Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Sunday Review


A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again
David Foster Wallace

A work of staggering genius, heartbreaking now in the wake of the writer's 2008 suicide. Wallace wrote with a comic invention connected to a forthright catalogue of personal shadows--phobias and painfully aware sensitivities--which seem to intrude at every step of his supposedly benign excursions (to the Canadian tennis open, the Illinois State Fair, a Caribbean luxury cruise--the title essay of the volume) written up for mainstream magazine publication.

What we notice, marvel at, and now mourn, is the acute detail of Wallace's observations and the confident way he rendered them into language which is at once erudite and exceptionally readable--very smart and very funny. The evidence here suggests he was the greatest magazine feature writer who ever lived, something he neither strove to become, nor spent much time doing.

That said, the retrospective sadness of Wallace's suicide hovers over every page. (Even the book's title has now become a wry comment about life.) His immense intelligence and sense of shared humanity was not enough to keep what was apparently an oceanic sense of sorrow, intimated through glimpses throughout the book, at a safe enough remove.

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Divide's Guide to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited and revised for publication, is now available in a Kindle edition for $3.95

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Sunday Review


Gomorrah
Roberto Saviano

A heart-breaking and enraging look at a criminal enterprise that has ruined millions of lives and turned the Italian south, and especially the region surrounding Naples, into a vast toxic waste dump for the industrial north. Gomorrah is as great a work of personal journalism, written by a very brave man, that you will ever read.

Saviano writes with knowledge and passion and makes a very compelling case that the Camorra, the endemic criminal organization of Naples, has evolved to become a deadly shadow multinational corporation (with an ever-shifting board of officers and directors constantly getting murdered, on the lam, or in jail) that does the needed dirty work of international finance capitalism: trafficking in weapons, drugs, toxic waste disposal, sweat shop labor, and mountains of 'duty-free' clothes and electronics from China.

It is impossible for a single work to convey the connivance of 'legitimate' companies and government necessary to allow this horror to grow and thrive in post-war Italy (and here I highly recommend Peter Robb's Midnight in Sicily and Alexander Stille's Excellent Cadavers), but Saviano's work makes the case that the situation is an international menace, one past the point of avoiding by looking away.

Our news is filled with putative threats from terrorists and failed states when in fact a far greater threat exists from a vast criminal network designed to deliver the most goods at the lowest cost--at the expense of humanitarian and ecological disasters--one which extends effortlessly into apparently legal enterprises.

Gomorrah outlines a logical endpoint of Edmund Burke's theory of social contracts; being a free market of violence and degradation rooted in a population which mainly exists to produce low-cost service, consume low-cost goods and provide a constant supply of entrepreneurial murderers needed to keep the system working. It induces a lasting moral nausea.

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Divide's Guide to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited and revised for publication, is now available in a Kindle edition for $3.95

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Sunday Review


The Song of the Lark
Willa Cather

The struggle and triumph of a great artist is the subject of this early Willa Cather novel. The gorgeous setting in a small high-plains Colorado town, based on the author's own childhood, which takes up the first half of the book, is as fine an evocation of late 19th century western American life, its people, customs and economy, as I have ever read. From there--following the heroine's escape to study music in Chicago--the story flags as Cather's stand-in, Thea Kronborg, rather awkwardly takes on the personality of a renowned opera singer of the time, soprano Olive Fremstad; an individual the author knew and greatly admired, but could not understand nearly as well as herself.

Cather covers this central flaw with superb writing, careful plotting, and a fine cast of characters, from a country doctor to a New York "opera queen" (in what must be one of the first sympathetic, albeit veiled, portraits of a gay man in American literature.) Despite an unconvincing love story, and later passages of melodrama and fairly self-conscious palaver about the mission of a true artist, we care what happens to the people Cather presents, vividly seen individuals with lives of their own, which is the highest accomplishment of any novelist.

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Divide's Guide to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited and revised for publication, is now available in a Kindle edition for $3.95

Sunday, June 05, 2011

The Sunday Review


My Last Sigh
Luis Buñuel

Quite possibly the greatest artist autobiography since Benvenuto Cellini's. But Cellini was a relatively minor sculptor; in the thirty years since Buñuel wrote his memoir--and then so considerately died--his influence on modern filmmakers--especially Pedro Almodovar, Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo del Toro, David Lynch, and (that sponge) Quentin Tarantino--has become deep, wide and indelible.

Buñuel's written style, as his films, is off-hand, sly, in depth, and acidly funny--especially on the subject of his abiding hatreds: the Catholic church, patriotic nationalism, newspapers, spiders, and the blind. He recounts his education in Spain, his student friendships with Garcia Lorca and Salvador Dali, the years in Paris among the surrealists, and a very sobering chapter on the Spanish Civil War, in which he served the Republic as a diplomat (and--reading between the lines--an espionage officer) in France. A great many of his friends, like Lorca, were murdered by one side or the other in the war (Buñuel gives as fine a brief account of the Spanish conflict as you'll read), and he was lucky to have found a refuge in exile, first in the U.S. and then Mexico.

For Buñuel, imagination, and the unexpected images conjured from it, always precedes meaning; just as an impish, perhaps eternal, perversity trumps any philosophy. We meet in these pages a warm and amiable man, eager to laugh at the god who supposedly presides over this very cruel world. Buñuel is proud of his obsessions and accomplishments; happy here to talk until his last breath--to outrage the powerful, whip the bourgeoisie, and, always, always, insult devout Christians.

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Divide's Guide to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, edited and revised for publication, is now available in a Kindle edition for $3.95