Smashing things up in John Boorman’s 1987 *Hope and Glory*

We watched John Boorman’s wonderful 1987 Hope and Glory, which I somehow had never managed to see. Based on Boorman’s experiences as a kid during the Blitz in London, it’s about 8 y.o Bill Rowan and his family, mostly told from Bill’s POV. Dad goes off to war in 1939, leaving mom at home with Bill and his younger and older sister, dodging bombs & shrapnel, constantly having to wake up in the middle of the night to cower in the bomb shelter, but managing to have quite a lot of fun.

Pauline Kael commented of the film, “It’s hard to believe that a great comedy could be made of the Blitz but John Boorman has done it.” It’s filled with amazingly vivid, funny depictions of the young kids running riot amid the rubble of their neighborhood. A group of the younger boys, unsupervised, form a gang dedicated to smashing whatever has been left undestroyed. This scene shows Bill’s induction (he has to utter the phrase, “Bugger off you bloody sod”).  At 3:10 in this clip the cherubic gang leader tells Bill, “OK, you’re in… Let’s smash things up!” Cut to joyful jazz music as they go nuts in the incredibly dangerous-looking ruins of a house they’ve adopted as headquarters. Talk about free-range kids. (Kael observes of the film, “the war has its horrors, but it also destroys much of what the genteel poor like Grace Rowan (Sarah Miles) have barely been able to acknowledge they wanted destroyed.”)

In its representation of anarchic kids’ exuberant destruction, this reminds me of the incredible Holloween scene in Meet Me in St. Louis. Also of Deputy and the other rock-throwing “hideous small boys,” who “don’t have an object,” in The Mystery of Edwin Drood:

Durdles and Jasper …are also addressed by some half-dozen other hideous small boys—whether twopenny lodgers or followers or hangers-on of such, who knows!—who, as if attracted by some carrion-scent of Deputy in the air, start into the moonlight, as vultures might gather in the desert, and instantly fall to stoning him and one another.

‘Stop, you young brutes,’ cries Jasper angrily, ‘and let us go by!’

This remonstrance being received with yells and flying stones, according to a custom of late years comfortably established among the police regulations of our English communities, where Christians are stoned on all sides, as if the days of Saint Stephen were revived, Durdles remarks of the young savages, with some point, that ‘they haven’t got an object,’ and leads the way down the lane.

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.

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

MadAndManchette_AF

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.

 

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!

Live-blogging Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels

Edward-St-Aubyn-melrose-books

The Picador single-volume edition of the first four Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn — Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk — is quite the extraordinary bargain at a price of $12.98 on Amazon (although hey, you can afford to buy this one from your neighborhood store).  It had been sitting in a stack in my bedroom for quite a while because I began the first book, Never Mind, and was genuinely concerned that getting to the scene in which the five-year old Patrick Melrose is raped by his father (a scene narrated from Patrick’s own perspective) would give me such disturbing nightmares as not to be worth it.  But now I’m about halfway into the remarkable series and will certainly keep reading to the end.

James Wood describes these novels as seeming to be “not only books about trauma but traumatized books, condemned to return again and again to primal wounds.”  (The novels are apparently highly autobiographical, based on St Aubyn’s own experience of childhood sexual abuse and his years of drug addiction from age 16 to 28.) Wood adds that “St. Aubyn’s novels have an aristocratic atmosphere of tart horror, the hideousness of the material contained by a powerfully aphoristic, lucid prose style. In good and bad ways, his fiction offers a kind of deadly gossip, and feeds the reader’s curiosity like one of the mortal morsels offered up by Tacitus or Plutarch in their chatty histories.”

I’d agree that Never Mind in particular (first published in 1992 – I’d be curious to see reviews/ response to it at that point) reads like Evelyn Waugh meets Tacitus. Or, that Patrick’s father David Melrose is kind of like Wilde’s cruelly witty Lord Henry meets Caligula. The Roman references are woven into the text: David loans a “friend” a copy of Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars, of which we’re led to assume that the chapters on Nero and Caligula must be his favorites.

Never Mind is quite amazing — I can’t think of anything quite like it.  There’s witty, there’s savagely witty, and then there’s this, something beyond that. I remember a critic’s observation that Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915) reads like a jaundiced, deeply disillusioned return to the Jane Austen world of wealthy, aristocratic European leisure a century later, from within the knowledge of that world and that class’s self-destruction. St. Aubyn extends this logic further in the most corrosively savage, and yet very funny, depiction of dead-end English country-house elites ever.

Here’s one dinner guest, for example, Vijay Shaw, an old Eton acquaintance of Victor, the social-climbing philosopher whose wife Anne’s perspective is articulated here (the only vaguely sympathetic characters, aside from the five year-old Patrick, are women; are the men are repellent, although Victor the least so):

[S]pending just a few days with him convinced Anne that each hideous feature had been molded by internal malevolence.  His wife, grinning mouth was at once crude and cruel.  When he tried to smile, his purplish lips could only curl and twist like a rotting lead thrown onto a fire.  Obsequious and giggly with older and more powerful people, he turned savage at the smell of weakness, and would attack only easy prey. His voice seemed to be designed exclusively for simpering… Like many flatterers, he was not aware that he irritated the people he flattered…. A little Indian guy being sneered at by monsters of English privilege would normally have unleashed the full weight of Anne’s loyalty to underdogs, but this time it was wiped out by Vijay’s enormous desire to be a monster of English privilege himself.

The Roman/ Caligula references crystallize the novel’s emphasis on social life as a species of mutual torturing, and St Aubyn also suggests that the English aristocratic fox-hunting ethos has been literally miniatured and trivialized in David Melrose’s ongoing torture of ants:

David Melrose, tired of drowning ants, abandoned watering the garden. As soon as the sport lost a narrow focus, it filled him with despair. There was always another nest, and terrace of nests. He pronounced ants ‘aunts’, and it added zest to his murderous pursuits if he bore in mind his mother’s seven haughty sisters, high-minded and selfish women to whom he had displayed his talent on the piano as a child…

David held the burning tip of his cigar close to the ants and ran it along in both directions as far as he could conveniently reach. The ants twisted, excruciated by the heat, and dropped down onto the terrace.  Some, before they fell, reared up, their stitching legs trying helplessly to repair their ruined bodies… With his cigar he caught a stray ant which was escaping with signed antennae from his last incendiary raid…. The ant ran away with astonishing speed, was about to reach the far side of the wall when David, stretching a little, touched it lightly with a surgeon’s precision. Its skin blistered and it squirmed violently as it died.

The ants/ aunts discussion also made me think of Roald Dahl, of all people.  There may be a tiny touch of James and the Giant Peach in St Aubyn’s gleeful anatomizing of the selfish cruelty of an English family.

And yes, the rape scene is hard to take, and audacious– I’d imagine many readers in 1992 of this first novel by an unknown author must have thrown it across the room.

Bad News resembles the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle and Philip Roth’s Paternity in focusing on a son’s experience of his father’s death, and specifically of his father’s corpse: here, David Melrose’s incinerated ashes in a can that the 22-year old Patrick carries up and down New York City with him on a celebratory heroin, alcohol, and cocaine bender.  (His appetite for drugs is bottomless enough, and his trust fund still for the time being sufficiently ample, to demand almost continual negotiation with various dealers to keep the supply coming.) Of the two novels, I found Bad News less original; what ant-torturing scenes were in Never Mind (actually way more so), excruciatingly detailed descriptions of the injection of heroin and cocaine speedballs into often recalcitrant veins are in this novel, and at times it becomes a little too Bret Easton Ellis, although it’s never less than brilliantly witty.

I’ve just started Some Hope, in which Patrick is 30 years old and struggling to stay sober after a few bouts in rehab, and — having squandered much of his inheritance — is studying to become a barrister.  St Aubyn suggests a link between aesthetic & personal style and addiction in that Patrick, off drugs, is forced to explore new attitudes, ways of behaving, forms of speech and verbal habits.  He is

trying to stop observing by becoming unconscious, and then forced to observe the fringes of unconsciousness and make darkness visible; canceling every effort, but spoiling apathy with restlessness; drawn to puns but repelled by the virus of ambiguity; … desperate to escape the self-subversion of irony and say what he really meant, but really meaning only what irony could convey.

That says a lot about the novels themselves, which seem to be, much like Knausgaard’s books, an attempt at once to tell the truth about the author’s own experience but to fictionalize, ironize, and transform it.

The year of Wrong Living: Jenny Offill’s *Dept. of Speculation*

I loved the new Jenny Offill novel Dept. of Speculation.  (Here’s a good piece on it by Elaine Blair in the NYRB, and James Wood also wrote about it recently in The New Yorker (March 31 issue)… And here’s the NYT review.)

As Blair comments, and Wood may draw the same parallel, in voice and form it slightly recalls Renata Adler’s cult novel Speedboat (recently reissued by the New York Review of Books press) and the essays of Joan Didion.  But imagine that kind of witty, cool, alienated young-female-intellectual voice combined with, I don’t know, something like Tina Fey’s memoir.  (Maybe Sheila Heti’s work would be the most obvious current analogy.)  It’s an autobiographical novel, sort of, but also can read like a philosophical essay, comprised of brief, gnomic chapters, often consisting just of an observation or two, an anecdote, decontextualized quotations, chunks of prose that seem patched in from some other genre entirely, etc.  It eventually reveals itself as the narrative of adultery and divorce, as the 40-something narrator, “the wife,” a novelist in Brooklyn struggling to write her second book, realizes that her husband is having an affair with a younger woman.  It’s also a book about motherhood, chronicling the narrator’s experience as a mother to an infant who becomes an early school-age girl in the course of the book.  It has some of the best, truest, and least sentimentalized evocations of the experience of taking care of a baby & toddler I can remember (in this and some other things it reminded me a little of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle vol 2).

Offill explains how she came to the novel’s form in a recent interview with NPR:

Well, the book came from the ashes of another book, which was much more linear in construction. But at a certain point, I realized I wanted to capture more of the fragmentary nature of thought, and especially of the way emotion moves in and out of people. And I began to write on notecards and shuffle them together; and I started to find these startling juxtapositions, which I thought were interesting, and led me down this path.

That makes perfect sense, and explains the sense of freedom the book conveys in the playful, unforced way it shifts between voices, styles, tones, and forms of address.  (Shuffling around the index cards.)  As Elaine Blair points out, the form and the approach is that of experimental, avant-garde fiction, but one never loses the thread of the story and of the organizing consciousness.

Here is the holiday letter that she would have written (her husband “won’t let me write one. We send a smiling picture instead”).  The “bugs” refers to the family’s epic struggle to rid their daughter and their apartment of lice & bedbugs.

It is the year of the bugs. It is the year of the pig. It is the year of losing money. It is the year of getting sick. It is the year of no book. It is the year of no music. It is the year of turning 5 and 39 and 37. It is the year of Wrong Living. That is how we will remember it if it ever passes.

Great material on yoga throughout, which she takes up therapeutically in the midst of the breakup:

The Yoga People always travel in pairs, their mats under their arms, their hair severely shorn in that new mother way. But what if someone sucker punched them and took their mats away? How long until they’d knuckle under?…

The wife goes to yoga now. Just to shut everyone up. She goes to it in a neighborhood where she does not live and has never lived. She takes the class meant for old and sick people but can still hardly do any of it. Sometimes she just stands and looks out the window where the people whose lives are intact enough not to have to take yoga live. Sometimes the wife cries as she is twisting herself into positions. There is a lot of crying in the class for old and sick people so no one says anything.

I wished the book had been longer (you can almost read it at a sitting)!

BE BOLD, BE BOLD, BUT NOT TOO BOLD: two great stories by Deborah Eisenberg and Kelly Link

I picked up the O. Henry Prize Stories 2013 volume and was blown away by the first two stories I read (both of which were among the three faves chosen and written briefly about by the volume’s editors).

Deborah Eisenberg describes her “Your Duck is My Duck” as being about “the ravages of climate change, including the growing populations of climate refugees; the worldwide plight of the embattled and looted middle class; the co-option and trivialization of art; and the relationships — especially in regard to the use of resources — between the middle class, the looters, the artists, and the new wretched of the earth.” It is narrated by a painter who hates her day job in a photo studio, and thinks she might get let go anyway; she is complaining at a party to a wealthy acquaintance of hers, Christa, who invites her to join her and her financier husband at their “beach place.”  This turns out to be somewhere in the tropics, where the painter is set up in a lavish guest house with another visiting artist, an avant-garde puppeteer who puts on a show about a revolution against a king and queen and the brutal subsequent repression of the revolt by the generals:

There was more mechanical moaning and creaking, and up from the earth in front of the castle rose a line of skeletons — serfs, bats, and donkeys – linked by heavy chains.  The generals, now in the highest turret, swigged from a bottle of champagne, and as the grand finale, the skeletons, heads bowed, sang a dirge in praise of martial order.

In the awkward moment after the first act, the host, Christa, comments hilariously, “We love to have artists working here.  It’s an atmosphere that promotes experimentation.”  Meanwhile, outside the estate, the island is collapsing from flooding and can no longer support the local residents, who are attempting to flee.  The story is an allegory of artists today who experience themselves as “serfs” to the wealthy, whom they are expected “to entertain, to distract, to diffuse, to buffer.”  It reminded me a bit of Eisenberg’s husband’s Wally Shawn’s blackly satirical plays.  Completely great!

And I also found amazing the Kelly Link story “the Summer People.” It’s a fairy tale with Alice in Wonderland qualities narrated by a teenage girl whose father has abandoned her, very sick with the flu, to their family’s job as caretakers for “the summer people,” who turn out not to be human.  They are never quite seen directly, but are experienced via the strange, enchanting, sometimes malevolent toys and devices they construct.  They live in a house that is marked with signs offering cryptic advice: “BE BOLD, BE BOLD, BUT NOT TOO BOLD.”

There was a sea serpent made of tubing and metal rings that swam endlessly in a circle. There was a sluggish river, too, closer to the door, that ran red and stank and stained the banks.  The summer people were always setting up miniature bridges over it, then blowing the bridges up.

Come to think of it, the “summer people” have a certain amount in common with the wealthy “looters” of Eisenberg’s story, although their motives and character are harder to assess.  They are figures of imagination and creativity: “They make things.  That’s what my mamma called them, makers.  They give away things.  Like the toys. They like children.  When you do things for them, they’re beholden to you.”  But they can clearly do harm to those who fail to follow the rules of the house, who may disappear or find themselves transformed.

It is seriously creepy and magical!  I have been curious about Kelly Link, and definitely need to read some more of his her stuff (just picked up Magic for Beginners).

Now I need to read some of the other stories in the collection, although I will be surprised if they can match these two.