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Category: David Ulin

The Reading Life: J.G. Ballard's stormy weather

Jgballarddrownedworld
This is part of the occasional series "The Reading Life" by book critic David L. Ulin.

"Los Angeles weather," Joan Didion wrote in her 1967 essay "Los Angeles Notebook," "is the weather of ... apocalypse," but late last week, as rain descended on the normally arid summer landscape of Southern California, it was not Didion about whom I found myself thinking, but J.G. Ballard.

Ballard, who died in 2009, is perhaps best known for investigating the erotic possibilities of violence in a world anesthetized by consumerism and conformity. Early in his career, though, he wrote a series of novels ("The Drought," "The Drowned World," "The Wind From Nowhere," "The Crystal World") that address environmental themes.

From the perspective of the present, it's tempting to call Ballard prescient — these novels all appeared in the early-to-mid-1960s — yet as Martin Amis notes in an introduction to the new 50th anniversary edition of "The Drowned World," that's something of a fixed game. "[F]ictional divination," Amis writes, "will always be hopelessly haphazard. The unfolding of world historical events is itself haphazard (and therefore unaesthetic), and 'the future' is in a sense defined by its messy inscrutability."

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The Reading Life: Harvey Pekar's Jewish question

Harvey-pekar
This is part of the occasional series "The Reading Life" by book critic David L. Ulin.

When Harvey Pekar died, two years ago today, at the age of 70, he left behind a contradictory legacy. On the one hand, his "American Splendor" remains one of the most compelling and transformative series in the history of comics: autobiographical slices of life in which Pekar wrestles with his job as a VA file clerk, with his mania for collecting, with the city of Cleveland -- where he was born and where he died -- and perhaps most significantly, with himself.

This is not to say "American Splendor" is self-absorbed, except it is -- in the best and most interesting of ways. When Pekar's on his game, he's like a street corner Samuel Beckett, pondering the absurdity of existence while embracing, in his own curmudgeonly fashion, all the struggles it entails.

I've written before about "Hypothetical Quandary," in which, over the course of three brief pages, he frames a Sunday morning trip to the bakery as an existential meditation, moving from the futility of his own striving and obsession to the sustaining, if fleeting, aroma of fresh bread. As with many of Pekar's stories, almost nothing happens, and yet something important is resolved.

For all that, Pekar spent the last few years of his career focusing on a different sort of story: piece work ranging from graphic histories of the Beats and Students for a Democratic Society to a comics adaptation of Studs Terkel's "Working." I can't say I blame him; he was always short of money, and after a lifetime as a cult hero, the 2003 film adaptation of "American Splendor" opened up a lot of opportunities. At the same time, there's something flat about such efforts, as if Pekar were going through the motions.

Both of these conflicting impulses -- that of the engaged autobiographer and of the freelancer fulfilling an assignment -- emerge in Pekar's final graphic memoir, "Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me." It's an interesting book, if a bit schizophrenic, melding Pekar's lifelong internal debate about his Jewishness and more specifically the state of Israel, with a capsule history of the Jews.

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The Reading Life: The wisdom of Harry Crews

HarrycrewsThis is part of the occasional series "The Reading Life" by book critic David L. Ulin.

In the latest issue of the literary quarterly New Letters, there's an interview from the early 1980s with Harry Crews.

Crews, who died in March at the age of 76, was a satirist, but, really, he was more than that: His novels emerge out of the dreamscape, offering bleakly funny, exaggerated portraits of America at the brink.

In his first, "The Gospel Singer," an itinerant preacher ends up in a Georgia town more grotesque than any in Flannery O'Connor's writing; "A Feast of Snakes" (1976) involves a rattlesnake roundup. My favorite is "Car," in which a man eats a full-size automobile, four ounces at a time.

The New Letters interview was conducted at a moment when Crews was on (or just coming off) the skids, at the tail end of a decades-long wrestling match with alcohol -- "I drank with two hands," he once said. "... I was drunk every day for 30 years" -- and unsure of what to do next. Nonetheless, he was feisty, not giving an inch.

Here he is on what it takes to be a writer:

One of the things that prevents people from becoming writers is the inability to look at their lives and look at what they believe. They can't look at themselves honestly and say, "Okay, that's how it is." Society makes it damn near necessary to disguise yourself. To appear "normal." To appear like everybody else. ... Whatever people think of me is fine. I made peace with that a long time ago, and realized that I'm not "gone" be like most people, not "gone" be what most people called decent. I'm not like most people, and I don't act like most people. I can live with that just fine and always have.

And here, on whether or not alcohol had finished him (clearly it hadn't, since he went on to publish five more books):

Wimps always think that things are destroyed. Wimps see a little blood and bone, and they think the game is over. They don't know you can go out and get taped up real good and shot up with a little dope and get back in and hit somebody. No ... I'm a long way from finished.

 Best of all are his thoughts on whether "all writers are congenital liars, as Faulkner said":

Oh, yes. I think the business of being a fabulist, that is to be involved with fabrication and making things up and living in the world of the imagination, all that spills over into lying even when you don't have to lie, just because you want to tell something that is memorable and compelling. In your own mind, this isn't what happened to me at Daytona Beach, but this is the way it should have happened. You tell it, and it's a great story. It's not true to the facts of the matter, but very true to the spirit of what happened -- truer in spirit than the facts are. When you give someone the spirit of the thing, that's better than the facts.

-- David L. Ulin

Photo: Harry Crews in 1998. Credit: The Gainesville (Fla.) Sun

Graphic memoir: Sarah Leavitt's 'Tangles'

Sarahleavitt_tanglesIt’s tough to read Sarah Leavitt’s “Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother, and Me” without thinking of Alison Bechdel. Both artists use comics -- what we might call graphic memoir -- to get at the deepest of family (dis)connections, and both possess an almost fearless willingness to reveal. Yet whereas Bechdel is interior, obsessive, always turning her story back on itself, Leavitt is more off the cuff, using a series of short, almost standalone fragments to frame a collage-like portrait of the effects of early-onset Alzheimer’s.

Leavitt’s mother was 52 when she began to exhibit symptoms of the disease; for the next eight years, until her death at 60, she and the family struggled with her slow but steady diminishment. For Leavitt, this is primarily a personal story -- or more accurately, a story about the loss of the personal, about becoming untracked in the world.

Halfway through the book, Leavitt makes this explicit by asking her mother to participate in a video. The older woman agrees, suggesting they begin with the day she got lost. “I knew I had to walk down Smythe Street to our house,” she recalls of the experience. “Part way down, I got lost. I mean, I could see where I had to go, but I couldn’t figure out how to get there. It seemed so far away.... I could see further down the hill, but it didn’t make sense.”

Here, Leavitt parts the curtains on Alzheimer’s just a little, recording it from the inside by evoking in her mother’s language the disorientation, the loss of place, the inability to make connections that the disease provokes. A similar breakdown, of course, afflicts the family, which gradually loses its ability to communicate, to breach Alzheimer’s walls. “I caught myself wondering what Mom thought of herself,” Leavitt writes. “I realized that part of me believed the real Mom lived somewhere else, unchanging, immortal, observing the new Mom.”

What she’s getting at is the essence of who we are and how we operate, of what underlies our neurons, what defines identity. “This is a hard thing to say,” her mother says after Leavitt shows her a few pages of this book, at the time a work in progress. “I’m not a real person.”

But what defines reality? That’s the central question, although “Tangles” doesn’t (can’t) provide an answer. And yet, in framing her loss and her uncertainty through the lens of love, Leavitt manages to find a fragile resolution: conditional, moving, rigorous and heartbreaking at once.

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Interview: Art Spiegelman taps the source

Review: Alison Bechdel's "Are You My Mother?"

David L. Ulin on Adrian Tomine's "Scenes from an Impending Marriage"

-- David L. Ulin

On Sunday: Bechdel's mom, Theroux's Africa and Mantel's Cromwell

Alison-bechdel

Our book critic David L. Ulin can't say enough about Alison Bechdel’s 2006 family memoir “Fun House.” In his review of Bechdel’s latest foray into graphic novel memoir, “Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama," Ulin says that anyone who hasn’t read “Fun House” should “drop everything and get a copy right away.”  “Fun House” is on his short list along with “Maus,” “Persepolis,” “American Splendor” and "very few others of the greatest works of graphic literature.” “Fun House” dealt with the writer’s father and his untimely death: In her latest memoir, Bechdel turns her attention to her mother. But dealing with mom, Ulin writes, is a bit trickier. The reasons why make for a compelling read in this week's Sunday Arts & Books coverage.

After her wildly successful “Wolf Hall,” which was awarded the 2009 Man Booker Prize, Hilary Mantel is back with "Bring Up the Bodies," another novel about the Tudor dynasty in England and the diabolical Thomas Cromwell. “The good news,” writes our reviewer Martin Rubin, “is that it is more than the equal of its predecessor when it comes to intensity and drama.” Also, this week our YA review “Gilt” by Katherine Longshore has a distinct Henry VIII feel. Susan Carpenter says the book “reads like a more literary version of ‘Gossip Girl' overlaid onto 16th century England.”

Craig Claiborne’s name is largely forgotten in the world of food and, according to our Food Editor Russ Parsons, that’s a shame. While most people would recognize the names of his influential contemporaries James Beard and Julia Child, Clairborne, the longtime food editor and restaurant critic of the New York Times, has largely faded into obscurity. But Parsons notes “if any one person can be said to have created the modern American food world, it is he.” He reviews a new biography of Claiborne, “The Man Who Changed the Way We Eat” by Thomas McNamee.

Paul Theroux is widely traveled and deeply thoughtful about the intersection of the First World and the developing world in his novels and travel books. So it isn’t surprising that he would  journey back to Africa for his latest novel “The Lower River.” The book concerns Ellis Hock, a Massachusetts-based man of a certain age. His wife has just discovered warm, intimate messages written to other women on Hock’s phone, which brings an end to their 30-year marriage. So Hock chucks it all and disappears, not telling his family where he’s going. His destination is Africa, specifically Malawi, which is where he lived and worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s. That’s the set-up, but our Carolyn Kellogg writes that the book about escapist fantasies is less than it might seem.

More after the jump.

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On Sunday: John Irving, Elizabeth Gilbert's great-grandma in kitchen

John-irving-reviewJohn Irving’s 13th novel, “In One Person,” appears at an interesting time. On Tuesday, North Carolina voted to ban same-sex marriages and civil unions. On Wednesday, President Obama stated that he was in favor of same-sex marriage. The timing of Irving's release is as remarkable as the subject matter of his novel. “In One Person"  concerns the life of Billy, the bisexual narrator who tells the story of his life as a “sexual suspect.” Our critic David Ulin notes that it takes a lot of "guts" for "a mainstream novelist to embrace sexual politics in this culture.” His review leads our coverage in Sunday Arts & Books.

Carolyn Kellogg reviews Madeleine Albright’s “Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948,”  the former Secretary of State's memoir of growing up in Prague and learning, years later, that her family was Jewish and that many of her ancestors had perished in the Holocaust. Kellogg writes that “the stories of their fates form the emotional core of the book, but the threads are slim.” Albright tells the story of World War II from the Czech point of view, certainly a different tact from the standard U.S. or English-centric vision of the conflict.

Lynell George has roots in New Orleans, so reading her pieces on the Crescent City are always a pleasure. Her essay this week is on the Historic New Orleans Collection, an organization committed to preserving the region’s vibrant culture. To that end, it's  publishing “The Louisiana Artists Biography Series,” dedicated to telling the life stories of some of the great artists of the region. Its latest book, written by Ben Sandmel, is “Ernie K Doe: The R & B Emperor of New Orleans.”

Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love” was a runaway bestseller in 2006. Now, she reaches into her family’s history for “At Home on the Range,” a cookbook by her great-grandmother Margaret Yardley Potter that Gilbert has helped get back into print. Gilbert offers an introduction to the work, which had a single printing in 1947. Potter was a food columnist for a newspaper in Wilmington, Del., and Noelle Carter writes that this book is both “delightfully humorous and remarkably insightful.” 

More after the jump

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The Reading Life: Interviewing William Burroughs

Allenginsbergwilliamburroug

This is part of the occasional series "The Reading Life" by book critic David L. Ulin.

The latest issue of Sensitive Skin, a magazine "by and for ne'r-do-wells, black sheep, blackguards, scoundrels and wastrels," features a long interview with William S. Burroughs, conducted by his friend and running mate Allen Ginsberg in the early 1990s, when both men had achieved an uneasy status as elder statesmen of the underground.

Burroughs, who died in 1997 at the age of 83, was living at the time in Lawrence, Kan., where he settled in the 1980s; Ginsberg had come to participate in a sweat lodge ceremony to exorcise "the ugly spirit," a possessing force Burroughs felt had influenced, among other tragedies, the accidental shooting death of his common-law wife, Joan Vollmer, in Mexico City in 1951.

According to a note by editor B. Kold, the interview came to him in 1995 by way of Ginsberg himself; it was mislaid when Sensitive Skin went on a long hiatus, and subsequently rediscovered after the magazine was revived in 2010. It is accompanied by a suite of Ruby Ray photographs, originally shot for RE/Search, which ran a special Burroughs issue in 1981.

If all of this sounds like ancient history, that's true in its way, I suppose. But reading the interview, a couple of impressions linger. First is just how prescient both Burroughs and Ginsberg were, talking about politics and advertising as a virus, a decade before viral marketing. Even more, there's Burroughs' diffidence, his taciturnity, even around a lifelong friend. In fact, one of the secret joys of the interview is seeing how it unfolds: Ginsberg asking questions in long paragraphs, which Burroughs often answers in a word or two.

For anyone who ever spoke to Burroughs, this was the challenge. As Charles Platt recalls in Ted Morgan's Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs: "Burroughs turned out to be almost as difficult to talk to as I feared. He is polite and perfectly willing to tolerate my presence, but many of his remarks are dismissively brief, as if the questions bore him.... Typically, he makes a brief categorical statement, then stops and regards me with his pale eyes as if waiting to see if I really intend to ask any more dumb questions."

That was my experience also, when I visited Burroughs in Lawrence in April 1996.

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This Sunday: Figment, Charles Dickens, Etgar Keret and more

FigmentIt’s been a busy week around The Times' book department as we get ready for the Festival of Books in just two weeks (April 21 and 22) at USC. We’ve been planning coverage leading up to the festival and thinking about the great writers, editors and publishing figures coming to town to talk about our favorite subject: books. If you haven’t had time to check the lineup of outstanding panels, conversations and other presentations, please check it here.

   Meanwhile, a relatively new communication platform and a decidedly old one highlight our book coverage on Sunday. The new one is Figment, the social networking site primarily for teens, where budding writers can critique their work and the work of others. The site’s slogan is “Write Yourself In,” and in just 15 months, more than 200,000 young people have done so and more than 350,000 individual pieces have been posted. According to Jacob Lewis, a former managing editor at the New Yorker and Portfolio who is in charge of the site’s day-to-day operation, they add 1,000 new pieces a day.

"It’s essential that our users feel a sense of ownership," Lewis told Times book critic David Ulin, who writes about Figment’s rapid rise for this Sunday's Arts & Book section. Currently on Figment, according to Ulin, is a mix that includes the first chapter of Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” as well as Rachel Hawkins’ third “Hex Hall” novel, “Spell Bound.”  “You’re as likely to find a reference to Tom Waits or William S. Burroughs as to ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘The Hunger Games,' ” Ulin writes.  “Its success, then, simply reaffirms what readers everywhere have always known: that literature and reading aren’t going anywhere.” The site’s founders, Lewis and New Yorker writer Dana Goodyear, will be honored on April 20 at the L.A. Times Book Prizes with the Innovator’s Award. 

The decidedly old platform is letter-writing, and this Sunday we look at 450 examples of Charles Dickens' masterful epistolary prose that have been gathered for “The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens,” edited by Jenny Hartley. Our reviewer novelist Nicholas Delbanco notes that “By the time he died, at 58, he was world-famous and besieged with mail; he answered correspondence promptly and received by his own attestation 'three or four score letters every day.' ”  That’s a lot of mail to keep up with. No wonder he died at 58. Think not? Try sitting down and writing a letter — snail mail, that is — to your Aunt Bruce in Cincinnati.  One of our favorite examples from Dickens, which Delbanco notes with pleasure, is this snippet he wrote, when 21, to Maria Beadnell, who had rejected his advances: “I have often said before and I say again I have borne more from you than I do believe any creature breathing ever bore from a woman before.”

More after the jump

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This Sunday: Innovation at Bell Labs, James Brown and Jack's juvenilia

Bell-labs
More than half a century ago, long before Apple was a glint in anyone’s eye, the reigning champion of innovation in American business was Bell Labs, an arm of the original AT&T. Its staff of youthful scientists and engineers were assigned, notes our business columnist Michael Hiltzik in this Sunday's Arts & Books section, “to go where their intellects took them, not especially concerned about serving the corporate bottom line, picking up cartloads of Nobel Prizes along the way.” Much of this image, Hiltzik writes in his review of Jon Gertner's “The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation,” was more of a public relations invention than a reality. “The Idea Factory” explores this and more, Hiltzik says (though not without some issues).

James Brown had issues too, but, oh my, could he sing. He was, as staff writer Steve Zeitchik notes in his review of “The One: The Life and Music of James Brown,” “demanding, egotistical and prone to pulling a gun on those who disagreed with him.” All that aside, Brown’s biographer, R.J. Smith, offers a complete look at the singer’s life and concludes that he was a key social figure whose life intersected with significant racial trends.

Filed under the loose category of “lost” novels, Jack Kerouac’s early work “The Sea Is My Brother” is finally being published in its entirety, by Da Capo Press. It is, reports Times Book Critic David L. Ulin, not “entirely unreadable.” And while that may be faint praise, it does offer an interesting departure point for Ulin’s thoughtful larger question: “How did such a mannered young writer, self-indulgent and often woefully pretentious, become the purveyor of his own uniquely American idiom, jazz-infected, improvisational, a spontaneous bop prosody?” Ulin explores that issue and reflects on the scope of Kerouac’s early work, his “juvenilia,” on Sunday.  

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This Sunday: John Leonard, AIDS and Carl Hiaasen, too

John-leonard
He was once the literary editor of the Nation and editor of the New York Times Book Review, but John Leonard was perhaps the most important literary critic in the last half of the 20th century. Our book critic David L. Ulin examines Leonard’s collected work “Reading for My Life: Writings, 1958-2008” and finds that Leonard articulated “a worldview through his criticism, to refract his reading through a wider lens.” Ulin also notes that Leonard was “widely credited with bringing such writers as Toni Morrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Maxine Hong Kingston to the attention of an American readership…”

Ulin also describes his passionate commitment to writing in a passage in which Leonard describes the death threat, the fatwa, against Salman Rushdie. “It has been a disgraceful week. A maniac puts out a $5.2-million contract on one of the best writers in the English language, and how does the civilized world respond? France and Germany won’t publish 'The Satanic Verses'; Canada won’t sell it … and a brave new philistinism struts its stuff all over Mediapolis USA, telling us that Rushdie’s unreadable anyway.”

Strong stuff from a firm believer in a writer’s right to write. Ulin’s review leads our coverage in Sunday Arts & Books.

About 180 degrees away from Leonard’s work is the latest young-adult offering from Carl Hiaasen. The title is “Chomp” and the story is a sendup of reality television. In this story's case, the show is “Expedition Survival,” and its star is Derek Badger, a former Irish folk dancer, who can swallow a live salamander without actually vomiting. And while he may not throw up, he has other attributes that are a bit troublesome in a reality setting populated by cumbersome critters. He’s a klutz. And that’s how the story develops. Carpenter calls this “delightful” and “laugh out-loud” funny.

Also this week, Thomas H. Maugh, a former staffer who made science and medicine issues easily understandable for decades, turns his hand to  “Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It,” a history of the pandemic by journalist Craig Timberg and Daniel Halperin, a medical anthropologist and epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health’s AIDS Prevention Research Project. Repeated analyses have shown, the authors argue, that AIDS became epidemic only in regions where the number of each person’s sexual activity was high. The authors' views on controlling the spread of the disease suggest that “the best solution is a change in sexual mores.” They cite the example of Uganda, where the biggest inroads against the disease were made in the 1980s and 1990s. Leaders in that country used a potent weapon: fear.

 “Thinking the Twentieth Century” is a fearless exploration of ideas from a great public intellectual, Tony Judt, while he lay dying of Amytrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease). This is Judt’s swan song, and he's joined by Timothy Snyder, a Yale history professor. Our reviewer, Martin Rubin, writes that Judt’s focus is on Europe and takes the reader “on a wild ride through the ideological currents and shoals of 20th century thought.”

More after the jump

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