The 10 Saddest Sentences in Donald Antrim’s *The Emerald Light in the Air*

(Although I could have chosen alternatives.) I liked this book, a collection of stories, quite a bit but did find it somewhat devastating in overall effect.  It is also sometimes quite funny, however.  “Another Manhattan,” which I also remember reading in The New Yorker at the Western Skateland roller rink a year or two ago as my kids skated, is probably my favorite.

“Christopher… confided in a whisper that he had never been anything but a goddamn disappointment to his family, and that no matter how hard he tried, he’d never escaped or really ever understood his role as a clown, as a fool, but that he’d finally made up his mind that it didn’t matter, that their opinion of him wasn’t going to bother him forever.”  (“Solace.”)

“They had lied to each other so many times, over so many years, that deceptions between them had become commonplace, practically repetitive” (“Another Manhattan”).

“Back when he was in the hospital — in the past six months, there had been three emergency-room visits and two locked-ward admissions — he had spent day after day lying on a mattress, crying.” (“Another Manhattan”).

“On the mattress, shattered and sobbing over Kate and their messed-up love, he’d lain crushed.” (“Another Manhattan”).

“Margaret, one of the night nurses, met him on the ward.  She said, ‘Hello, Mr. Davis. You’re back with us again, I see.’ Then she showed him to a room of his own.” (“Another Manhattan”).

“She’d be afraid of him pulling her back, afraid of going childless all her life and winding up a widow, like her mother, running from place to place and never stopping.” (“He Knew.”)

“He’d felt it in his temple.  It was, somehow, both imaginary and real, a beckoning, an itch, a need for a bullet.” (“The Emerald Light in the Air.”)

“He remembered how the misery had bowed him over: He’d gone everywhere, in those days, with his head down, barreling rigidly forward, compounding the pain by moving at all; but when he touched himself to find where the pain was coming from he couldn’t find the spot.” (“The Emerald Light in the Air.”)

p.s. Here’s a beautiful profile of Antrim in the NYT Magazine by the great John Jeremiah Sullivan.

Traumatizing the Kids w/ Late Hitchcock

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from Morenoirposters.com

I may have traumatized the kids with my Family Movie Night selection, Hitchcock’s 1964 Tippi Hedren/ Sean Connery film, Marnie.  This was made a year after The Birds (also with Hedren, of course) and contains some elements recognizable from that, as well as from Psycho (twisted secret related to mommy) and Vertigo (ice-cool blond in uncanny duplicate).

It seems that some make claims for Marnie as a late, under-recognized German-Expressionist-styled minor Hitch masterpiece but I would not go that far; for the first 45 minutes or so I loved it but by the end I found it too long and very creepy– partly but not only in the right ways. Hedren plays Marnie, a cool blond kleptomaniac (Grace Kelly turned down the role) who ends up more or less blackmailed into marriage by Connery’s character. There’s something wrong with Marnie; she can’t stop compulsively stealing, and she can’t bear to be touched by a man (not that Hitchcock allows her to stay celibate).

Finally we get a return to/ reenactment of her primal scene, involving her creepy mother (shades of Psycho here), and an exorcism of her demons that reveals the source of her phobic reaction to certain stimuli, including the color red (gee what could that be about?) and the sound of knocking on the door.

Slight spoilers from here on: in the big reveal, as I sat there with my 10-year-olds, it was seeming conceivable that it would turn out that the movie’s repressed secret was that the 6-year old Marnie had been forced to prostitute herself to her mother’s clients.  Now that would have been maybe a 2000s David Lynch movie, not a 1960s Hitchcock movie… But you could tell that Hitchcock would’ve loved to do it that way if he felt he could have gotten away with it.

Re: Marnie’s line in the poster, “I’m just some kind of wild animal you’ve trapped,” Connery’s character alludes early on to a jaguarundi he captured and raised as a pet, but disappointingly, this is last we hear about it; I was hoping for a noir Bringing Up Baby angle there.

Trigger warnings for jaguarundi, horseback accidents, fireplace pokers, wet phallic tree branches crashing through windows, marital rape, and childhood quasi-molestation scenes.

Early-1970s craziness of Manchette’s *The Mad and the Bad*

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Jean-Patrick Manchette’s bloody 1972 French thriller The Mad and the Bad is a recent release from the great New York Review Books Classics series. It’s quite crazy. I had that experience with it where I read half of it and got distracted for a few days, and then when I picked it up I’d lost track of a few of the plot points, which didn’t really matter much but added to the sense of sheer unmotivated perverse carnage.  In brief, a corrupt architect wants to get rid of his young nephew, who has fallen into his care.  He hires Julie, a young woman who has spent five years in a mental hospital, to take care of the boy, and then hires a brutal hit man with a bad ulcer, Thomson, to kill them both.  (I may have missed something here.)  The attempted execution goes wrong, Julie and the boy escape, and the rest of the book describes their attempt to elude the hit man and his fellow thugs.  The edition’s introduction explains that “for Manchette the world is a giant marketplace in which gangs of thugs — be they leftist, reactionary, terrorist, police, or politicians — compete relentlessly.”  There’s maybe a touch of R.D. Laing-style 1970s anti-psychiatry sentiment in the way the unstable Julie is the book’s only sympathetic character… But she’s pretty crazy, and not that sympathetic.  Society itself is a madhouse, as best exemplified, maybe, by an extended scene that could only be filmed by Quentin Tarentino in which the thugs shoot up an entire busy supermarket trying to kill Julie and Peter:

With stunning speed the store was transformed into a madhouse. More and more people started to run. A wake of detritus marked Julie’s trajectory through the aisles… Above the hullabaloo, by way of background, floated the sweet yet cannonading tones of an old Joan Baez hit, piped through speakers. The place was a bear garden…. Thomson could no longer see either Julie or Peter. He bounded down an aisle, knocking over an old woman who began to wail in terror. He trotted by Boys Apparel, his mouth full of bile…. This is exciting, I am enjoying this, Thomson told himself as he spat gastric juice onto the ground… Mothers were shielding their children by covering them with their bodies. The whole mass was shrieking. Thomson was doubled over with laughter.

I was imagining Mick and Keith reading this during the recording of Exile on Main Street in Keith’s villa outside Nice, although I guess the timing’s not quite right (recording was in 1971).  Still, this has early-1970s-craziness written all over it in a very specific way.

 

The divorced women’s Maus: Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel

I really loved Anya Ulinich’s new graphic novel Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel.

I read it basically as memoir… Only now reflecting do I realize that it’s a novel.  Still, my guess is that it’s largely autobiographical (most of it seems to match up with the author’s life) — but I don’t actually know that.

You might especially enjoy it if:

  • you like Gary Shteyngart’s work and/or have an interest in contemporary Russia (the protagonist flies there for a visit early on) or in the generation of Soviet Jews who immigrated to the U.S. in the 70s following the loosening of the USSR’s emigration policies. “Evoking Louis C.K.’s humor and Amy Winehouse’s longing and anguish” says the jacket copy — hmm, that latter seems a strain, and I almost get the feeling that the copywriter was desperately trying to avoid mentioning Lena Dunham.  (I prefer Etgar Keret’s blurb: “the divorced women’s Maus.”)  But yes, she is quite hilarious, and recalls Shteyngart a bit in Little Failure in the way they both self-deprecatingly narrate their floundering attempts to de-Sovietize and to enter mainstream American life.  (And come to think of it, Lena’s visit to St. Petersburg functions in the narrative somewhat comparably to Shteyngart’s return back to Russia in Little Failure.)
  • you’ve done a lot of online dating in your late 30s or 40s or following a divorce.  The main plot of the book involves our narrator, divorced from her second husband Josh (the first was a quickie marriage basically for a green card), tip-toeing into the dating pool, having by age 37 had a grand total of three lovers to date.  Ulinich is hilarious on the parade of grim, weird, unattractive, misguided men Lena encounters.  She has earlier characterized the students in her adult-education creative writing classes as falling primarily into the five (sometimes overlapping) categories of the Brilliant, the Insane, the Illiterate, the Angry and Ambitious, and the Jerk-0ff:Photo on 8-10-14 at 1.44 PM
    [all images taken from the book w/o permission, all rights belong to the author]

    Her taxonomy of the guys she dates is comparable.  Here’s her overview of the photos men post on the dating sites:Photo on 8-10-14 at 1.41 PM

    Among her rules, she won’t date any guy posing in a photo “with little, mercilessly objectified third world children;”  nor a guy offering the photographer a beer, a cocktail, or a dead fish, “not to mention a guy in a chainmail helmet… that he’d made himself.” She eventually finds an apparent keeper, a moody bohemian 45 year-old she dubs the Orphan.  I won’t give away how things play out with him, as this is the main business of the last part of the book…

  • …but I will add that those who have endured a devastatingly painful breakup will probably find a lot to empathize with in Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel.
  • you are a fan of Chekhov’s “the Darling” or Bernard Malamud’s “The Magic Barrel.”  The latter especially (as the book’s title suggests) plays a central role; the Orphan is reading it on a bus when our protagonist meets him, and she is struck by the coincidences:Photo on 8-10-14 at 1.56 PMI actually have not read Malamud’s story, but I get the sense that parallels run fairly deeply.
  • You are or have been a struggling writer or artist (especially in Brooklyn): she’s excellent on this.  Also good on parenting and being a single mother to two girls while trying to date.

But most of all, it’s very smart & rich, funny and poignant both, and works really well visually/aesthetically as a graphic novel, with a somewhat rough-hewn, sketchy style of drawing that employs different modes and visual looks to evoke different parts of the memoir; for example, when Lena is recounting a story from the past, it’s often in what seem to be lined notebook pages, with an exaggerated, cartoon-y style, as contrasted with the more moody realism of the present moment.

Here’s a neat cartoon/ graphic review of the book in Slate (one that veers off into the author’s own hilarious-awful dating anecdotes).  Here are the two excellent reviews of the book in the NYT.

Finally I’d like to say that Lena Finkle comes across as very likable and relatable throughout. As a protagonist should.

A Man Called Destruction (Alex Chilton biography)

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I just read Holly George-Warren’s A Man Called Destruction: the Life and Music of Alex Chilton.  I was a huge Alex Chilton fan in my not-so-wayward youth in the 1980s, as I discussed in this 2010 post (prompted then by the 33 1/3 book on Radio City and the Big Star box set), so it was great to fill in a lot of details and to understand parts of the story that had always been hazy or sketchy for me.  Overall it’s an excellent biography, I thought –at least for a fan; you might not have the stamina for the whole thing if you weren’t already one.

A few observations:

  • This isn’t news, but reading the whole biography made clear how incredibly strange Chilton’s career was, with some weirdly history-defying twists and diversions. He’s a teenage star as the singer of the somewhat manufactured pop group the Box Tops in the mid and late 60s.  When the band finally fizzles out in 1970, Chilton is all of 20 years old.  When Big Star similarly (well, very differently) fizzles out in 1974/5, the guy is 25 years old, having already lived through two full lives in the music business. What I hadn’t really fully understood is that in the immediate post-Big Star years, Chilton spent quite a lot of time in NYC and was even a semi-fixture at CGBGs right in the dawning of the punk scene.  He “stayed in New York for much of 1977, the year punk broke… Ball and Ork had already booked another prime gig: opening for Talking Heads at CBGB March 3-5, two sets each night.”  Chilton told a fanzine, “Everybody loves me here, it’s incredible.  In Memphis everybody thinks I’m a jerk.  Come up here, get respect, girls wanna sleep with me.”  “CBGBs soon became Alex’s second home…. ‘I could drink free at CBGBs,’ Alex said. ‘The Ramones, Blondie, and the Talking Heads were all coming out of that scene and were already too big to get close to or to be friends with.  But Richard Hell was omnipresent… The Dead Boys lived right across the street; I enjoyed their company.”  “Alex and the band opened at CB’s for Lester Bangs… The previous night, two of Alex’s favorite bands had been on the bill with Bangs– the Ramones and the Cramps… Alex had become obsessed with the Cramps and saw them whenever possible.”  Etc.  There’s something about all of this that just seems so strange.  Chilton was/ should have been a total legend at this point. But instead he’s this punk fanboy hanging around CBGBs waiting in line to see the Dead Boys.  And he’s still just 26 or so.
  • Perhaps the most mind-blowing such detail, with Chilton as a strange Zelig figure of the late 70s scene: “Alex still had his derelict apartment on East Ninth Street, which now had no electricity. He hadn’t paid rent in two months and was about to be evicted, so he packed his duffel bag once more and headed back to Memphis in time for his 27th birthday. A week later the Sex Pistols played their second show in America… in Memphis… Arriving early, Alex helped set up equipment… and tuned Steve Jones’ guitar for him.”  !!??!!
  • Something else I probably should have realized: Lou Reed’s Berlin was a big influence on Sister Lovers/ Big Star Third.  That makes sense. (That the album contains a cover of a Velvet Underground song (“Femme Fatale”) somehow kept me from considering Reed’s later music as an influence.)  In 1981 a New York Rocker writer and musician (Glenn Morrow), reviewing a dissolute live performance, observed, “Like a Memphis version of Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal,… Chilton reminded me a bit of Lou Reed, circa 1975, slightly paunchy in plan t-shirt and jeans mixing banality with the occasional glimmer of greatness.”  Morrow concluded (wonderfully), “To be so fucking talented, a great songwriter who doesn’t seem to be writing anymore, a gifted guitar player who chooses just to sing, a singer who chooses to warble off-key.  It doesn’t take much to sit in the corner laughing while the bull trashes the china shop.  Come on, Alex, ain’t it about time you took the bull by the horns?”
  • Few others are likely to care about this, but I was fascinated to come across a citation from a thoughtful piece on Big Star published in 1975 or something by Mike Saunders, later “Metal” Mike Saunders of the Angry Samoans!  I knew that he’d been a rock critic, but this still surprised me.
  • Speaking of the Sex Pistols, Chilton’s on-again off-again relationship with the beautiful Lesa Aldridge (a lot of the songs on Sister Lovers are about her) eventually degenerated into Sid and Nancy territory.  Not pretty.  (There’s also at least one verified report of Chilton making an offhand anti-semitic comment, although it’s not entirely clear to what degree this reflected real prejudice, as opposed to being more about trying to shock and piss off the journalist.) The drug intake at times becomes pretty startling even by rock ‘n’ roll standards.  Jim Dickinson on working on the Sister Lover sessions with Clinton: “”The first night of the first session I watched him shoot Demerol down his throat with a syringe,” said Dickinson. “That set the tone.””
  • The biography left me pondering some large questions about causality, character, talent, and luck.  What most explains Chilton’s fucked-up career and the fact that he never really got the recognition he deserved?  The book sometimes feel like it could be titled, Operation: Undermine Music Career. The book can suggest various different possibilities.  One relates to trauma and depression. Chilton’s beloved older brother Reid suffered a powerful seizure (he was prone to them) while taking a bath in 1957, just after graduating from high school, and drowned.  This hit the 7-year-old Alex hard, and he later attempted suicide twice (cutting his wrists), and once passed out in a bath and almost died as his brother did.  One gets the distinct impression that Chilton’s drug abuse was partially (as it usually is, probably) self-medication.  Or, one can read his drug & alcohol problems less as effect of something else, and more the central thing itself: perhaps he just happened to have an addictive personality, a tendency toward self-indulgence, and a dangerous profession for someone with those tendencies.
  • And then, when it comes to his relationship with the music business, do we see him mostly as a victim of a system that couldn’t recognize his genius? Or as bearing more culpability or at least agency in the process?  There’s a lot of evidence for the first view, as Big Star couldn’t have gotten much unluckier when it came to the way their records were handled.  OTOH, Chilton had opportunity after opportunity that he either squandered or passed up, either out of perversity, bohemian intransigence, integrity, drug-addledness, depression, just not caring, following his own muse, not working well with others (choose your own theory).
  • One detail that was fascinating to me: Alex’s older brother Howard got (or worked towards) his PhD in philosophy at Indiana University, and through Howard, Alex got turned onto the ideas of Wilhelm Reich.  He later cited Reich’s 1933 book Character Analysis as a major influence, saying that after reading it, “I began sorting things out.  Character Analysis helped me understand myself and the people around me… From then on, I kind of knew what I was doing and where I wanted to go.”  He also seems to have taken astrology pretty seriously, to the extent that he had to vet any potential musical partners to ensure compatible astrological signs.  (Well, it’s better than Scientology.)
  • I just read Carl Wilson’s good review of the book, in which he makes the nice observation that “Chilton’s story is … a mystery about whatever drives a handful of artists to be great at the expense of being good, to gamble double or nothing on the long odds.”

Bloomington’s Little Free Libraries (2)

As I mentioned in my previous post, there are two more Little Free Libraries on or just off Davis Ave. a little to the West of Bryan Park.

Here’s the one on Davis.  When it’s closed, it’s not at all clear what the green wooden box is — it almost has the look of a green electrical box — which may be a disadvantage, although I also kind of like the suspense in opening the latched box and finding out what’s inside.

photo 1

 

Right now its contents are hit or miss.  7 Habits of Highly Effective People, How to be a Success, the Boomer Burden.  Also a Barnes & Noble edition of Vanity Fair, Asimov’s Prelude to Foundation, and an old edition of a Horatio Alger novel. I didn’t take anything.

The box has a lovely situation next to a brook, with a bench, and in the middle of a series of gardening boxes (you can see some lettuce in the foreground of this photo).

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Right around the corner, by the corner of Davis and Franklin, is this neat tree-mounted Little Free Library:

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Since I was last there a day or two ago, it seems that someone has added several old-school 60s-70s male literary novelists: John Fowles’ A Maggot (just checked, actually 1985), Robertson Davies’s Fifth Business (everyone in my family was reading that some summer when I was 12 or so– I barely remember it but recall thinking it was great), John Barth’s The Floating Opera.

Also, this stern note: Wed. May 28- I Wonder Why Someone Took All the Books?  Uncool, folks!  Take one or maybe two and try to come back to replace them!

photo 4

Bloomington’s Little Free Libraries

The Little Free Library movement apparently began in 2009 in a town called Hudson, Wisconsin, and has spread like wildfire.

What is a Little Free Library?

It’s a “take a book, return a book” gathering place where neighbors share their favorite literature and stories. In its most basic form, a Little Free Library is a box full of books where anyone may stop by and pick up a book (or two) and bring back another book to share. You can, too!

[The founders] were inspired by many different ideas:

  • Andrew Carnegie’s support of 2,509 free public libraries around the turn of the 19th to 20th century.
  • The heroic achievements of Miss Lutie Stearns, a librarian who brought books to nearly 1400 locations in Wisconsin through “traveling little libraries” between 1895 and 1914.
  • “Take a book, leave a book” collections in coffee shops and public spaces.
  • Neighborhood kiosks, TimeBanking and community gift-sharing networks
  • Grassroots empowerment movements in Sri Lanka, India and other countries worldwide.

The group’s original goal was “to build 2,510 Little Free Libraries—as many as Andrew Carnegie—and keep going.”  But “this goal was reached in August of 2012, a year and a half before our original target date. By January of 2014, the total number of registered Little Free Libraries in the world was conservatively estimated to be nearly 15,000, with thousands more being built.”

I was delighted to come across one of these a few weeks ago near Bryan Park in Bloomington– it’s on E. Davis street, about a block and a half or so West of the park.  This one is a metal [actually painted green wood] box, if I recall correctly, with a door that shuts with a latch.  I took a book from it, although I am already forgetting what it was.  I owe them a book!

Then, the other day, I was walking home and came across this magnificent new one on the corner of First street and Highland Ave.  It has a glass door, so you can see the spines of the books from the sidewalk, enticing you to stop to look more closely; and as you can see, it has an extra bottom shelf for some guardians of the library, and a sort of visitors’ notebook.

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The collection of books was excellent, and I snagged the recent (published March 2014!) Philip Marlow re-boot, Benjamin Black (aka John Banville)’s The Black-Eyed Blonde: A Philip Marlowe Novel.  Not too shabby!  Today I took a dog walk back to the box and delivered what I think was a fair trade for that prize, an extra copy of Don DeLillo’s Underworld that I’ve had for ages– which you can see here.  This is clearly a pretty highbrow/ high-quality L.F.L.  There’s a copy of Wonder by R.J. Palacio, one of my kids’ favorite novels.

The proprietor of the box were doing some landscaping work around it when I showed up, and I learned that her L.F.L. is not part of Bloomington’s developing system (which the Monroe County Public Library is organizing, with help from a grant), but is a free agent. She also told me that there’s another box around the corner from the one I’ve seen on E. Davis, this one attached to a tree, like a bird house.

Here’s also a video about the Little Free Library story:

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/72957294″>Little Free Library Story</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/user13666567″>Beargrass Media</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

The whole idea could be accused of having a whiff of Portlandia-style preciosity or twee-ness to it.  But I’m a fan.  I can definitely never pass one of these without checking out its contents, and it’s fun to think about how each book got there, and where it may end up.

I will be on the lookout for the new L.F.L’s in town that should be cropping up.  Check them out!

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