Thursday, April 26, 2012

Let It Blurt

Title: Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, America's Greatest Rock Critic
Author: Jim DeRogatis
Year: 2000
Genre: Biography
Rating: 2

I'm not usually a fan of biographies-- after all, who puts the work into a biography of someone that they're not a huge fan of?-- but there's something to reading about someone's full life. We usually only get snippets of someone's life, like an anecdote on a news show, or a blurb in a textbook. But with a full narrative, we see how some things come full circle, or mean something truly important to a person's life. Biographies give us the cliffnotes on the subject's personal struggles as they developed. Separating the person from the book becomes almost impossible-- after all, we hear their voice, see their face, their actions, their family, everything they ever knew.
Jim DeRogatis, himself a journalist and music critic, introduces us to a character that most of us have at least heard of-- the enigma of the rock world, Lester Bangs. Anyone who knew anything about rock and roll writing in the late 60s, 70s, and early 80s knew who Lester was. With a distinctively outrageous, sometimes abrasive voice, Lester injected himself into every review that he ever wrote, endearing himself to readers across the nation more than any other critic ever had or perhaps ever will. Not only did Lester endear himself to the fans of the music, he himself had fans-- aspiring writers and musicians carried around clippings of his articles from Rolling Stone or Creem until they disintegrated into dust, laughing at his ridiculous vocabulary and ruthless style.
Lives are composed of thousands of moments that define us, that make or break who we are, and we hardly ever think to write them down in case we're important one day and someone wants to write a biography on us. Individual people don't have research libraries containing observations about what may have made them the way they are. DeRogatis has done his research the long, meticulous way-- interviews, reading, and the occasional speculation. Who knows if Lester would have agreed with some of the observations that he makes about what made him the mad genius that he was, but no one can deny that the facts are certainly solid. The author tracks the critic through his childhood in a podunk town in Southern California to a crowded trailer in Detroit to his rat-infested apartment in New York City, picking up the threads of old friends and rivals along the way.
One of the chief problems with most biographies is the fact that they're boring. Not so here. Let It Blurt is cheekily told in Bangsian style, spiced with slightly offensive quotes and out-there moments, characteristic of Lester's life. And yet, we are also drawn closer to Lester than many of his contemporaries were; we see how he struggles for love throughout his life, always eventually losing the women that he loved most, divided between his passion for the wild life of music and his yearning for a quiet life with a family. People always present facades, but underneath, they're all uncertain and questioning about their own lives, and we never see that better than with Lester's many faces.
Refreshingly, DeRogatis doesn't make Lester into either a hero or a villain. We see his faults-- drug addiction, alcoholism, irresponsibility-- as well as his virtues, and they synthesize to form a portrait of a very human, less than perfect man. The biography is not a review of Lester's life; we don't get an idea of whether he was a "good" or "bad" person. At the end, we only know that he did some great things and some terrible things, and all of them brought him to who he was at the end. Although it's impossible to separate the book from Lester's life, the shaping of the writing is very well-executed, cutting out long ruminations and side characters, just as Lester might have done. 
Obviously, this book is very special interest-- not everyone is interested in rock criticism, anyway-- but it's worth a read to just about anyone who enjoys music or journalism. For those who lived during those eras, the liberal splashings of references to bands and shows are an accurate shot of nostalgia, and for those of us born after 1982 (the year that Lester passed away), it's a whole new world that shaped ours into what it is. Plenty of humor lines the pages, and if it strays into moments of long-winded recitations, they stay amusing and fresh.
If a biography can accurately represent a life, then Let It Blurt may be the closest that we can come to knowing the scruffy, beer-stained writer who hung out in bars with bands in New York City. Lester Bangs is remembered both fondly and not so much, but the things that he said stay true for music both then and today. His passion for writing and music were one and the same, and it pours out through both-- the words are a clear mirror for his divided, whirlwind of a soul.
DeRogatis has also included selections of Lester's lyrics (from his jaunt into music) and writing, which are a nice touch, as he references several of the songs in the book-- having the full text helps to give the context for the line and the feeling of the song. The title of the book comes from one of Lester's songs, which is also included in the back of the book, and it gives the title another, deeper meaning.
Let It Blurt is twelve years old now, so it's available on Amazon for as low as $8.95, and you can get a Kindle copy for $13.99. You could probably get through this book in a week or two, as it's not a long read, and it's definitely worth the buy. Music fans and writing fans alike will find plenty to enjoy here, both in reading the book and remembering its subject.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Historian

Title: The Historian
Author: Elizabeth Kostova
Year: 2005
Genre: Fiction/Mystery/Thriller
Rating: 2

If we're sick of vampires, that's only because we've got a reason to be, after Twilight and "True Blood" and the absolute cultural obsession with the occult. But every once in awhile, there's an intellectual who focuses on the subject, because underneath all the pop culture, it is an interesting one.
Elizabeth Kostova's debut novel The Historian preceded the undead craze by a few years, and took a very intellectual, analytical approach to the legend of Dracula. Bram Stoker originally handled the 15th century Romanian myth in his 19th century novel, but Kostova reimagines the story with a gracious amount of research and historical context. The novel is wide-spanning, painting a picture of two different worlds-- tense Cold War Europe and the tenser 15th century Ottoman takeover.
Although it takes awhile to fall into the structure of this novel, it soon flows easily between your fingers, like intertwined threads. The story follows a young woman (who remains unnamed throughout the book) as she gradually discovers her father's deep research on Vlad Tepes, better known as Vlad the Impaler, better known as Dracula. Her father, Paul, haltingly tells her the flashbacks to 1954 of his unfortunate adviser at a New York university, Bartolomeo Rossi, who started him on this road before disappearing without a trace. From there, Paul meets a young Romanian woman named Helen who accompanies him in his search for the undead, legendarily cruel Dracula. Their road takes them across Eastern Europe, from Istanbul to Budapest and and back, and the truth becomes darker and more bloody with the more they discover.
The chapters of Paul's tale are interspersed with the tale of his daughter, who becomes caught up in his research on the Transylvanian vampire, and the occasional document or letter from Paul or Rossi. The novel is broken up into three parts, but there are no real cliffhangers or time jumps separating the parts, which is reminiscent more of a term paper than a novel.
Mrs. Kostova, an American, has certainly done her research. The novel is the work of ten years of her life, and her meticulous writing and composition shows in the style and gravity. Each of the places mentioned is real enough to touch; one can almost feel the sun in Istanbul, hear the voices of the singers in Bulgaria, and feel the wind off of the ominous Lake Snagov. She mentions dozens of scholarly papers and works on Dracula in as many languages, some of which are lost or fragmented. The dedication of the novel relates that Mrs. Kostova first gained interest in the character from the tales that her father told her of the Eastern European legends of the undead.
The novel could easily have been a hundred more pages. There is a lot of material here, and despite the 642-page length, it feels condensed. At the beginning, we're eased into the background, like lowering oneself slowly into hot bathwater, but toward the end, all of the important plot points happen in the space of about twenty pages. It's actually fairly disappointing. The whole novel is a great story, with so much to interest, and whole cultures that have been shut off to us by the Iron Curtain for years. Kostova does not sidle around the issue of language-- she includes snippets of Hungarian, Turkish, Bulgarian, German, French, and Romanian, making an almost cheeky point about the state of American linguistics (as the old joke goes, what do you call someone who speaks one language?). Fortunately, she smoothly provides translation that makes sense for us, and the novel never comes unglued with unexplained mysteries.
Oh, wait. The only mystery she doesn't touch is how Dracula became undead in the first place.
To a degree, it's the novelist's job to delve into mysteries and secrets that have been close-guarded, but in this case, it seems more respectful than anything. She's created a whole tale around a foggy legend, and it only seems fair that she leave one mystery to keep the original tale interesting and gripping to future generations.
The book largely sticks to its story without too much philosophizing, but she can't help but stray into the realm of deep thought at the end, when a character poses the question of good versus evil. Good is not perfectible, but evil is, so why not strive for the thing that you can make perfect? Temptation, darkness, reason, and inner conflict... it all concatenates in this one line, a tear in the neat fabric of the mystery before returning to the plotline. It shows an admirable amount of restraint-- this book alone could merit a term paper on the essence of life, death, evil, cruelty, et cetera, but Mrs. Kostova's primary goal is to tell the story. Like the great novelists, she leaves it to us to draw our own conclusions from what she's written.
After all, she is only the historian.
This fabulously dark work is available on the Kindle for $9.99, or from for $6.28. I had to wait a long time to get it from my library because a lot of people want to read it, so I would advise buying it, because it's worth a couple of reads.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Court of the Air

Title: The Court of the Air
Author: Stephen Hunt
Year: 2007
Genre: Science Fiction/Thriller
Rating: 4

Let's face it: imaginary worlds are the best if they're, well, outlandish. There's a reason that Middle Earth is so much better loved than any of Isaac Asimov's worlds, and that Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy boasts millions of fans while other alien books fall flat. In the world of science fiction, anything goes, and the crazier the better. The true magic of fiction is that anything unbelievable can indeed be believed.
Stephen Hunt has created a spectacular, detailed steampunk-style world in The Court of the Air, complete with unique races (I've never heard of crustacean people before) and a full, tragic history just as imaginative and convoluted as any in the real world. Jackals, Quatershift, and the Steammen Free State are gritty and vital enough to just be beyond the fingertips. Regrettably (bitterly so) this book is clumsy in every sense of the word.
The novel follows two orphans, the street-smart Molly Templar and reclusive Oliver Brooks, who are both special outcasts in the world. Oliver was abandoned to a dangerous substance called the feymist from the ages of one to five, and as a result is a registered feybreed, targeted by the government to be dragged into service. Molly, on the other hand, has no idea why she is special, and when all of her friends are mysteriously murdered or kidnapped, she runs for her life.
The book is fast-paced, with little time taken aside for thoughts and recollections, which is almost nice for a change. We meet a colorful host of characters-- Harry Stave, the rogue wolftaker (an agent of the Court of the Air); Silas Nickleby, a war criminal who is investigating a series of brutal murders for a newspaper; Commodore Black, who doesn't explain much of his history but is irrepressibly cheerful; Aliquot Coppertracks, a steamman (a sort of living machine) with an incredibly powerful mind; and the Whisperer, a dark presence with incredible power imprisoned in dreams. There are dozens of characters, each with interesting, individual features, and 582 pages don't feel like enough to get to know them very well.
I can't explain how unbelievably creative the world of Jackals is. Imagine crossing the raw creativity of Lewis Carroll with the grit and ingenuity of Philip Pullman, and then shading in more and more details until you have a maddeningly fascinating reality. The history of Jackals is filled with words lifted straight out of Aztec history (Duitzilopochtli Deeps, Chimeca, etc.) and the idea of severing the monarchs' arms to prove their lack of power to Parliament is gory and riveting. I've seen a lot of inventive government systems in fantasy, but never one with the complexity of The Court of the Air.
I might have claimed this book as one of my favorites if it hadn't been so poorly executed.
From the first page, we are absolutely bombarded with terms, jargon, slang, places, names, whatchamacallits, and anything you can imagine. Hunt may have been trying to immerse the readers in his world, but he successfully drowned us with far too many unexplained details. For instance, the very titular Court is never fully explained. Chapter after chapter goes by with allusions to it, and the only details that come out are more complexities. It's absolutely maddening.
Hunt also made a habit throughout the book of latching onto phrases and reusing them again and again. At one point, he refers to Harry as "the disreputable Stave" three or four times on a single page. By that time, we've gotten the message-- Harry is bad news. Hunt may have been trying to be humorous and give him a nickname in Oliver's mind, but there are certainly better ways to do it than that. The intriguing Whisperer is also left annoyingly vague, as are all the characters. According to Stephen Hunt's website, The Court of the Air is only the first in a series of books based in Jackals, so maybe he brings more light on the subjects in the future.
But even if he does, he needs to rectify his organizational skills first. The chapters are really poorly sorted out, mashing together the viewpoints of multiple characters with no markers for place and time at all. We jump from Molly to Oliver to Commodore Black to a random citizen to King Steam to Molly to whatever just make it stop. Some authors can do this gracefully (i.e. Ken Follett), but it's irritating and confusing in this book. Having seventy chapters is not a bad thing-- if it really bothers you, split the book into acts or sections.
To top it all off, the book ends in a fashion similar to dropping an anvil on a bird in flight. The plot has just begun to settle in and all fit together in a big map, and thwack! the end comes and makes no sense. We're given no hint as to what has happened to the rest of the characters, and there's not even a cliffhanger to imply that there will be another book. An extremely minor character who appears maybe two or three times in the entire course of the novel has the last line, and not even in a meaningful way.
The Court of the Air had so much potential. It's the most imaginative book to come into the science fiction/fantasy genre in absolute ages, but because it's so poorly written, the idea is shot down before it has a chance to really prove itself. It's a shame, because the steampunk world needs a real example of quality to set itself a standard.
Five years later, the book is available in libraries (on a side note, I picked it up purely for the cover-- the art is great). You can't buy it from the Kindle store, but you can get it at Barnes and Noble in paperback for $8.99. Amazon has several listings for cheap, but don't buy it if you can just rent it. One read is good enough for this novel.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

22 Brittania Road

Title: 22 Brittania Road
Author: Amanda Hodgkinson
Year: 2011
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 3

Even when things end, they never really do. As long as there is one person alive who remembers what happened, it will never end. It will go on in their mind, their memories, who they are. It's changed them.
Unlike so many books about the effects of World War II, 22 Brittania Road offers an achingly intimate picture of the true tragedy of the war: the terror that it inflicted on its victims. Amanda Hodgkinson's debut novel quietly but firmly forces us to look at the true consequences of our actions and the choices that we make every day of our lives.
The novel follows the story of Silvana, Janusz, and Aurek Nowak, a family of Polish-British immigrants who have been separated for six years by the war. Janusz has brought Silvana and their son to Ipswich to live in the eponymous house, trying to make a new life, picking up the pieces where they left off in pre-war Warsaw. However, Silvana is changed after hiding in the forest for six years, and Aurek is a wild child who thinks of his father as "the enemy" who threatens to take away his mother's love.
The book chronicles the deeply personal tale of recovery, pain, and change that follows any significant event, and the reconciliation of a broken family. Aurek slowly and hesitantly comes to trust Janusz as Silvana discovers that he is not the same man who left her with a baby in Warsaw. The entrance of a rival for her affections doesn't help the situation, and she must decide whether the past is worth a miserable present.
Written in incredibly simple but honest language, 22 Brittania Road touches on a subject that many authors fail to address: the question of what now? How do you just pick up the broom again after the windows have been blown in by a bomb? How do you clean out the stove after someone close to you dies? How do you just go on as you did before? The unhappy truth comes out in bits as the book progresses, and we watch Silvana and Janusz change to become people that can be together after so much time and separation.
Each person has their own separate tale of woe, loss, and inner struggle, and none is more pathetic than Tony Benetoni, the father of Aurek's young friend Peter, who lost his wife some years before the novel occurs and cannot help but try to replace her love with everything else. Silvana relates to him, and as the end of the book approaches, the veil is lifted aside, and we see how hard they've both tried to hide their pain and how much pain hiding it has caused.
Ms. Hodgkinson has clearly put a lot of time and love into this book, and it shows in the depth of thought and vivid, piercingly ordinary scenes. However, it is definitely a first novel: the chapters are somewhat muddled, with the storyteller constantly changing without warning. The places are indicated at the head of each section, but the time is not, and with the constant flashbacks to Janusz and Silvana's pasts, we're constantly confused and hunting for a clue as to what year it is. Usually, the titles of Poland, Ipswich, or France give us hints, but it would have been incredibly helpful to indicate the year just under the character's name.
There is also a lot of "She thought... she did... she wanted..." sentences in this book, which is not a grievous error, but is somewhat annoying after a bit.
But on the whole, the book redeems itself with such an understated but painful storyline. The characters are so hurt that you just want to give them a hug by the end to tell them that everything is going to be okay, and that the war is over. Certainly, the war inside each of them is neverending as they struggle to cope with peace.
22 Brittania Road is a deeply personal exploration of pain, and absolutely worth your time. It's still pretty new, so you can pick it up for $12.99 at the Kindle store or the paperback from Barnes and Noble for $15.85.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Title: Rizpah
Author: Charles E. Israel
Year: 1961
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 3

It's amazing what kinds of treasures can get lost in the library shelves. The beauty of print is that something so quiet and limited can last forever, and show up fifty years in the future to affect someone the same way it would have fresh off the presses. Rizpah is a skewed view of the ancient Israel we thought we knew, diving deep inside the characters and describing them in heartbreaking detail.
Drawing from a very small section of the Bible, Charles E. Israel has resurrected the world of pre-Jerusalem Israel, an arid region of bickering tribes and ruthless wars. Speaking in first person through the old Philistine woman Egrep, the story centers around a young woman named Rizpah who is taken as a slave after her family is brutally murdered before her eyes. In the years that follow, she is the favorite concubine of the chieftain Torash in Askelon, a city of ancient Philistia. However, once they lose a battle to the Israelites, she is captured and immediately falls deeply in love with the tempestuous new king, Saul. The Bible names her in 2 Samuel as Saul's concubine, and Rizpah follows that tale all the way to the end.
Throughout the book, we meet both familiar and new characters. For instance, although anyone who has read the Old Testament is fairly familiar with Saul and David, Israel takes the time to develop them into well-rounded, faulted, deep human beings, exploring ambitions and desires in them. Alongside them, we meet their courtiers and soldiers, all of whom are gritty and realistic, giving a feeling for the world at that time, drawing from the incredibly condensed text of the Bible.
Israel handles the character of David in a particularly deviant, intriguing manner. Through most of the novel, the author keeps a very religiously neutral tone-- he is risking life and limb of being called a blasphemer for fictionalizing on the Old Testament-- but takes a specific interest in developing the character of David. We've heard it said that "history is written by the winners;" Egrep alludes to this bitterly as she sketches the character of the future king as a ruthlessly ambitious, deceptive person with manifold contradictions within his person. He uses the family of Saul, marrying his daughter Michal and becoming best friends with his son Jonathan, before fleeing for his life from the mad king. When we meet him again later, he is quietly sure as he works out a heartbreaking, cruel plot to secure his throne.
Israel is incredibly inventive with the nations surrounding the Israelites at the time-- Philistia, Moab, and Phoenecia, among others. There is little to no detail about them in the Bible, but they are necessary in the tale, so he has done his research and discovered the names and pieces of their history, contemporaries of Saul and David. The Bible may be the tale of the nation of Israel, but there was a whole world surrounding them, and Rizpah gives us just a little taste of what that world may have been like.
Characters develop viscerally before our eyes as the book goes on, like a wound festering and growing darker before slowly healing into an ugly scar. In particular, the descriptions of Saul going mad in the tent at Gilgal is gripping and pitiful as we watch a strong man, a king of the ancient world, slowly descending into babbling insanity. Rizpah can do nothing for the man that she loves, and Israel explores the fullest depths of her feelings as she can only hold onto hope until the end.
Rizpah does get a bit tedious. At 535 pages, the novel felt stretched out, as if length described the value of the epic, and could definitely have stood to be condensed a bit. There are parts where it's possible to skim and still get the gist of what happened, which is not a particularly good quality. The end of the book seems to drop off rather suddenly, though; there's little closure for the tale, and although it's meant to be bittersweet, only feels bitter and drab.
However, Rizpah is worth a read just for its intrinsic workings, especially for aspiring writers. Israel is obviously an astute observer of human nature, as he channels many quotable philosophies through Egrep, and many of them resonate beautifully with the tale as well as with the reader. The author explores a world largely untouched by the world of writers, either by taboo or by lack of record, but he does it very well.
It's not available on eBooks as far as I know, but you can purchase it for cents on Amazon if you like-- the lowest listing I saw was $0.06. But your library will probably have a copy, so take a look before you order it.