Books I Read February 2nd, 2018

Right. I moved to Los Feliz, which is the sort of neighborhood which like, if you were making fun of my cliché, you'd go, 'I bet you live in Los Feliz, don't you,' and I'd have to hang my head. But, it does have a million cool bars and restaurants and coffee shops and there's a big park nearby and some good bookstores and what more does a person really want. I walk around the neighborhood and point at things and say their names in Spanish. El piso! La Ventana! Un habitacion. Etc. Also, I read these books.


Citizen of the Galaxy by Robert Heinlein –I'm trying to get someone to pay me to write about this so I'll just use this as a placeholder, but in case I forget to fill that place I didn't love it. There's a freshness to Heinlein which is characteristic of that era of sci-fi writers, where the territory is so uncharted that things don't feel cliché, but I thought ultimately its moral vision is likewise kind of infantile, and some of the writing is just not great, any way you look at it. Drop.


Flight to Canada By Ishmael Reed – Oh man, I loved this. L-O-V-E-D. I like, walked into lamp poles reading this. I tripped on the beach reading this. A brilliant, bizarre comic satire of race relations during the civil war and a hundred years after, taking place in a nonsensical wonderland where Gettysburg is overlapping with rock-and-roll music and our protagonist, Raven Quickskill's eponymous escape from slavery might take place on a jumbo jet. Like Nathanael West (peculiar that I just read him last week, as Reed's debt to West is clear throughout) the plot really is just thin cover for an endless barrage of side characters, misadventures and narrative asides. The best satirists are hedgehogs, all points, and Reed is one of these, with every facet of American society being pitilessly, savagely, hysterically skewered. There are no easy answers here, no clear political program, just a fabulous writer exposing the underlying hypocrisy endemic to the human character. Also, you could basically read any sentence in this book and just laugh your ass off-- all this great wordplay and dead pan humor. Obviously I'm keeping this.


Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles by John Mack Faragher– I had forgotten that part of the fun of moving to a place is you get to submerge yourself in the history of the place you've moved, and this was a good way to start, a brisk six hundred pages about the slow development of the rule of law in Los Angeles. There's a bit about its early incorporation into the Spanish monastic system and then a swift overview of secularization and then a bit about the American 'liberation' Southern California during the Mexican-American war which is entertaining (in the fashion of all American conflicts prior to the Civil War, there's a lot of half-assedry as modestly incompetent military men struggle against the inconceivably vast distances involved, teams of shoeless marines being dispatched by a charge of vacqueros with horses, everyone getting drunk and running away after there's a fight, that sort of thing) but probably goes on a bit too long, after which it settles into the heart of the story, a discussion of how lynch law rose and fall in Los Angeles, and the creation and strengthening of societal norms against violence. That was a long fucking sentence. That kind of thing is right up my alley, and there were a lot of fun descriptions of horrible crimes sufficiently dated as to offer one frisson rather than nightmare. As it happens I actually bought this one for my phone, cause it was a lot in paper and also I'm trying to keep fewer books but if we're going to keep to my binary, if I owned it, I'd keep it.


Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky– Damn. Damn! Wow! Damn! Between Flight to Canada and this, I had a pretty fabulous week for books. How come the Russians are better than everyone else when it comes to novels? I don't know why this is the case but it's true, they're been ahead of the West at every stage since the creation of the novel, pretty much. When did this come out? '71? For some reason I thought it was a little earlier. Still, dope, really, really dope. So, there's this town, and these alien's come and visit it, and a lot of weird shit happens, and everyone runs away, and the UN tosses this cordon around the town's the alien's visited called the Zone. And people sneak into these zones and they steal shit because this shit's worth a lot of money to the outside world, because this shit that the alien's left behind or whatever, they're like toys to the aliens (maybe) but to us they violate the laws of physics and shit. These dudes are called Stalkers. This is a pretty ill set up for a book just starting out buy the Bros. Just nail it, man, it's written with this really excellent patter which 1) sounds like you think future people would talk 2) is totally easy to understand and 3) somehow gives a broader sense of the world without bogging you down in a lot of explanation, except for one bit 4/5ths in, and even that's pretty fun. The Bros. Do the best job of making the 'alien' feel really horrifying of anyone I think I read besides Lovecraft but unlike Lovecraft, who was obviously a bigoted, desperate man, the Bros. Offer an bleak but not despairing moral vision which only very good works of fiction offer. I also got this online but I'm going to keep my eye out for a version to BUY-- THAT'S HOW MUCH I LIKED THIS BOOK. Not only am I not going to drop it, I'm going to buy it!



Japanese by Spring By Ishmael Reed – Weird. I can't remember having such a case of a literary whiplash since reading Annie Proulx. The story of a black professor of literature who sells his soul first as an anti-affirmative action advocate, then as a pro-Japanese quisling after the Japanese take over the university, I was so shocked by its bitterness and general incompetence that I spent a lot of the book thinking I must have been missing something, before coming to the decision that no, I didn't, it just sucked. There is a joke somewhere to be made about the inherent racism endemic to most all cultures and people, our secret belief that whatever we are must be better than whatever everyone else is by virtue of our being it, but it doesn't come together here. Reed's depiction of Academia as being a bastion of Nazidom is from my experience, peculiar and inaccurate. (admittedly this was written in 91 or so, but still I cannot imagine things have changed so much between then and my undergraduate experience in the mid 2000's. True, there has been a recent and disturbing 'mainstreaming' of right wing pseudo-fascist ideology, but that's sort of the point—Academia is not the main stream, it is its own peculiar niche, and not one in which you will see many individuals wearing swastikas). Likewise almost hysterically dated is the early 90's fear of a resurgent Japan, which is, in retrospect, about as silly a boogieman as you're apt to find.

There are a lot of skills required of a satirist, most of which Reed seems to have lost in the quarter-century or so between writing Flight to Canada and writing this. His powder is dry, his assaults either toothless or taking place on straw men. Worse yet, Reed gives in to the single most unacceptable fault in a satirists, which is to allow his own personal feelings to dictate the vent of his spleen. Whoever it was that popularized the 'punching upward' school of satire is a fucking idiot who understands nothing about humor in the slightest (as if it were an Excel formula – 'make sure you exclude any underserved populations from your comic sum!'). A good satirist carries a machine gun, not a rifle, and he takes aim at everything he sees, and, most importantly, he makes sure to keep one in the clip for himself. Flight to Canada does a great job with this, skewering the pretensions and hypocrisies of everyone it lays its eyes on. Japanese by Summer does the exact reverse. Reed frequently slips into an omniscient third person that comments in what, by all appearances, is mean to be an objective fashion, pointing out the failures of the various characters and telling the reader what they're supposed to believe. By the time we get to Reed's introduction of the character 'Ishmael Reed', who takes over the last quarter of the book and engages in fairly naked sock-puppetry, one cannot help but feel that Reed the author has shat the bed altogether. As a single if sterling example; there are at least half a dozen asides mocking a character named Dgun da Niza, a Neo-Conservative of Indian descent meant, obviously, to be Dinesh D'Souza. Fair enough, D'Souza is as rancid a festering pile of of shit as was ever stuffed into a suit and shoved on television, but he's 1) not really worthy of being called out directly and 2) making fun of another person's name is the lowest form of humor that can be stumbled upon.

In short, despite having some fabulous throw away lines, there was so much of Reed's own persoal issues shoved into the narrative that one comes away with the awkward feeling of having caught someone masturbating. I suppose its possible that this was all some incredibly subtle joke that I just didn't get it, but if so, I didn't get it. Drop.