War is Boring

December 2nd, 2010 at 3:39 pm

A provocative title for a slender graphic novel that is boring.

War is Boring by David Axe

It begins formally and dutifully enough. With a dedication.

“For Moqtar Hirabe, gunned down by Somali insurgents in Mogadishu in June 2009 – and for all the other fixers, stringers, interpreters, drivers and guards who’ve risked their lives, and sometimes given them, to help us reporters do our jobs.”

Following this honorable, respectful acknowledgment, Ted Rall’s introduction let’s us know a bit more about this David Axe guy who thinks War is Boring. Axe is an adrenaline junkie with a death wish. He is cynical. He’s not afraid of dying.

But most importantly, David Axe is a war correspondent and with him via cartooney frames we go to Chad, Iraq, and back home to South Carolina where Axe tells us that, sure, War is Boring but Peace is Worse.

And then on to Lebanon, Washington DC, and East Timor where Axe is stricken by a severe bout of contemplation.

“Truth is, I didn’t really know any more what was normal, or, for that matter, what was right, what was wrong, and what was best for myself and those around me. Is war an aberration or the most basic human function, the thing we resort to when all our comforts crumble?

“In choosing war, was I courageously embracing some important, painful truth? Or was I willfully ignoring the real truth? That most people live in peace, comfortably, happily, and have no need for a place like East Timor. Had war chosen me, or had I chosen it? And what did that say about me?”

And on to Afghanistan where we are exposed to corruption and death.

Surprise!

And a second bout of existentialism.

“I should have been happy. After all I’d seen and done, I should have treasured every friendship, relished every beer and reveled in every moment I wasn’t getting shot at, blown up or mortared.

{Yeah, you should have. You’d probably have a more compelling story to tell.}

“But every beer tasted stale. Every conversation was a lie. I still found war tedious. I still found peace worse. I didn’t feel much anymore. What pleasure I used to take in everyday things was replaced with a constant low-grade anger.

“Anger at the millions of Americans who sacrifice nothing while their neighbors fight and die overseas. Anger at the pundits and editorial cartoonists who make their living criticizing wars they know nothing about and are too cowardly to go see for themselves.

{You say War is Boring. I say War is Bad. I don’t need to experience war to know its spoils. I don’t need to have tragedy to know it’s sorrow. I don’t need to have cancer to know that it’s bad.}

“Anger at the assholes who started it all. But mostly anger at myself for thinking that going off to war would make me smarter, sexier, and happier.

{Yeah, that was foolish. And now I’m angry at myself for thinking that your book was going to be engaging, worthwhile, and good.}

“Maybe I wasn’t angry at the ignorant Americans after all. Maybe I was jealous.”

And then on to Somalia.

And on to his girlfriend dumping him and his return home. To Detroit.

In the Afterword, Axe is bleak and crass.

“The more of the world I see, the less sense it makes. The more different people I meet, the less I believe in their humanity. The older I get, the less comfortable I am in my own skin. We are a world at war, sometimes quietly, often not. We are the cleverest monsters, and we deserve everything we’ve got coming.

“Everything falls apart. Everyone dies in time. In the great, slow reduction of our lives and history, the things we can believe in shrink into a space smaller than our own bodies. To preserve them, for as long as you might, arm yourself, and be afraid.”

Ultimately, there are many reasons why War is Boring was an unsuccessful contribution to the canon of storytelling. Perhaps it was a poor choice of form? For a graphic novel from a war correspondent, it is starkly void of stirring imagery. Little action, little plot or decision making. And what a slouch of a protagonist. <See above>

Arm yourself. Be afraid.

Not bad advice. Can’t say as I disagree. And I’ve never even been to Chad nor Iraq nor South Carolina nor Lebanon nor Washington D.C. nor East Timor nor Afghanistan nor Somalia nor Detroit.

I guess I’m disappointed because while it is acceptable for War to be Boring, it is categorically unacceptable for Your Book to be Boring.

I’m disappointed in the book’s tone. It strikes me as immature, glib, and unexamined. Too much time spent with Axe’s neuroses and emotional flailing (which aren’t very entertaining). His actual war reporting I’m sure is stellar and gripping.

P.P.S. David, you have found violent, bloody conflict to be boring. Have you tried drugs? Sex?



Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

November 21st, 2010 at 12:00 pm

“It wasn’t the people with sociable genes who fled the crowded Old World for the new continent; it was the people who didn’t get along well with others.”

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Freedom is about a crazy family.  But not in an Augusten Burroughs way. And not in a quirky way like John Irving or Gary Shteyngart. But definitely white and suburban and privileged like Cheever or Richard Yates. Maybe people are so excited because Franzen might be the next Fitzgerald? Does Franzen drink?

Freedom is about love, sex, work, depression, mistakes. Existential crises. Familial drama. College love. Professional ambitions. It’s domestic. It’s a soap opera. A very, very well-written soap opera.

It operates within the genre of “Ripped-from-the-headlines” and “Modern.” There is Mountaintop Removal and Iraq War. It is immediate present now.

Freedom is interesting in its straightforwardness. It carries with it a certain severity/realism. Things, plainly said. But not in a blunt Cormac McCarthy way. An eloquent Milan Kundera way.

Freedom is moral. As James Woods would have it. And it takes place mostly in the mind. Do you take offense with the thoughtful consideration given to contemplative evaluation of some of our era’s pressing questions: the war in Iraq, environmentalism, overpopulation? “Freedom” is certainly an “intellectual” novel. A serious book with aspirations. And yes, for that it is elitist and pompous. And absolutely delicious and why I loved it.

Freedom’s appeal lays in its verisimilitude and its authenticity lays in its banal interest. Normal, everyday things; dramatically told with stirring prose.

And while so much of it really is just people conversing and articulating arguments and descriptions taking place within the mind, there is also really great pacing and plot. It flows with a rhythm that is steady and sure. Franzen beats a cool cadence. It reads.

And of course it’s impossible to prove any of this because to do so would require too much quoting because these things take time, like jazz songs, the really good stuff doesn’t hit you for a few bars/pages. (My only offerings are the quotes opening and closing this humble opinion.)

Freedom is a world inhabited and called to life by its own politics, behavior, happenings, and poor decisions: a life, a fully wrought and imagined life. Thus, a story.

Have we a myth?

“The life, neither glamorous nor outstanding but nevertheless admirable and essential…”



Role Models by John Waters

October 25th, 2010 at 5:22 pm

“If you’re not sure you could love your children, please don’t have them, because they might grow up and kill us.” – John Waters, from the chapter “Bookworm” in Role Models

Role Models by John Waters

But you’re probably wondering, who the hell are John Waters’ role models?

Well:

Johnny Mathis, an imprisoned Manson girl, the colorful characters of Baltimore’s dive bars, Little Richard, and outside pornographers like the “Mexican American man who has blown hundreds and hundreds of really cute Marines and lived to tell about it. The Almodovar of Anuses, the Bunuel of Blow Jobs, the Jodorowsky of Jerking Off.”

Oh.

Waters’ essay-cum-memoir is impulsively readable, funny, and I enjoyed it immensely. My only regret was that I did not wait for an opportunity to enjoy the spoken version. The great treasure/pleasure of the read was imagining the sound of Waters’ voice. I love it so.

How could anyone resist someone with this to say: “Is anything better than waking up after a late-night read and diving right back into the plot before you even get out of bed to brush your teeth?”

Before even brushing your teeth?!?!?!?

They don’t call him the Pope of Filth for nothing.



The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon

September 9th, 2010 at 12:53 pm

There was something very right about finishing this book over Labor Day Weekend, that great American demarcation of the end of summer, “The Mysteries of Pittsburgh” being the tale of a mobster’s son coming of age in the summer following his graduation from college in which he falls in love with girl, falls in love with boy, falls in love with girl.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

I’m sorry, spoiler alert? I hope that doesn’t ruin anything for anyone. As a matter of principle, I do not alert of spoilers if the book is older than 10 years. Mysteries was originally published back in 1988.

I just now got around to it as it was 90% off at a recent bargain sale. It just takes a while before books are affordable to the Authwhore. We are sophisticated. But sophisticated misers. My life is nothing more than a to-read list of books that I’m waiting to go on sale.

Mysteries of Pittsburgh is good. Not Great Gatsby or Catcher in the Rye good, but much better than the novel I wrote when I was 22. Good job, Mr. Chabon.

I am a Michael Chabon fan. Wonder Boys. Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Maps and Legends. Manhood for Amateurs. Yiddish Policeman’s Union. All good. I have even read Final Solution. With this recent consumption of Mysteries, I have almost completed the entire Chabon canon. I am only lacking the 2 collections of short stories and Summerland and the recent Gentlemen of the Road.

Just make sure you pronounce his name correctly. (“Shea” as in stadium and “Bon” as in Jovi.)



Praising Trash. Inventing Reactions.

August 28th, 2010 at 5:41 am

“Prolonged, indiscriminate reviewing of books is a quite exceptionally thankless, irritating and exhausting job. It not only involves praising trash but constantly inventing reactions towards books about which one has no spontaneous feeling whatever.” – George Orwell

Praising Trash

Good thing books won’t be around much longer.

What a relief.



Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser

August 24th, 2010 at 3:43 pm

This is the very best of books.

Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser

Hilarious. Superbly written. Short.

As I did with Millhauser’s Martin Dressler, I will not needlessly carry on. It is the mark of a poor work that so much need be said about it. I shall not gild the lily.

But Dangerous Laughter is damn fine. Damn fine.

The stories “Cat ‘N’ Mouse” and “Here at the Historical Society” are funnier than anything written by David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, Augusten Burroughs, etc, etc, et al.

(I mean, who are the “funny” writers these days? Carl Hiassen? George Saunders? Chuck Klosterman?

Steven Millhauser is not only funnier. He’s better.)

In the titular story, youth engage in secretive drug-esque “laughter parties.” They soon experiment with crying.

In “Here at the Historical Society,” said members defend their recent exhibits detailing the “New Past,” i.e. the minutiae pertaining to the immediate just now.

In “A Change in Fashion,” woman’s fashion is parodied to the point of featuring a 3-story dress.

Are you not entertained?

Steven Millhauser’s appeal lays in his style. His diction is plain and straightforward. He is a master of the subtle. His language is descriptive and “literary” but in a simple manner that hints at humanity’s self-absorption and importance. Everything is relayed in the most thoughtful, perfect manner. Stories retain elements of the surreal and otherworldly, the quirky and impossible even, but the language is straightforward and respectful, never revealing the impossibility and joy of, well, life itself I suppose.

In an era where I feel as if each book I read may be the last printed with ink and bound in glue, Steven Millhauser is refreshing. His prose is classic yet modern. Straightforward and matter of fact. It is confident and severe but playful and entertaining. Millhauser is a reminder that mere words (thoughts) can be quite entertaining and incisive. There are no burdensome devices or unnecessary attention-getters. It is all about the language with Millhauser. Whether he is writing about a cartoon cat and mouse or an ambitious young man, he does so simply and evocatively.



I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita

August 12th, 2010 at 10:00 am

Despite my initial enthusiasm, I Hotel is not a good book.

I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita

Do not read it. It is long. It is boring. It is disappointing. It is safe. It is easy. It is pointless. It has no edge.

2010 ytd, I can only recommend Reality Hunger.

And White Hotel. But that’s from 1981. The ’80s generated a lot of marvelous creations, yours truly being one of the many significant yet underrated entities in question from that special time.

I Hotel is cumbersome, disjointed, schizophrenic, frustratingly sprawling, and lacking in cohesion. There are no compelling protagonists. There is a lot of telling and very little storytelling. It’s just all over the place and entirely overwhelming in the worst of ways. It is a big book of very little, suffering from what must certainly be at this point some kind of Asian-American authorial cliche to engage in sprawling multi-generational sagas.

Acknowledging this irrefutable mediocrity, Yamashita apologizes in the Afterword: “Thus the structure I chose for the book is based on such multiple perspectives, divided into ten novellas or ten “hotels.” Multiple novellas allowed me to tell parallel stories, to experiment with various resonant narrative voices, and to honor the complex architecture of a time, a movement, a hotel, and its people.”

First of all: hogwash. Borrring! Obnoxious MFA semantic posturing. You should honor the complex architecture of your novel!

Second of all: The afterword is better written than the novel.



Drink, Play, F@#k by Andrew Gottlieb

July 19th, 2010 at 9:53 am

The inevitable satire to the insanely successful Eat, Pray, Love.

Drink, Play, F@#K

It is of similar pseudo-lit as Augusten Burroughs or Tucker Max. Casual, metaphor-laden writing saved only by occasionally humorous anecdotes and imagery. It’s not a complete waste of time as it is short. Take it to the beach or take it on a plane and finish it there.

And leave it there.

Hollywood will inevitably turn Drink, Play, F@#k into a vehicle for Steve Carrell or Vince Vaughn or Paul Rudd.

When will they adapt Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores?

Casting ideas? I’m thinking Peter O’Toole…



I Book

July 15th, 2010 at 12:35 pm

As a matter of principle, I avoid hotels, in any form, at all costs. But I Hotel, like the ones in Vegas, I just couldn’t seem to resist.

I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita

The publishers refer to Karen Tei Yamashita’s I Hotel as “This dazzling, multi-voiced fusion of fiction, playwriting, graphic art, and philosophy [that] spins an epic tale…”

On other matters of principle, I am always cautious when the word “epic” gets thrown around like blame after an oil spill. But flipping through its pages, I Hotel does appear to have graphic and stylistic elements in the realm of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, House of Leaves, and VAS.

Which makes me excited. It’s the future of literary storytelling. Language and ideas still dominate, but there is no reason why the form cannot evolve to be more nuanced, interesting, and visual. Novelists have been keeping too many tools in the toolbox for too long.

I’m going to just come out and say it: I am pro e-reader. I’d love to read I Hotel on one. Because the only negative thing about the experience thus far has been holding the damn book up. Because despite its modernist underpinnings, I Hotel is a veritable work in the classic sense. It is not for the easily distracted, weak, or dumb. The paperback I borrowed is over 600 pages.

And isn’t the title clever? Like iPod or MymaxiPad.

The prose, too, is fine. Nibble on this, from page 2:

“Who are we to know that our black daddy Martin with a dream and our little white father Bobby will take bullets to their brains? By the end of the year, we are monkey orphans let loose, raising havoc; no daddies to pull the stops, temper the member; got those wired tails swinging from every rafter, we are free at last, brother, free at last.”

I particularly like “black daddy Martin with a dream,” and “temper the member.”

And here’s some of that philosophy they were talking about earlier:

“There exists an unscientific attitude toward language that results in doctrinal disagreements. We must understand that problems are formulated in words, and that a change in the attitude toward language can help us become understanding listeners.”

She need not continue the obvious: “and therefore fix our fucking problems!”

I’m really looking forward to this one…



The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas

July 5th, 2010 at 5:30 pm

Never mind how I managed to have this on the shelf in the first place, upon learning of its significance to Susan Orleans The White Hotel immediately jumped rank and became The Next Read.

It was not a contentious promotion. I had long been intrigued by the artwork that adorned the pages inside the front cover:

The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas

To Susan Orleans, veritable author of The Orchid Thief, The White Hotel is one of 40 books that changed her world.

To me, veritable scribe of hope and vengeance, The White Hotel is one of the better books I’ve read in a while.

I’m not done with it yet and am not holding out much hope for it to change my world. No worries, however. Books are personal treasures and like good drugs, do different things for different people at different times.

But at least for now, I am absolutely enjoying the hell out of The White Hotel. Thanks probably to low expectations and ignorance. I spread these pages knowing nothing of D.M. Thomas nor the concerns of his novel in question, other than that which could be gleamed from the picture above. I have since been surprised, humored, intrigued, entertained and a myriad of emotions I hope we all occasionally encounter upon interacting with a work.

Do yourself a favor, read this book. Visit Mr. Thomas’s website and blog. Do your very best to track down the delightful paperback that I found:

The White Hotel by D.M. Thomas

Haha!

These book thingies are fun!!