Monday, August 30, 2010

Cool for You by Eileen Myles

I often see this book referred to as an "autobiographical novel," which seems like an odd term to me. The character's voice and circumstances feel awfully similar to Myles's own voice and circumstances (from what I know of them, at least)--she's a working class Irish girl growing up in Boston, a tomboy, grappling with her sexual identity, and becomes a poet--not to mention that her name is Eileen Myles. So maybe the facts aren't 100% accurate. It's still kind of a strange category. Aren't most novels a bit autobiographical, in that the author can't help but include part of themselves in it in some way? And I'll bet that most memoirs aren't wholly accurate either, simply because memory is funny in that way.

Regardless of category, whether fact or fiction, this book is moving, insightful, funny, lyrical--all those adjectives you use in book reviews. Told in a series of snapshots, moving back and forth through time, it definitely feels like a novel written by a poet (which it is, obviously), but this is a good thing.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut's first novel, Player Piano is also one of the first Vonnegut novels that I read. It is a dystopian novel that takes place in a near-future society that has eliminated the need for human workers through near-total mechanization. The upper class are the engineers and managers who keep things running, while the lower class, whose skills have been rendered useless, drink away their days with a sense of purposelessness. But a rebellion is stirring up.

I read quite a lot of this type of book--the dystopian science fiction novel, that is--when I was in high school, counting the likes of 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Brave New World* among my favorites. I don't know what the appeal was, but I'm certainly not alone--a recent New Yorker article discusses the recent trend of dystopian novels for young adults. I guess it's the ideal genre for angsty teens.

*Speaking of which, in a 1973 Playboy interview Vonnegut says that in writing Player Piano he "cheerfully ripped off the plot of Brave New World whose plot had been cheerfully ripped off from Yevgeny Zamyatin's We." (The latter of which I have not read.)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Low Life by Luc Sante

Luc Sante's portrait of New York City in the 19th and early 20th centuries is quickly becoming a classic. It explores the city's, for lack of a better term, "seedy underbelly" in four parts, focusing on layout and topography, sources of illicit recreation, people in positions of power, and people living on the edges of society.

In his essay "My Lost City," which appears as an Afterword in this edition of Low Life, Sante says that "Instead of disappearing, local history has been preserved as a seasoning," which has always struck me as a pretty apt description. Vestiges of the city's past remain in the form of architectural details or old signs (like the faded ghost billboards you sometimes see on sides of buildings), so you can almost imagine what it might have been like. And at the same time, it seems unfathomable to imagine the New York depicted in this book.

There are a number of black and white photographs reproduced throughout--above depicts a lodging house situated on a barge, and hobos riding atop train cars. Ah, the good old days...

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

David Holzman's Diary by L. M. Kit Carson

I came across this screenplay for David Holzman's Diary at a street vendor's table. The movie is scripted, but attempts to mimic an off-the-cuff diary entry--the title character, David Holzman, films himself, thinking that by observing the patterns occurring in his life, he will come to some greater understanding of their meaning.

Of course, it doesn’t really turn out that way, and he ends up scaring off his girlfriend, Penny (pictured above), in the process. It's an interesting look at how people react to being filmed: Penny is upset and disturbed by David’s project, while others don’t seem to mind, playing up for the camera.

The movie version features some rather innovative technical effects considering when it was made, such as a sped up montage of images from David’s evening TV viewing, and voiceovers accompanying photobooth pictures. These black and white images appear throughout, which make for a visually appealing book.

Here's the main character testing out a fisheye lens--the effect, as he walks while holding the camera above his head, makes you feel a bit off-kilter while watching it.

It's kind of a strange movie to read as a script--I wish there were more essays, other than the very brief introduction, whether about the impetus for making the film, or its thematic content. Regardless, it's a nice little companion to the movie, and as I stated before, the black and white stills that are reproduced throughout the pages look pretty cool.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Where I Was From by Joan Didion

I can't believe it's been nearly a month since I last posted anything here. The days have just gotten away from me, I guess...

It's probably the fact that I've never lived there, but I've always harbored a bit of an obsession with California. While my own mental picture is more on the romantic side, Joan Didion, who grew up in Sacramento and lived in L.A. for years before moving to New York, looks to her home state with both fondness and discontent. Combining reportage, memoir, and literary criticism, she sharply examines her life and work, weaving together a narrative that touches on her pioneer ancestors (incredibly, she can trace her heritage back to the 1700s*), California’s debts to railroads and aerospace, the infamous Spur posse, California writers such as Jack London, Frank Norris, and herself, "painter of light" Thomas Kinkade, and more, to create a cohesive portrait. As always, her work is shrewd and insightful, both journalistic and very personal.

*"I know nothing else about [my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother] but I have her recipe for corn bread."