August 29, 2001
Reading this month:
My copy is autographed with the message "Sweet dreams". Thanks, Neil!
Houdini!!! : The Career of Ehrich Weiss
A mammoth biography with impossibly deep research. I'm a two exclamation point guy, myself, feeling that it gives the perfect air of mistranslated excitement to one's endeavors, but the author makes a good case for Houdini's own love of exclamation points and I won't begrudge him that. There's something undeniably compelling about a biography written following the rules of The Magician's Code - don't tell how another magician's trick is done. The code, though it technically only applies to tricks, comes to inform the book as a whole. You get a nearly day-by-day (the literary equivalent of no montage sequences) account of Houdini's life and times without the stabs at "what it was like inside his mind" that are standard to biographies. Essentially, you see the performance in prismatic detail but you don't see what happens inside the locked chest, because nobody knows. (And, really, is it any of your business?) There's a lot to be said for ongoing relevance of the cultural transition that happened during Houdini's life, from the evolution of the role of the entertainer (and dawn of modern "celebrity") to the public fervor moving from Spiritualism (ghosts, mediums) to mechanical progress (planes 'n trains). And, of course, there's Houdini himself. I'm always interested in reading about people in history who were the best, knew it and used that knowledge to take it up even further.
There is a picture of a medium generating ectoplasm from her ear that is among the grossest shit ever.
My only complaint about the book is that the bit of the Houdini legend that's always fascinated me most was only treated in passing: that he vowed to his wife that he, the ultimate escape artist, would find a way to contact her from the afterlife. I don't know. There's something about that that really gets me.
The second novel by the author of The Beach, which was an absolutely great book. I've watched the film a couple times with the specific intent of trying to formulate why it was so utterly mediocre. What went wrong? No budget concerns, great locations, great book, great director, great screenwriter. Leo wasn't right for the lead, but he wasn't the problem. The mediocrity of the film defies easy explanation, as though when the individually sound pieces were assembled, they formed a mediocrity beyond human comprehension, as if the mediocrity were a fourth dimension. (I have made a brilliant segue, as you will soon see.) Anyway, that book was fucking great, and so is this one. The cover design does it a disservice, making it look as though a "tesseract" is some sort of gritty military treaty when in reality the book uses it to apply hypercube theory (segue!) to interlocking short stories about Filipino street kids, gangsters and others. Completely human, thoroughly enjoyable to read. The author has the standard second-book impulse to show off the different narrative voices that he can inhabit, but he actually can inhabit those voices quite effectively, so there's no problem at all.
Sin City: To Hell and Back
Another yarn from the land where one is either well-versed in the art of murder or about to die. There are subsets, of course: eight year-old girls are generally not well-versed in the art of murder, but they are also generally safe, as big muscular guys who are well-versed in the art of murder tend to consider them sacred. Women who are well-versed in the art of murder and the art of getting one's freak on can expect to pick a little from column A, a little from column B, and then die, unless they are on speaking terms with a ninja or are themselves a ninja, in which case they will probably be okay. The aforementioned big muscular guys are well-versed in the art of murder, but they are distinct from big muscular chubby guys, who learn the art of being murdered. Never, ever hook back up with your old girlfriend. I mean never. Those are the lessons of Sin City. The first entry in the series remains the towering best, for art more than story, but they're all enjoyable if you're into the brutal noir style; this one started out second only to the first, but faded a little at the end. Still, not bad. Oh! And be wary of people who are in color in a black and white world. Hoo, boy.
The Power and the Glory
I find that if I read Graham Greene's prose at a normal pace, it's a slog; but if I go at breakneck speed, barely catching each word, it's great. No idea how that works. Reading this book means that, after six years, I have finally completed my high school AP English summer reading list, except for the play about the lion, whose title I have forgotten.
Another Phaedon Press brick-book. A decent essay that traces the creation of Dali's celebrity persona rather nicely, with unusually generous space allotted for reproductions. I was actually kind of disappointed to discover how much of Dali's early-to-mid period work was just straight, vanilla Freud. Still, there's fun to be had, especially in the later (regarded by the author as uneven) pieces.
Another Roadside Attraction
I brought this book to read while on a film shoot, figuring that this was the sort of book that film people would like. Sure enough, I was effusively praised for my good taste. It's okay. Funny and smart, of course, but I grew pretty tired of the characters sitting around and being unbearably clever at each other, and it takes a very long time for anything else to happen. I'm not bourgeoise enough to demand jam-packed plots from the books I read - I have no problem with character studies and the like, where very little happens - but this book spends a couple hundred pages insisting that things are going to happen imminently, and if the fact that things don't happen is intended for effect, the effect is kind of annoying. When things do happen, the events are brilliant and inspired, but also over awfully quick, given the lengthy lead-in.
A survey of the artist's career, starting from about a decade in with his first widely known pieces (the comic strip panels) and covering through the early 1980s (when the book was written). Insightful essay that eschews biographical content; well-chosen samples from RL's work. I have a big print of his hanging in my apartment: I Can See The Whole Room. His work cracks me up: reducing signifiers of shallow modern culture to their most obvious form but doing it with such overwhelming sincerity to as not to appear irritatingly ironically detached, well, it's good.
A very funny book of intertwined short stories; they're set in the same area, with an ensemble cast, and they slowly come together as the book progresses. Brilliant characters, beautifully intuitive structure, ace from top to bottom. Steinbeck keeps the extended metaphors that got out of control in The Grapes of Wrath in check here, and though he hangs on to the "every other chapter" diversion tactic that drove many a high school student mad while reading Grapes, it works much better this time around.
Good, but something of a missed opportunity. Too much of the book is dedicated to garden variety "what was it like making this movie" conversation that's available in any number of other sources; it'd be interesting to have a book that was solely dedicated to a visual analysis of the art itself rather than Hollywood errata surrounding it. The design is fab, though too many pieces are unlabeled. Still, Terry Gilliam is a great interviewee, and it's as good as any other book for a look at his career in sum.
Dada and Surrealism
I picked this one up again, inspired by a recent trip to the Art Institute of Chicago, where they have several items from this book on display. Phaedon Press does some very nice brick-sized books on major (and minor) artists and art movements. They feature a good selection of full-color reproductions. As I said before, the Dada half of this book isn't terribly good - most of the art itself isn't much to look at without a vibrant narrative to recreate the excitement and passion surrounding its creation. It gets the history down, but this is a case where straight factual recounting can't tell the full story. The Surrealism half is better. The author does a nice job of tracing the evolution of the ethos and the interesting, now-forgotten political dimension of the original surrealism.
Slow Learner : Early Stories
Five early (pre-Lot 49) short stories by Mr Pynchon. I had an odd reaction to the first four: I found each one mildly irritating while I was reading it, and was then surprised to find myself feeling that I'd quite liked the story when I was done. Take that however you will. (The fifth story unreservedly kicks mountainous ass.) It's probably a good idea to skip the introduction until you're done with the rest - in it, Pynchon tears each story to pieces in brutal fashion while bemoaning his own incompetence as a writer. It's funny but unflinching and pretty fierce.
Martin Scorsese: Interviews
Martin Scorsese, et al
Interviews, with Martin Scorsese. Not as comprehensive as Scorsese on Scorsese, but more personal: the interviews (from various sources) were all conducted at the time of the individual film's release, so there's a nice evolution in Scorsese's perspective, and his speech patterns aren't cleaned up and reconstructed as they are in S on S.
The novel upon which Eyes Wide Shut is based, though with transposed setting (from 1920 Vienna). The author studied under Freud, according to biographical capsules, and the psychological profiles of the characters are drawn in a precise way that makes you nod and say, yep, I bet he's taken some psych classes. It's an enjoyable and compelling book; though shorter than the film, it's no less explicit. The tone carries over nicely.