Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Literate Man Is the New Haight-Ashbury, and (correspondingly) a Review of the Doors of Perception (Aldous Huxley)

The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell (P.S.)Today is a day for rebellion and counterculture at The Literate Man, a day for disavowing the conformist decisions of the past and opening one’s mind to the essential “Is-ness” of all things and the limitless possibilities that the world has to offer to those that surrender to it. And it is in this spirit that I have decided to throw caution to the wind and abandon The Literate Man’s tried and true ten-point rating system. Ok, so maybe it’s not a rebellion per se, and maybe it has nothing at all to do with 60’s counterculture, but I have been paying attention to those voices that I most respect in the book blogosphere (you know who you are) and I can see the wisdom of moving off of a subjective rating system in favor of a more participatory conversation about the book or literary concept under discussion.

And how could I judge The Doors of Perception anyway when its basic message is that, in judging, in focusing our minds on the individual and particular aspects of a thing, we fail to see its essential, holistic nature. I really shouldn’t even be describing it as a book for, in doing so, I fail to appreciate the artistry of its cover design, the symmetry of the representational symbols within, the interwoven pulp of the page, and the elements, both natural and artificial, that have combined to make it what it is. Or in Huxley’s words:

I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation—the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.

“Is it agreeable?” somebody asked. (During this part of the experiment, all conversations were recorded on a dictating machine, and it has been possible for me to refresh my memory of what was said.)

“Neither agreeable nor disagreeable,” I answered. “It just is.”

Istigkeit—wasn’t that the word Meister Eckhart liked to use? “Is-ness.” The Being of Platonic philosophy—except that Plato seems to have made the enormous, the grotesque mistake of separating Being from becoming and identifying it with the mathematical abstraction of the Idea. He could never, poor fellow, have seen a bunch of flowers shining with their own inner light and all but quivering under the pressure of the significance with which they were charged; could never have perceived that what rose and iris and carnation so intensely signified was nothing more, and nothing less, than what they were—a transience that was yet eternal life, a perpetual perishing that was at the same time pure Being, a bundle of minute, unique particulars in which, by some unspeakable and yet self-evident paradox, was to be seen the divine source of all existence.

Far out ... I know.

The Doors is not so much a book as an extended essay, which was coupled in my edition with Heaven and Hell, another extended essay, both of which treat the subject of the expanded psychological states that may be induced by the taking of mescaline. Mescaline, for the uninitiated, is the active ingredient in peyote and several other species of other hallucinogenic cacti. The Doors is essentially a chronology of events as understood and recorded by Huxley after having ingested mescaline at his home in West Hollywood in 1952. Heaven and Hell explores the cultural development of views of the afterlife as potentially influenced by drug-induced visions around the world.

Actually, the essays are surprisingly enjoyable and not just in the hippie burnout way that I’ve presented them here. As anyone who has read Brave New World will attest, Huxley is uber-intelligent, and he makes a very compelling case for taking a fresh new look at the world in which we live by removing the biological blinders that evolution and the survival instinct have saddled us with in order to ensure our continuance as a species. That he removes those blinders by means of the ingestion of a psychoactive agent (and spends much of the essay contemplating the folds of a skirt) is almost secondary. His real message is that we need to slow down, look around us, bond with the expressions of existence that we rush past every day, and come to a broader understanding of our own place within the universe.

Now who can argue with that?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes at The Literate Man, or Learning the Lessons of Blog Single Parenthood

I have been a bad blog parent.  I admit it.  It has been three weeks since I have posted anything of substance (see The Corrections, September 7) and even that was a middling review of a great book.  I am genuinely concerned that blog social services (a division of Google) will be knocking on my door at any moment, with an order to remove my TLM baby from my custody for neglect.    

The truth is that I have a very large case headed toward trial, and it is literally sucking the life out of me.  But that is no excuse--we all have our crosses to bear and most are much, much more burdensome than my own.  I do have to say that this whole blogging thing is much more time-intensive than I had imagined.  It is also much more rewarding, and I very much appreciate all the friendly connections that I have made as a result.  But I have determined that, if I go it alone, I run the risk of dropping off the map whenever a particular case blows up, which does tend to happen, that being the very nature of cases.

Fortunately, I have friends, and some of my friends happen to be men, and some of my friends that happen to be men happen to read (take that, reading gender bias).  Even better, they've agreed to stand by my side, to shoulder the burden, to carry the flame, to spread the word, and to continue the tradition of The Literate Man for as long as their hearts shall beat and their lungs draw breath. Or whenever they decide to stop.  Whatever.  Just kidding--I know that they're in for the long haul.

So, without further ado ... readership, Aaron and Greg ... Aaron and Greg, meet the readership.

[Begin Dating Game Theme Music]

Aaron is a business type and freelance writer from Miami.  His prior (super secret) TLM credits include the following: My Invented Country by Isabel Allende, To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway, and Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky.  His more recent (public) credits include Three Weeks with My Brother by Nicholas Sparks, Paris Trout by Pete Dexter, and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carre (TLM obviously loves this book, having reviewed it twice, and with good reason).  In his spare time, Aaron wears funny t-shirts and enjoys libations of the barley, malt, and hops variety.

Greg is a lawyer type (though much more of a real lawyer than yours truly) and hails from our nation's capital, Washington, DC.  His contributions thus far include Peace Like a River by Leif Enger and Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.  A devoted father and hockey fan, Greg enjoys long walks to the DC Metro and cherry blossoms.

So, we here at TLM central will try to redesign and get up Top Five Books for Men listings for both Aaron and Greg as soon as possible (or as soon as they give them to me--guys?).  In the meantime, enjoy the variety.  I sure hope this bringing-in-the-responsible-uncles thing allows me to keep my baby.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold: Great Read In A Bomb Shelter

Patrick started us off on a Cold War bent a few weeks ago and since then it’s been nothing but bomb drills, Radio Free Europe, and non-stop Rocky IV marathons here at The Literate Man (TLM). If the Cold War was good for anything it was spawning an avalanche of spy novels. And the book that started it all, the epicenter of TLM's shameless Cold War nostalgia, was John le Carré ‘s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.

This was the first le Carré Novel I had ever read. I have since picked up a second and could not agree more with Patrick’s spectacular praise for this book (thanks again to Patrick’s mom). After he sang its virtues I simply had to read it. And it was even better than I imagined.

This is not your father’s spy novel. There’s no run-away submarines, buxom Ukrainian agents or narrow avoidances of nuclear annihilation. This is a story about spies and spying and the horribly normal people who carried out this dirty war. And still, after nearly half century later, is the standard bearer for the spy novel.

Leamus, the main character in this book is an unassuming man of apparently extraordinary abilities. But he’s a simply a pawn in a bigger game who’s dimensions keep unfolding with every turn of the page. He is the focus of this book and while there are others involved (mostly his higher ups, the men pulling the strings on either side of the trenches) this is his story. Picture Graham Greene with a souped-up story line and a bit less focus on style and this is what le Carré has given us with in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

That’s not to say that this is more poignant than Greene’s classic works or that they reach the reader on a deeper physiological level, it’s simply that this book is written on a far higher plain than almost every other spy thriller that it can only be compared to work like Greene’s (Greene himself had high praise for this book). And yet at the same time its plot twists are reminiscent of the most exciting books of this genre.

The characters couldn’t be more unassuming if they tried and it might sound crazy that a book with no action, boring characters and drab locales could be a spy thriller; it’s like the Seinfeld of spy novels: a book about nothing. But the pace zips in this story and aside for about an 8-page section in the middle where it seems as though le Carré ( a former spook and admittedly in the midst of a great deal of existential doubt in his personal life when he wrote this) slides into a bit of a rant, the prose is taught and the plot line even tighter. From first page to the last you are blinded by a cascade of double crossing that paints a much grander and undeniably absurd picture. As a whole this is not only a fast-paced and engaging plot it’s also a powerful commentary on the absurdities of the Cold War itself.

The highest praise for this book might be that it defies convention. It delivers the best of a fine piece of well-crafted literary fiction as well as the unorthodox, but nonetheless, racing plot of a thriller all in one. There is little doubt that you will walk away from this book feeling well satisfied.

9.5 out of 10

Paris Trout: A Ridiculous Name For Deadly Serious Man

There is something about the American South that makes it a space all its own in the literary world. Not many specific geographies in the world can lay claim to such a boast and certainly not many in the US. Indeed, the South seems to be its own breeding ground for the written word. Faulkner is known as the quintessential ‘Southern’ writer yet no one refers to Steinbeck as the ‘Californian’ writer or to Bellow as the “New York” writer even though place and setting are arguably as integral to their writing as Faulkner’s.

But by way of that lengthy and somewhat tangential lead-in, the latest of these Southern tales that I read was Paris Trout by Pete Dexter. Dexter is no Faulkner. He is what people like me imagine Faulkner should be. He is a deliberate and powerful writer who doesn’t always write nice things. But he writes truth. And that is not something you don’t find in so many books these days.

I’ve had this book for several years and I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to pick it up. Simply reading the dust jacket, adorned with praise such as “…masterpiece…”, “…breathtaking…” the winner of national book award should have been incentive enough to crack the spine. But when I finally did I was rewarded with a haunting and powerful novel that made a deep impression.

Dexter is an economical writer. The text is just 306 pages and it’s a small book, less than 300 words per page. It doesn’t take long to get through and it’s difficult to put it down once you start. But what Dexter does with these few leaves of paper is impressive. It ranks among the best work of ‘Southern Fiction’ I’ve ever read. And unlike Faulkner you won’t be bored to tears by the prose after 50 pages.

The eponymous main character of this book, Paris Trout, is an insane loan shark in a rural Georgia town. Dexter has created a monster and he just might be the most awful character I’ve found in a book in many years. He is truly a rotten person and he does rotten things. But the haunting sparseness of Dexter’s narrative makes Trout’s actions even worse. There is power in the plainness of his voice that makes this book penetrating on a very deep physiological level.

Trout murders a young black girl in 1950’s small town Georgia and shoots another woman over a fender bender and missing car payments. He is then put on trial and judged by a group of his peers. The account of what follows captures everything that was, and perhaps still is, awful about the segregation South.

There is no redemption; only ugly reality. One of the other principal characters in Dexter’s dark ride down Jim Crow lane is his powerful white attorney, Harry Seagraves. He is no Atticus Finch and this story has nothing resembling the warmth of To Kill A Mocking Bird. In this small town tale there are few threads of decency and we’re made accurately aware of this as we see a series of inexcusable involving Trout's estranged wife Lucy.

Dexter does a masterful job unfolding this story through actions and impressions of these three principal characters. In fact, he does such a terrific job of building up the characters and conflict in the first half of the book that the final resolution is somewhat of a letdown. Nonetheless, this book is poignant, moving, unforgiving, and at times unpleasant. And it’s also completely mesmerizing. Without a doubt one of the most impressive bits of fiction about early the early 20th century South that you will find.

9.0 out of 10

Toeing The Line Of Masculinity: The Literate Man vs. Nicholas Sparks

Here at The Literate Man (TLM) we realize that the majority of the works we review are by male authors. This is by design. But in a meager attempt to enrich the diversity of this site’s content contemplated reviewing a book penned by a woman author. Unfortunately, we didn’t. But we did the next best thing. We read a Nicholas Sparks book, Three Weeks With My Brother.

And for any struggling and frustrated authors out there that have passed by a stack of Sparks’ books at a book store, or read his name at the top of the New York Times Bestseller list every day for the past decade or been forced to watch one of the big screen adaptations of his novels by your girlfriend or wife and hated him for his apparently easy success: shame on you.
Granted, the first manuscript he sent out to agent was accepted for representation within days. And within three months of snagging an agent he had received a $1 million offer from Warner publishing. And so what if he’s made a gazillion dollars with his numerous best sellers and box-office hits.

This is a man who has struggles just like the rest of us, actually many more than most people. Reading Three Weeks with My Brother, while not the most interesting book in the world, is nonetheless engaging, and is a good reminder (especially to the jaded human sub-specie of unpublished novelist) that happiness is much more than a million dollar book deal or a bestselling novel.

In fact, this book is a real downer. About every 30 pages or so my eyeballs felt compelled to shoot out salty water. Even at the end of the book and during the epilogue I was waiting, hoping, for some tiny morsel of happiness or redemption. And it never came. But sometimes in life there aren’t happy endings and it’s hard to paint rainbows and unicorns out of such things like: the traumatic death of your mother, your father’s descent into madness, a severely disable child, or having your sister devoured by a brain tumor –all in the span of a few years. The remarkable thing about Sparks’ life and indeed this story is that for every one of his staggering successes in life there seems to be a corresponding soul-crushing low point to counterbalance it.

I’ve never read any of Sparks’ fiction but if the dialogue is as bad as the supposedly real dialogue that he’s included in this non-fiction memoir of a trip around the world with his brother than I never will. But this book isn’t about the dialogue between him and his brother but rather about the ups and many downs of his life. It’s a breezy read at best, and there are many other (better) books out there. But Three Weeks With My Brother, is about as close to chick-lit as we’ll ever get at TLM, a broadening of our horizons, so to speak, and it’s a good reminder to cherish the good things in life.

So next time you pass a stack of Sparks’ books at the airport and curse him for his commercial success, remember that this guy struggles just like the rest of us and that there are many problems in life that a seven-figure book advance will never be able to fix.

7.0 out of 10

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Corrections (Jonathan Franzen) (9.2/10.0)

The Corrections: A NovelI hate to think that I'm easily influenced by shotgun marketing campaigns, but I was so intrigued by the hype leading up to last week's release of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen that I finally picked up The Corrections, just to get myself in the mood.  Released in the weeks before September 11, 2001, The Corrections is a portrait of generational and family dissonance and mutual adjustment as viewed from the economic bubble of the mid- to late-1990's. 

Alfred Lambert, the stern, hardworking, and honest patriarch of the family, is suffering from Parkinson's disease and dementia.  His wife, Enid, is in a state of denial, trying desperately to wring the last drops of family pleasure out of life before the inevitable comes crashing down about them.  Their children, Gary the Responsible, Chip the Unpredictable, and Denise the Independent, find themselves making adjustments to their own complicated lives in order to acomodate the illness of their father.  The decisions they make and the conclusions to which they are brought are often as surprising to them as they are to the reader.

There is not much that has not already been said about The Corrections.  It is a masterpiece of middle-class family interaction and angst in the face of disaster.  The characters are believeable and generally sympathetic if a bit overdone and caricatured.  And if the scenes that reveal their feelings about one another are likewise exaggerated, the feelings that they elicit are very familiar.  By the end of the novel, the reader feels as if he/she has lived a difficult moment among the Lamberts, who continue to reside in memory long after the story has concluded.

Perhaps the greatest testament to The Corrections is the fact that, despite the tragedy of 9/11, which would have derailed the success of virtually any novel, it both enjoyed high commercial sales and has since come to be recognized as a modern classic.  I would have to agree.  I know that many of you have read The Corrections, perhaps as much as a decade ago, and I'm interested in your views of the work after the passage of time.  What do you think now? 

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (non-fiction, 7.0 out of 10)

Outliers: The Story of Success
For a guilty non-fiction fix, I'm an admitted fan of books in the currently fashionable genre of popular economics and social phenomena. Stuff like Freakonomics by Levitt and Dubner, The Undercover Economist by Harford, MoneyBall and The Blind Side by Lewis, and, of course, Malcolm Gladwell’s informative triumvirate, The Tipping Point, Blink and Outliers.

Having previously enjoyed The Tipping Point and Blink, I knew what to expect from Gladwell's most recent foray, Outliers. His gimmick is pointed research into well-known or everyday subject matters to find hidden patterns and meaning that carry over to his larger thesis. In Outliers, he examines why some people, which he calls outliers, become highly successful in their field – people like Bill Gates, the Beatles, professional hockey players, Robert Oppenheimer and (gasp) the author himself. Gladwell contends that success is as much a product of the opportunities that present themselves to an individual as it is of the individual’s talents and efforts.

You may be thinking that doesn’t sound like a groundbreaking theory. Worse, if you read his critics, you’ll see that many contend that Gladwell’s methodologies are derivative and unscientific. Outliers also suffers from a bit of unevenness – as with The Tipping Point and Blink, Gladwell leads with his best stuff and by the end of the book he seems to be rehashing the same themes with inferior data and less interesting case studies (basically writing about himself for the book's final act). I would suggest ignoring all that and reading it anyway if you’re inclined to popular non-fiction at all.

The joy of Outliers is in the depth with which Gladwell explores his case studies, shedding light on the stories behind the stories we know. Did you know that the Beatles became the Beatles by taking advantage of the opportunity to play countless hours of music in front of live audiences in Hamburg’s red light district? Or that a disproportionate number of professional hockey players are born in January, February and March? Equally important as these factual discoveries are the analytical building blocks employed by Gladwell – ideas (not necessarily his own) like The Matthew Effect and the 10,000 Hour Rule, which resonate beyond the covers of Outliers. Outliers entertains, educates and, most importantly, makes one think about their own successes, under-utilized talents and what might have been.