Sunday, September 17, 2017

AMERICAN PSYCHO by BRET EASTON ELLIS (1991)

American Psycho is one of those books that are either considered ultra-cool and cutting edge or disgusting and pornographic, depending on the reader.

Parts of the book are very, very funny, in a darkly satiric way. The narrator is a young Wall Street executive who is obsessed with wearing the most stylish and expensive clothing, having the most well-toned and groomed body, buying the most exclusive furnishings, dining at the newest and most fashionable restaurants and dancing at the current "in" clubs. He and his male friends are so similar in all ways that they frequently mistake one for another. They constantly play one-upmanship, always striving to have the best, the most fashionable, the most expensive. One of the hilarious episodes involves their comparison of business cards to see whose is most elegant.

Along with being conspicuous consumers, they are all without empathy. They tease the homeless on the street by offering them money and then snatching it away. They are mysogynistic, valuing women only for their physical appearance. One says, "A good personality consists of a chick who has a little hardbody and who will satisfy all sexual demands without being too slutty about things and who will essentially keep her dumb fucking mouth shut."

The humor comes from the very banality and sameness of the men's personas and from the narrator's obsessive observations of the brand names of every item of clothing worn and every grooming aid and every restaurant and club. All this is clever, if a little repetitious, but then........

Gradually the narrator's reporting extends to his sexual encounters and his forays into torture and murder. Just as the narration of the yuppy lifestyle is detailed and specific, so too are the more disturbing aspects. Ellis elaborates in great detail about who puts what appendage where in the sex acts, which almost always veer into the convoluted and perverse, particularly in the threesomes. Even more disturbing, the sex often descends into torture and ultimately murder, also recounted in specific detail. Maybe I am showing my age and uncoolness, but I think Ellis goes too far. He could have preserved his theme and style of obsessive behavior without being so graphic. I personally was not titulated, but I believe some sick individuals might be. Truly, these scenes of torture and murder would be the verbal equivalent of snuff films, and those are outlawed, aren't they?

I would be hesitant to recommend this book to anyone, even though it does have something to say about the state of our culture and is often very clever. It is possible to interpret the book in such a way that the disturbing parts didn't really happen, but were instead in the narrator's imagination. Whatever? It is just too much.

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Here is the most disturbing thing about this book, to me. The psycho narrator's hero throughout, the man he most admires and wants to emulate, is Donald Trump. This was written in 1991. Now what does this tell us about our President?

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

MARY BARTON by ELIZABETH GASKELL (1848)

This novel by Elizabeth Gaskell tells a story that is surprisingly relevant today about the tensions between the have and have-nots, in this case between rich mill owners and poor workers, some who are just barely getting by and some who are actually starving after being laid off. Her heroine, Mary Barton. the daughter of a trade union activist, has rejected a working class suitor because she is also being courted (in secret) by the son of the mill owner. In the midst of a stormy labor dispute, in which the trade unionists are humiliated and disregarded by the mill owners, her secret sweetheart is found murdered. Mary is then torn in two because her rejected suitor is accused yet she suspects that her father actually committed the murder.

Gaskell's plot is intricate, suspenseful, and not what one usually expects from a Victorian writer. She is realistic rather than melodramatic, as Dickens was. Some of her descriptive writing is beautiful. The one disappointing aspect of the book is that she pulls back somewhat in casting the rich mills owners as unfeeling villains. She was herself of upper middle class, as were most of her readers. I imagine that is why she hedged her bets somewhat in her criticisms.

Gaskell is often relegated to a second tier of importance in the rankings of Victorian writers. I believe that this book, and others of hers, should place her in first-tier status.

Monday, September 11, 2017

AMERICAN SPHINX -- THE CHARACTER OF THOMAS JEFFERSON by JOSEPH J. ELLIS (1996)

After reading Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, which was highly critical of Thomas Jefferson, I searched on-line for the best and most impartial biography of Thomas Jefferson, and this one seemed to be the pick of the list. Even though Joseph Ellis strives to be impartial about Jefferson and even is somewhat apologetic on his behalf, I finished this book more convinced than ever that this Founding Father does not deserve the level of respect now accorded him.

Rather than writing a conventional biography, Ellis has chosen instead to reveal Jefferson's character by examining five periods of his adult life: 1775-76 in Philadelphia (writing the Declaration of Independence), 1784-89 in Paris (as a diplomat), 1794-977 in Monticello (retreat to private life), 1801-04 in Washington, D.C. (his Presidency), and 1816-26 in Monticello (his retirement from politics). Ellis writes, "The Jefferson who emerges . . . is a flawed creature, a man who combined massive learning, piercing insights into others with daunting powers of self-deception, utter devotion to great principles with a highly indulged presumption that his own conduct was not answerable to them." I would call this being a hypocrite. Jefferson seems to be a man who habitually said one thing and did another, who could write that "all men are created equal" and own 200 slaves at the same time. He could advocate for limiting executive power and during his term as President take advantage of that power more than his predecessors had. He could express his admiration for Native American culture and then require the deportation of massive segments of that population to western lands. He could expressed opposite opinions to different people at the same time. He told people what they wanted to hear.

As ignorant as I am of American history, I previously knew only that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and purchased Louisiana. I found that those two things were actually the only noteworthy things he did. I ignorantly assumed he fought in the Revolutionary War. I found out that he did not, and that as governor of Virginia at that time he failed to organize the state militia and when the British approached his home, he fled on horseback. I ignorantly thought he was involved in writing the Constitution. He was not. I ignorantly thought he deserved to be memorialized on the side of a mountain. Now I think not.

Of course the most egregious example of Jefferson's hypocrisy is the now-proven fact that he fathered the children of one of his slaves, while expressing the opinion that when the slaves were freed they should be removed to another country because of the "certain danger, if there were nothing else, of seeing blood mixed without means of preventing it." He never freed Sally Hemmings, the mother of his mixed-blood children, not even in his will when he died.

What a jerk.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

ALEXANDER HAMILTON by RON CHERNOW (2004)

I know so little about American history that I probably shouldn't even be allowed to vote. It's shameful. Despite being exposed to American history classes in elementary school, high school, and college, all that stuck with me was the high points. In my defense, I'm pretty sure all I was exposed to in elementary and high school was the high points. I can't even remember my one American history class in college (except that I took it in summer school).

This book taught me so much and proved to be so interesting that I am inspired to read more history-related books instead of a steady diet of escapist literature. Before I read it, I only know that Hamilton was one of the "important guys" at the start and that he was not one of the presidents. I'm not sure if I even remembered that he was the first Secretary of the Treasury. I certainly did not know that he was responsible for most of the framework of our national financial system and was second only to George Washington is assuring the survival of the new country.

Hamilton's life story sounds like a Dickens' novel. His parents were never married, so he was accounted a bastard. His father deserted the family. His mother died. The relative who assumed guardianship soon committed suicide. He was then sheltered by a well-to-do merchant, who may or may not have been his biological father. He was largely self-educated. When he left his boyhood home of St. Croix in the West Indies and came to America, his writing skill and genius at organization soon earned him a place of prominence among the adherents of revolution. And all that happened before he was 21.

Hamilton died at age 49, killed by Aaron Burr in a duel. (That's the only other thing I knew about him before this book.) In between the accounts of his youth and his death, Rom Chernow provides a comprehensive overview of the founding of a new nation. I found out so many things I did not know about my country. For example:

*I did not know that friction between the northern states and southern states was present from the very beginning.
*I did not know that, even then, slavery was a major issue.
*I did not know how close the new country came to falling apart.
*I did not know that "fake news" was an issue back then. (People actually read newspapers and pamphlets, some of which contained downright fabrications.)
*I did not know what a conniving and hypocritical SOB Thomas Jefferson was. (At least from Chernow's point of view. Next up for me will be a biography of Jefferson from another author.)
*I did not know that Hamilton was involved in the nation's first governmental sex scandal. (When he was called out, Hamilton admitted everything rather than lying about it.)

All of that is only a fraction of what I learned.

Chernow supports all his assertions with primary sources. This is definitely a scholarly history, but it is so skillfully woven together that it reads like fiction. Of course it helps that Hamilton's life story and the events that brought together a new nation were almost too unlikely to be believable.

This history makes events in the here and now more understandable. Hamilton was a believer in strong central government powers, and Jefferson believed that most power should rest with the individual states. That debate still rages on.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by GEORGE SAUNDERS (2017)

If you are like me, the first thing that came to mind when you read the title of this book was where or what in the heck is the bardo? This is not explained anywhere in the novel itself, but the dust jacket tells us that, according to Tibetan tradition, the bardo is a transitional state following death, similar to purgatory. Those readers with book copies missing the jacket just have to Google it to find out, I guess.

Saunders uses as his jumping off place for the novel the historical fact that Abraham Lincoln several times visited the crypt of his son Willie, who died less than a year after the beginning of the Civil War. The President's deep grief is touchingly depicted, along with his awareness that other parents are likewise afflicted as their sons die in bloody battles. However, Lincoln's part of the novel is by no means the primary focus. Rather, the main of the book concerns the spirits of the dead in the cemetery who are not yet willing to "pass over," so to speak. The life stories of this large cast of ghostly characters are gradually revealed through their conversations. Some display behavior that is bizarre; some are quarrelsome; some have tragic histories. The overall tone is humorous, strangely enough.

This is a very clever book. If you ask me, it is too clever. I generally dislike novels which seem to be written solely to display the cleverness of the author. George Saunders is a critic's darling right now, and this book has received glowing reviews. It has already been longlisted for England's Booker Prize and is being mentioned as a Pulitzer contender. I can't agree. I was entertained, but to me the novel lacks substance.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

BLOOD MUSIC by GREG BEAR (1985)

I should have read reviews of this science fiction book before I bought it instead of just seeing that it was a favorite of the sci-fi crowd. It is of the hard science branch of the genre, and as such was not very understandable to my non-scientific mind. Its subject is bioscience -- "thinking" cells that can restructure DNA. I don't know whether any of this is even remotely possible. At any rate, as the story goes, a scientist injects such cells in his own body, and soon finds that they have multiplied and are taking over and changing him in drastic ways. Some escape through his sweat and infect others when he shakes hands with people. Before you know it, all of North America is infected!

The writing is pretty clunky, the events are highly unlikely, and Bear provides little character development. The ending, which comes abruptly, surprisingly veers into the metaphysical.

I wasted my time by reading this, but it was only an afternoon, so that's not too bad. I know there are much better examples out there of science fiction which is based on actual science. I would not recommend this one.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

THE NORTH WATER by IAN McGUIRE (2016)

A quote from The New York Times which is printed on the back cover of this brilliant novel says, "The North Water feels like the result of an encounter between Joseph Conrad and Cormac McCarthy in some run-down port as they offer each other a long, sour nod of recognition." That neatly sums up the impact and contents of this dark and violent story of a whaling ship in the hunting waters of the Arctic Circle, except that perhaps Herman Melville happens by as well.

Central to the plot is the confrontation between Patrick Sumner, an opium addicted doctor who has been dismissed from the army in disgrace, and Henry Drax, a rapist, sodomite, and murderer, who kills casually and without remorse. This is not, however, a parable about good and evil. Rather it is a picture of universal corruption, which differs only in degree from man to man. Headed by their ship captain, who has secretly colluded with the ship owner to sink the vessel for the insurance money, the rest of the crew, save for one mystical prophet and one young innocent victim, display themselves as connivers and savages. None are without sin.

The North Water is graphically violent, but it is saved from being just a pornographic blood-fest by the extraordinary quality of the writing. Every word seems to be carefully chosen to further the overall impact and theme. I was particularly struck by McGuire's use of details about smells to heighten the sense of human corruption.

It would seem to be contradictory to classify a book as harsh, brutal, and beautiful, but that is what this book is. I would highly recommend it, but it will not please everybody, just as Cormac McCarthy does not please everybody.


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The North Water was longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize.