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Tuesday, Aug 28, 2007

How did it all go so horribly wrong, Armistead Maupin?


After a marathon reading session from one in the afternoon to nine at night, I finished Maupin’s excellent The Night Listener, so utterly caught up in the lives of the people in the story, and Maupin’s ridiculously accurate exploration into the meaning of actual and perceived truth. It’s an original, complex, moving book.


Possible spoilers ahead


The Night Listenerby Armistead MaupinBantam2000, 344 pages, $43.85 [AU]

The Night Listener
by Armistead Maupin
Bantam
2000, 344 pages, $43.85 [AU]


So, excited to see what Maupin had done with the screenplay, I watch the Robin Williams film version the same night. Big mistake. The original, complex, moving book became a stock-standard, by-the-numbers, stupefyingly unoriginal screenplay with a twist ending so cringe-inducing, it’s almost impossible to watch. In the book, Maupin expertly develops a man in the grips of a personal crisis. In the movie, Robin Williams gets tazered in the back of a police car. Something is wrong with this picture.


Now, I understand books and movies are different. I understand the culling and condensing that must take place in order to lift a story from the page to the screen. It’s difficult, however, in a case like this, to adequately conclude why Maupin would shove the first 150 pages of his book into the film’s opening few minutes and then entirely re-write everything after. Especially something so meaningless.


Night Listener breakdown: Gabriel Noone is a radio show host in the middle of a burnout. He can’t get excited about his show or his writing, and his 10-year relationship is coming to an end. In the middle of all this, he befriends a young boy, Pete, by phone. The kid, stricken with AIDS, comes with a shocking back story of abuse to be detailed in an upcoming memoir. Noone becomes a mentor to Pete, and in his desperation, ignores the signs that perhaps this sad child is not a child at all.


Noone believes in the kid, and his need to prove Pete’s existence drives the book. It’s a desperate hope, and the hook on which everything else snatches, most effectively Noone’s relationship with his father and ex-lover, Jess. It’s very much a father, son, Holy Spirit thing, and as it pulls together, it’s so completely stirring. I almost lost it as Noone discovered the truth about his protégé. I, too, knew something was fishy, but, like Noone, refused to believe it. Maupin has infused Noone with such faith, that you experience the same.


The movie misses the mark on every level, but, then again, it never appears to want to reach those levels. Noone’s driving faith is non-existent, and he appears to know the truth very early on. The kid’s existence is almost never in question as the film plays stupid voice tricks during the Noone / Pete phone calls. Toni Collette as the kid’s mum is just immensely creepy from the moment we meet her. The book’s final, suspenseful chapters appear in the movie before the halfway mark, and instead of a film about patriarchal bonds and storytelling and a man’s creative resurrection, we get a semi-thriller of the is-it-real or is-it-not variety. No points for guessing correctly on that one. The movie doesn’t want to create doubt. In the book, Noone’s quest to validate the kid is a quest to do the same for himself. He is forced to examine what’s real and what isn’t in more than just his relationship with the kid, but with his father and Jesse.


And that ending? Maupin did more than change the story; he gave the kid’s mother a whole new set of weirdo psychologies that have very little connection to the woman in the book, or the woman she’s apparently based on who really did introduce her dying adopted son to Maupin.


Watching The Night Listener with my partner, it was all I could do not to shout at the screen “that didn’t happen!”, “this isn’t right!”, “what’s happening to this beautiful story?”


It’s a real mystery.


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Thursday, Aug 23, 2007

Was Vietnam like this? Every month, it seems, heavier and heavier tomes about the Iraq War are deposited on the nation’s bookshelves. Although they all have different wrinkles and unique takes on the subject, they can mostly be boiled down to a number of boldface observations, worthy of much discussion on the talk shows and blogs which have to pass for the common square these days:


1) How We Screwed Up
2) Who Screwed Up
3) We Need To Stop Screwing Up


By the time this is all over—a helpful piece of prognostication which has yet to show up in any of these tomes—the Iraq War could well end up being the most documented foreign-policy disaster in American history; and all of it being done while the fiasco was still going on.


Winning the Right Warby Philip H. GordonTimes BooksSeptember 2007, 224 pages, $24

Winning the Right War
by Philip H. Gordon
Times Books
September 2007, 224 pages, $24


Which brings me to yet another one of these books on the disaster, Philip H. Gordon’s Winning the Right War, which is worthy of your attention for a couple of reasons. First, Gordon doesn’t feel he needs to waste a lot of time on screwup nos. 1 and 2, rightly figuring that this is well-plowed territory at this stage. Second, he’s interested in finding a solution, not just pointing out how far we currently are from one. Gordon’s not much of an ideologue, being a senior fellow for foreign policy at the Brookings Institute who once served on the National Security Council and now teaches graduate classes in international studies at Johns Hopkins and pens learned prose on the world situation in his spare time. In short, he’s a wonk, but strangely for his species one who also seems interested in communicating with people who don’t live and die by the latest policy papers or declassified intelligence documents. His book is a briskly-written, short (160-odd pages, not including notes), pocket-sized manual for a foreign policy based not on bluster or ideology but in rationality and smart self-interest.


As is clear from the title, the main thrust of Winning the Right War is identifying where we went wrong and how to steer us back onto the right course. Or, as Gordon simply puts it, “The war on terror has not gone as planned because President Bush launched the wrong war.” The wrong war (meaning, for the most part, our interminable military adventure in Iraq) was launched, Gordon writes, because the threat was misunderstood at a fundamental level. When the president mischaracterizes the reasons behind the terrorist acts that launched the war in such a basic way by thinking it happened because “they hate our freedom,” it’s difficult to see how anything could proceed correctly afterward.


Gordon persuasively argues that that misunderstanding by both Bush and his neo-con enablers helps feed into their (incorrect, he thinks) belief that the struggle against terrorism is an epochal one with no greys to be seen. He quotes arch neo-con Richard Perle and former Bush speechwriter David Frum from their book An End to All Evil—whose absurd title really says it all—saying that in the fight against terrorism there is not only “no middle ground” but only two choices for an end result: “victory or holocaust.” A better way of going about things just might be understanding that such juvenile oversimplifications will give us nothing but unending fear and disappointment. In strong, simple strokes, Gordon lays out the case for a long-term, Cold War-styled campaign against terrorism which utilizes every power at our disposal—economic, cultural, and diplomatic—to showcase America as a country to be admired instead of just feared, instead of our current approach of monolithic militarism. He also suggests, in not so many words, that some people need to just grow up: “Like violent crime, deadly disease, and other scourges, [terrorism] can be reduced and it can be contained, but it is unlikely ever to be totally eliminated.”


Gordon’s book is quite likely to be ignored by both sides in the debate, too gloomy for the pro-war folks (though, as we’ve recently heard, they don’t like to read anyway), and not nearly angry enough for the Get Out Now crowd. But that’s the problem with enourmous bloody clusterfucks like Vietnam and Iraq—people tend to get emotional.


Read the introduction to Winning the Right War here.


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Tuesday, Aug 21, 2007
The Book of DisquietAuthor: Fernando PessoaPenguinDecember 2002, 544 pages, $16.00

The Book of Disquiet
Author: Fernando Pessoa
Penguin
December 2002, 544 pages, $16.00


Have you ever finished a book and then gone back to the beginning to read it all over again because you can’t bear to let it go? I did that for the first time a few days ago when I came to the end of Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. I’d make a terrible, skewed reviewer right now: my thoughts are all superlatives. The main one is: “This is the only true book I have ever read.” That keeps going through my mind: This is the only true book I have ever read.


It seems truer than non-fiction because it is openly subjective. If you removed the author’s right to his ‘I’ then the book wouldn’t exist. Disquiet takes the form of a diary without dates and without a narrative connection between the days. The diarist does not, for example, meet a woman one week and then chart a course of love with her across the months, ending in triumphant dating by the climax. There is no climax. The order of the entries is more or less arbitrary. No one knows the order Pessoa wrote them in, or how he meant them to be arranged. Like most of his writing, the Book went unpublished during his lifetime. It was assembled from his unfinished notes after he died. (Some of the entries begin or end in ellipses, or hint at supportive paragraphs that he never got around to writing. Small squares have been drawn in places where his handwriting became too illegible to decipher.) The edition of the book that I’m reading—Richard Zenith’s translation from the original Portuguese, published by Penguin in 2001—comprises 481 of these notes, and ends with a Disquiet Anthology of pieces that could potentially have made it into the main body of the Book, but, in the end, didn’t.


The cumulative power of these scraps is something like that of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, but Pessoa’s research was all inward, a hermetic brooding over his own emotions and ideas, where Benjamin liked looking up quotes at the library. Questions roll around in the diarist’s head. Who am I? What am I? How can I tell? How should I spend my life? Some of the entries are a page or more long, others are the written equivalent of idle doodles. “Faith is the instinct of action,” is one of those doodles. Another one: “Who am I to myself? Just another one of my sensations.” And: “To speak is to show too much consideration for others. It’s when they open their mouths that fish, and Oscar Wilde, are fatally hooked.”


Fernando Pessoa

Fernando Pessoa


Outwardly the diarist does very little. He goes to work, comes home, eats his meals in the same restaurant, and often looks out of his window. “Wise is the man who monotonises his existence, for then each minor incident seems a marvel,” he remarks. “A hunter of lions feels no adventure after the third lion.” Pessoa names him Bernardo Soares. Soares lives in four rooms, doesn’t travel, is unmarried, ungirlfriended, childless, unsociable, not handsome, not famous. He is what his author called a semi-heteronym, an imaginary person who is almost-but-not-quite Pessoa himself. Most of Pessoa’s other writing was done by heteronyms. “A pseudonymic work is, except for the name with which it is signed, the work of an author writing as himself; a heteronymic work is by an author writing outside his own personality: it is the work of a complete individuality made up by him, just as the utterances of some character in a drama would be,” he explained. His heteronyms had their own names and biographies. One was a suicidal aristocrat, another was an anti-Christian Englishman, a third was a Portuguese “nature-poet” named Alberto Caeiro: others were dying women, men who did the crosswords, bisexual dandies. Soares refers to them as freely as if they were real; he refers to real writers as if they were real as well. 


This common, imaginary bookkeeper’s brain is extraordinary rich—one of the effects of this book has been to make me aware of the wrongness of the word ‘extraordinary’ in this sentence. “I’ve had great ambitions and boundless dreams, but so has the delivery boy or the seamstress, because everyone has dreams,” Soares writes. “I differ from them only in knowing how to write. Yes, writing is an act, a personal circumstance that distinguishes me from them. But in my soul I’m their equal.”


Dreaming is essential, he decides, or, at any rate, it is all we’re fit for. “Dreaming is the one thing we have that’s really ours.” A daydream is the place where the human being is most free. All other freedoms are only the appearance of freedom. Even a king is not rich unless he is free in this way. (Saying this, he comes a little too close to the poor-little-rich boy idea embodied by those Hollywood comedies in which moneyed, staid people blossom anew thanks to housekeepers, bag ladies, chancers, thieves, kidnappers, carjackers, prostitutes, ethnic stereotypes, etc, although Soares doesn’t push it that far himself. Sometimes, when he goes to extremes, he can sound defensive or merely tongue-in-cheek: “[T]here are contemplative souls who have lived more intensely, more widely and more turbulently than those who live externally,” he asserts, without evidence. “A dream can tire us out as much as physical labour.” Tell it to a labourer.)


Soares doesn’t make friends with people and he doesn’t woo women. It’s richer, he thinks, to drowse over them, to anticipate them as dream-figures inside his head, much as Pessoa imagined his heteronyms, independent thinkers yet dependent on him, their creator. At bottom, no one knows what they are, why they are here—religion doesn’t cover it, nothing covers it. The Book of Disquiet spirals around this unanswerable mystery and decides that it is unanswerable. There is no narrative to us: we live, we die, that much is certain. This is not a comforting realisation, but it is an honest one. That’s why The Book of Disquiet feels like the only true book I have ever read.


Compare thirteen different translations of Pessoa’s poem “Autopsicografia”.


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Friday, Aug 17, 2007
by Leslie Joseph

“I have been told repeatedly during various stages of my life that we are all moving toward the same luminous object ...”
—Patrick Elkins


Ink on Dreams of Transient Architecture is a unique reading (and listening, if the reader so chooses) experience from start to finish. The author, Patrick Elkins, wrote the story with complexity, creativity, and, at times, downright whimsy. Elkins’ official bio states that the book is about “public transportation and its relationships to impressions of air, friends, and (most importantly) flying insects.” Readers, however, will undoubtedly be left with impressions that run the gamut of moods and perceptions of the story’s resolution. Elkins’ accompanying book release parties tell a similarly choose-your-own-adventure story of their own. Events in Portland, Oregon and Ann Arbor Michigan have included puppet shows, songs, sing-alongs, and Patrick getting his hair cut.


Ink on Dreams of Transient Architectureby Patrick ElkinsKandapopMarch 2007, 129 pages, $10.00

Ink on Dreams of Transient Architecture
by Patrick Elkins
Kandapop
March 2007, 129 pages, $10.00


The book is aesthetically concise, measuring six by seven inches, a pleasing size for carrying around on adventures similar to those Elkins writes about in the story. Layout and illustrations were done by Keeli McCarthy, an artist and friend of Elkins’ whose offer to design a cover encouraged him to compile his travel journals into a novel. The story within is presented in off-kilter yet purposefully placed paragraphs and sections. Some themes are apparent, but the subject matter is diverse and at times, quite open to interpretation. Elkins shared in a recent interview that the book is based on years of journals kept to document his prolific travel on the Greyhound bus system. The time it takes to read Ink on Dreams once through has even been rumored to correspond with the time it takes to ride a city bus from Ypsilanti to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Elkins lives and works currently.


Patrick Elkins has received attention for previous works such as puppet shows, performance pieces, and membership in a wide variety of musical groups ranging from noise-folk to a country group led by his grandparents. His writing has appeared in Display magazine, Gravity Presses, The Eastern Echo, Cloudrag, and the Ypsi Mix. Ink on Dreams is Elkins’ first novel, but follows a great deal of experience interacting with and documenting the world around him. His is most definitely a work created from collective experiences and talents. The book was published by Francis of Prussia Books and Records, a division of Kandapop. The publishers are also long-time friends of Elkins and musicians themselves. The book includes a compact disc of music. The compilation CD is of a similar unique and creative caliber, but musician Arland Nicewander has emphasized that the music is not meant to be thematically related to the events in the book. He notes that one of the only distinct commonalities between the book and the CD are that both span many years, and much like the stories in the book, the songs were recorded at different times, in different places, and with different people. Musicians such as Lorraine Lelis, formerly of Mahogany, Arland Nicewander and Akina Kawauchi of Kanda, Scott P. Sonnier, Elise Sonnier, and Aleise Barnett are contributors. The cumulative product of a diversity of talents and experiences is a clever and satisfying musical experience. The CD is a great stand-alone listening experience full of romantic ditties and thinking people’s pop.


Patrick Elkins shares that he plans to finish writing the sequel to Ink on Dreams during a 10-month stay in Indonesia this fall. The follow-up book is tentatively titled A Satan and the author shares that it will be longer and more detail oriented than its predecessor. Further projects include a series of 101 one-act plays, musical endeavors, and continued efforts as a puppeteer. The musicians involved in the CD accompanying Ink on Dreams can be found working on a plethora of projects in their far-flung locales. More information on the book and music is available at http://kandapop.com.


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Thursday, Aug 9, 2007
by Duncan Edwards
John Peel: Margrave of the Marshesby John Peel, Sheila RavenscroftChicago Review PressJune 2007, 432 pages, $19.95

John Peel: Margrave of the Marshes
by John Peel, Sheila Ravenscroft
Chicago Review Press
June 2007, 432 pages, $19.95


A portrait of the life of John Peel, not only the best radio DJ ever, but arguably the most important cultural figure in Britain in the last 50 years. Margrave Of The Marshes is a love story, or several: the love between John and his wife Sheila and their kids, for Liverpool FC, between John and music, and for John from his very fortunate listeners. 


No one needs have heard John Peel on the radio, or even be a huge music fan to appreciate this beautiful book. It contains enough intimate tales from John’s childhood and schooling to entertain and shock. His reference to the smoking of blotting paper at boarding school with the accompanying talk of the effects of different colors, brilliantly skewers drug-culture and pokes fun at himself. Included are refreshingly ordinary examples of his shyness and insecurity to which many people can relate, and there are hundreds of amusing asides and plenty of magnificent anecdotes. The book is a vivid joyful celebration of a life well lived, though tinged with sorrow that a terrific marriage is interrupted by his passing.


Another strength lies in the fact that Margrave of the Marshes is far from a litany of My Life With Various Rock Stars. For sure there are some low-key tales of a few musicians that will delight: John and Marc Bolan feeding their rabid addiction to Scaletrix, phone calls with Captain Beefheart about keeping chickens, messages from Bowie before he hit it big, but name-dropping was never John’s style. Instead, he spends more time talking about the people who wrote to him over the years, (like the disturbed person who simply would not accept that he did not share an apartment with Stevie Wonder and Lou Reed), or telling of characters he met during his National Service or while living near the White Rock Lake area of Dallas, than focusing on Mark E.Smith or the Undertones. Whilst the writing has a keen edge with a tone that is mostly gentle, enthusiastic, warm and dry, a sense emerges that the very few people of whom he speaks badly probably deserved worse.


John’s time in America could stand alone as reason to read this book. His interaction with JFK is both startling and a sad depiction of a bygone age of innocent connection. His comments on the attitudes of the time and of his adventures in cars, bowling alleys, and bars have a magical quality. Elsewhere, we can chuckle at photographs showing John trying to be Gene Vincent, and at his school reports, including remarks from the astute R.H.J. Brooke who also taught Michael Palin. Brooke appears to have been instrumental in giving the young Peel a lot of lasting confidence, though he wrote: “It’s possible that John can form some kind of nightmarish career out of his enthusiasm for unlistenable records and his delight in writing long and facetious essays ...”


The love between John and Sheila (for decades the woman referred to on-air and off as The Pig) is conveyed in many ways, from little notes and gestures, to her detailed understanding of his emotions. He was a great man and it’s not hard to conclude that she is a great woman. Their bond may be best summed up by John’s reaction when called by his daughter to learn of Sheila’s brain hemorrhage: “Do you realise that if your mum goes, I go too?” he blurted. “I don’t want to go on living without her.” Some aspects of John’s relationship with his children illustrate his vulnerability, particularly being convinced that the young Danda hated him, and fear of the infant Thomas. Nevertheless, the descriptions of him broadcasting from their house, always mockingly referred to as Peel Acres, and family photographs show a relaxed unity. The picture of Tom, in his “The Mighty Wah” t-shirt is interesting. Often John would announce some track and claim it was “a big favorite in our house” or “one of the Pig’s favorites”. It sounded true, and the overlap between music and family life is laid bare, not least with the picture of the White Stripes playing in the house. Sheila leaves us in no doubt that John was the emotional fellow his on-air tone drollery could never disguise. Sheila writes “I don’t think he ever shed quite so many tears as when the children left home” and John’s words when the youngest left for college should strike a chord with every father: “I felt as low as I can remember feeling in all my life as Floss disappeared down the lane.”


I follow a different team but can respect the clear evidence of John and Sheila’s devotion to Liverpool FC: the middle names given to the children, getting married in red, the framed photograph of Bill Shankly and even a Kenny Dalgliesh pillow-case in the house. The depiction of their thoughts and deeds on and after the sad tragedies at Heysel and Hillsborough are extremely moving. Maybe best of all is the whole family praying for John to intervene during the 2005 European Champions League Final and subsequently pouring champagne onto his grave when the Pool came back from a 0-3 deficit to claim the trophy! These, and other examples, strip away any idea that the famous should be considered fundamentally different from the rest of us. Peel has a measure of fame, yet his refusal to embrace celebrity was maintained with such natural aplomb that he never lost his accessibility. So, (although he would have heartily disapproved of my team) now I don’t feel so daft for naming my son Ryan and (after the name Erika was rejected) giving my daughter the initials EC.


That John’s love of music was an all-consuming obsession is an understatement. Excusing himself when friends were over for dinner so he could go and listen to something, music always on in the house, in the car, summers at festivals, rare family holidays punctuated by trips to record stores, thousands of demo tapes endlessly pored over and sometimes sadly discarded without being heard (presumably when the sheer weight threatened the foundation of Peel Acres, or when access to external doors became blocked). As with the notes for forthcoming volumes of his autobiography we are left with a sad feeling that there is so much now that we will never get to hear.


The surprising origin of the Peel Sessions is mentioned and like other more shocking episodes in Margrave of the Marshes I won’t spoil it by mentioning them here. Some of John’s favorite stories reappear in the book, not least concerning the Radio One Roadshow and the Bay City Rollers. I take issue with his dates concerning the Buxton Pop Festival, but the telling of the story is the thing, not exactly when it occurred. It’s fair to assume that John’s favorite record was the next undiscovered gem for which he endlessly searched. That he had access to the airwaves for so long is something for which millions of people will always be grateful. If only we could have cloned him.


A lot of words have been written about John Peel since he died in 2004, grand statements about his importance in bringing fresh music to several generations, tributes from artists giving him credit for their careers, heartfelt messages of thanks from listeners. All the words I’ve read seem to come, not out of a manufactured hysteria, but from a deep and genuine sense of the loss of somebody whose contribution to a broad section of cultural life was really appreciated. In Margrave of fhe Marshes John’s wife, Sheila, talks about how the public response has helped his grieving family, how respectful and real it has seemed, and how much it has meant to them.


Amongst many quotes is one from Harold Pinter:
“I pay tribute to John Peel. It is to John Peel that I pay tribute. The guy that kicked shit. And not only did he kick shit, but he kicked it right back up the arsehole, where it fucking belonged ... and he made sure it fucking stayed there.”


That he always did it with a self-effacing charm and a down-to-earth wit makes it all the more impressive. John Peel, is quite simply, irreplaceable


More of the reviewer’s thoughts on the late, great, John Peel can be seen here:


 


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