work was often left to unsurprising beginners - though at the moment, Yayoi, who was anything but a beginner, was hard at work at the station, with a sullen but resigned look on her face.
Unfortunately, this sort of wonderful tension is only deployed as a background for a predictable crime story.  Its plot unfolds mechanically and awkwardly, like an ill-built robot staggering across the room.  Kirino's meets with some success with her attempt to shock, by juxtapositioning the mundane and the monstrous, but on balance her minor triumphs of atmosphere seem to be misplaced, searching for a better plot.  I'd suggest you avoid Out.


Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie

Oddly enough, the best metaphor I can imagine for Midnight's Children, one of Rushdie's justly-famous early works, is that of a stew.  The magical but passionate tale of Saleem Sinai, a boy born at the instant of India's independence, is told with a mixture of immediate first-person narration and free indirect discourse, allowing the whole of the story to simmer over the fire of the exquisite characterization of Saleem.  Themes and events bubble to the surface, and return again much later in an organic manner.  And the whole of the book is bound together by a central flavor-theme that is strong without being overpowering: the uncertain line between personal story and national history.

I chose this book as preparation for an upcoming trip to India, and it turns out to have been a superb selection.  Midnight's Children is a book about the birth of modern India and Pakistan, along with the political struggles that have accompanied the two countries' problems with authoritarian leadership - Indira Gandhi and Ayub Khan - as well as their clashes over religion and the disputed Kashmir territories.

These grand events are not only the backdrop for Saleem's story, but frequently the results of his own actions.  But as the narrator weaves himself and his family into history, and makes himself essential to the passage of nations, he also becomes gradually aware of the extent to which this vital role is the creation of his own imagination.  Late in the story, he mentions a stranger that he recently met.  But unlike other strangers, this one is not linked to the grand sequence of coincidences and connections that bind Saleem to all of India and Pakistan.
Once, when I was more energetic, I would have wanted to tell his life-story; the hour, and his possession of an umbrella, would have been all the connections I needed to begin the process of weaving him into my life, and I have no doubt that I'd have finished by proving his indispensability to anyone who wishes to understand my life and benighted times; but now I'm disconnected, unplugged, with only epitaphs left to write.
This might seem like a depressing shift in tone.  Saleem has been spinning a magnificent web with his story, connecting himself - the child of midnight - to the fate of the world.  He has been central, and every peripheral character has been important by virtue of that connection.  But as Rushdie gradually introduces more uncertainty into Saleem's narration, the larger and more hopeful message comes through: the connection was an artificial and constricting one, and with its passage there is hope for the characters and the countries to forge their own new destiny.  I  have seldom seem a more elegantly executed change in tone, or more perfectly delivered message.

And what's more: it's entertaining!  The narration is superb, delivered with self-conscious jibes and commentary.  The description is equally skilled:
Shuffling around Buckingham Villa in embroidered skull-cap and full-length chugha-coat--coated, too, in a thin film of dust--he munched aimlessly on raw carrots and sent thin streaks of spittle down the grizzled white contours of his chin. And as he declined, Reverend Mother grew larger and stronger; she, who had once wailed pitifully at the sight of Mercurochrome, now appeared to thrive on his weakness, as though their marriage had been one of those mythical unions in which succubi appear to men as innocent damsels, and, after luring them into the matrimonial bed, regain their true, awful aspect and begin to swallow their souls.
Because they are making a movie of the story, some discussion has centered around the supernatural themes of the book.  Saleem is psychic, and there is abundant magic and mystery in the book.  But those elements seem less important to me.  The real magic in Midnight's Children is the tale of the trap of destiny and how it can be escaped, by men and by nations.  I strongly recommend this book.


If You Ask Me, Betty White

Actress Betty White has, inexplicably, written no fewer than six books during the years she has been on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls.  In fact, If You Ask Me is only one of the books she published in 2011 (the other: Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo).  This is not a phenomenon I can explain, given how bizarrely bad I found If You Ask Me.

Larded with photographs, the actual text of the book is only eight slender chapters.  They have loose themes, but the book as a whole is something like 40% anecdotes about animals, 40% stories about her latest hit sitcom, Hot In Cleveland, and 20% generic rambling.  I have to admit, I feel bad saying this about someone as charming as Betty White, but this book should definitely not have been written, published, purchased, or read.  She writes as she speaks, leaning on underlining and italics emphasis to substitute for vocal emphasis, and she seems to have used up all the decent stories in previous books.  I won't fall into the condescending trap of assuming White was taken advantage of, but her unfocused bits of trivia don't belong in print.
At this moment in time, it seems somewhat current and choice for women to pair up with younger men. These gals are called “cougars.”
Well, animal lover that I am, a cougar I am not. All my life, even as a kid, I have preferred men older than I am.
Unfortunately, today I don’t think there is anyone older than I am!
Even at this age, once in a while I meet a man who seems a trifle more interesting than usual. Nothing untoward—just someone who might be fun to know a little better. I’ve even thought (to myself) that it might be nice if he asked me to lunch or dinner, perhaps. Then reality kicks in and it cracks me up. This guy is probably a much younger man—maybe only eighty—and not about to even look my way.
If You Ask Me is very sweet, very well-suited to Betty White's image, and a complete waste of time.  Do not read it.


We Will Not Cease, Archibald Baxter


We Will Not Cease is an account of Baxter's time as a conscientious objector during the First World War.  I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting from this memoir - stodgy jeremiads, boring details, thrilling adventure?  Regardless, the story turns out to be a stirring story of idealism, told with a matter-of-fact minimalism that's delightful to read.

Archibald Baxter, a farmer from Dunedin, refused to fight, despite the draft imposed on New Zealand.  When called up, he would not accept orders, and so began a series of punishments and humiliations designed to break him down and submit.  There are two prevailing tensions in the book.  The first is the question of whether Baxter's convictions can endure his trials - can he continue to bear up under torture and starvation, or will he crack and agree to accept his uniform?  And the second question is how far the Army will go.  At times, it seems there are no limits on their willingness to break Baxter.  His torturers even take him out to an ammunition dump on the Somme that is being bombed, and - unbelievably - leave him to die.
Booth asked Stevenson if there were any place, near at hand, that was being heavily shelled. He pointed out an ammunition dump at some distance. The Germans had got the range of it and it was being heavily shelled at intervals of about twenty minutes. He told Booth to take me across to it and leave me there. Booth told me to stay there and not to move from where he had placed me. As he hurried away, leaving me standing by the dump, he called back: ‘I hope a shell gets you and blows you to your Maker.’
I stood waiting. I could see him and he, of course, could see me, though he was well out of range. Suddenly, firing began again and the shells came thick and fast. I was in the midst of a storm of spouting, belching mud and fire and flying fragments. The shells seemed to strike everywhere but where I was. I believe that if I had moved at all from where I stood, I should inevitably have been killed. If the dump had gone up I should have gone with it. I stood and waited for what seemed inevitable death. I remember that I had very strange sensations. They were probably due to my overwrought condition. The normal instinct of self-preservation seemed for the time being to leave me entirely. I felt quite calm and peaceful and saw everything round about bathed in a bright white radiance. The whole thing felt strange and unusual, but not unpleasant. I never felt the same again when I was, at subsequent times. under heavy shell fire.
But despite all that is leveled on him, Baxter endures.  Throughout his stoic account, he mentions in astonishing acts of heroism, as when he saw a derailed train under fire, and went to rescue the survivors.
Shells were bursting on the line ahead. I was watching the track in front and all at once I saw that it was torn up. There was no time to do anything. The train left the rails and rolled over the bank. The engine came to a halt lying on its side, stuck in the mud. It was a scene of great confusion. A mass of struggling men were trying to extricate one another, and all around the crash of shells. Anything I did at that time was done instinctively as a man, not as a soldier, and was not what the authorities wanted.
On occasion, Baxter also recounts some of the conversations he had at the time with those who wished him to accept his lot.  Frequently, he is told he is unpatriotic, evil, or cowardly.  He is assured that if he will just agree to take orders, he can have a nice safe job far from the front lines.  He is remonstrated that his country will never know what he endures, and that he stands to gain nothing.  Baxter replies with simple, stalwart courage.
'War is an evil thing, should be done away with, and I believe can be done away with. It seems right to me to stand out against it and I intend to stand out against it, no matter what I suffer, even if they kill me.’
Baxter became most famous for his endurance of the Army's "Field Punishment No. 1": crucifixion.  It was in this capacity he was most known as a peace activist and, later, as the father of the most famous New Zealand poet, James K. Baxter.  The iconic image of the row of punishment poles has become a part of the lore of that war in New Zealand.
He took me over to the poles, which were willow stumps, six to eight inches in diameter and twice the height of a man, and placed me against one of them. It was inclined forward out of perpendicular. Almost always afterwards he picked the same one for me. I stood with my back to it and he tied me to it by the ankles, knees and wrists. He was an expert at the job, and he knew how to pull and strain at the ropes till they cut into the flesh and completely stopped the circulation. When I was taken off my hands were always black with congested blood. My hands were taken round behind the pole, tied together and pulled well up it, straining and cramping the muscles and forcing them into an unnatural position. Most knots will slacken a little after a time. His never did. The slope of the post brought me into a hanging position, causing a large part of my weight to come on my arms, and I could get no proper grip with my feet on the ground, as it was worn away round the pole and my toes were consequently much lower than my heels. I was strained so tightly up against the post that I was unable to move body or limbs a fraction of an inch. Earlier in the war, men undergoing this form of punishment were tied with their arms outstretched. Hence the name of crucifixion. Later, they were more often tied to a single upright, probably to avoid the likeness to a cross. But the name stuck.
At times, he had to stay suspended for many hours.
Between my set teeth I said: ‘Oh God, this is too much. I can't bear it.’ But I could not allow myself the relief of groaning as I did not want to give the guards the satisfaction of hearing me. The mental effect was almost as frightful as the physical. I felt I was going mad. That I should be stuck up on a pole suffering this frightful torture, a human scarecrow for men to stare at and wonder at, seemed part of some impossible nightmare that could not continue. At the very worst strength came to me and I knew I would not surrender. The battle was won, and though the suffering increased rather than decreased as the days wore on, I never had to fight it again.
In the latter part of the memoir, Baxter marches along the front lines with soldiers.  He refuses service, so he is not attached to a platoon, and because he can't give a platoon number, they refuse to feed him.  He is starved almost to the brink of death, before being rescued and sent to a hospital.  It was moments like this that prompted Baxter's exasperated exchange with the Corporal in charge of torture:
‘And if I am broken, what good should I be to the authorities or anyone else?’
‘That doesn't concern us. It's your submission we want, Baxter, not your services.’
He never submitted.

Interesting and fairly well-written, this short memoir is probably worth your time - particularly since it's available for free online.

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