Monday, September 30, 2013

"Venice: History of the Floating City," by Joanne Ferraro

“Venice: History of the Floating City” is strictly an academic affair.

Author Joanne Ferraros's enthusiasm shines through and she feels the poetry of Venice, cites it often, but doesn't quite conjure it in this work.

Read together with a novel about Venice, let's say, Gabriele D'Annunzio's “Flame of Life,” this book would help put things in high relief: make clear where the fabulous fabric hailed from, valuate the rank of a fading Countess's family, explain why the shipyard is an important place.

Someone with a basic of knowledge of Venice will find their stores greatly increased after finishing this work, which does a top-to-bottom examination of the city's political and social structures. It covers Venice's rise through war, trade, and Mediterranean colonialism. It restores the profiles of novel thinkers, forgotten by time, to their rightful place in the history of the floating city.

Without knowing much about Venice-related scholarship (the author shares the perspectives of others with her readers) this book may be breaking new ground by putting in historical perspective the contributions and tribulations of women (they were many) during the rise and plateauing of Venetian might.

Similarly, we get a glimpse of what life was like for the poor, the unmarried and others who didn't fit a rather strict of behavior determined by a group of wealthy folks on high.

Which is to say the rich and powerful, as always, have their story told, but the contributions or aspirations of the weak or marginal are given air time, too.

Not to say this book is some Marxist tract. The author enjoys and revels in the commerce the once-great city-state engaged the world through and provides a comprehensive account of how Venice raked in treasure and how it was spent.

“Venice,” will not grip you. The “story” of the city is subject to the business of correctly ordered facts, and necessities that don't always thrill, but ensure the record accurate. It is worth the effort to take a chapter-by-chapter approach and marvel at the beauty of things past Ferraro has curated, and at the horrors, too.

"Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" by Ben Fountain

Back when the world of book publishing was focused around a few areas of Manhattan Island, "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Back when the world of book publishing was focused around a few areas of Manhattan Island, "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk" (BLLHW) would have been considered a mordant and witty satire on American culture and politics.

But today, with factions of the country hording their own myths as facts, BLLHW is better understood as a kind of blue-state analysis of red state life, written by a blue-state-red stater, also known as a liberal southerner.

This book takes place in the early 2000s, around the time an obscure Illinois state legislator told the 2004 Democratic Party Convention, "There are no red states. There are no blue states. There are only the United States."

President Obama probably doesn't think that anymore, and if Ben Fountain's entertaining novel was available, instead of merely being written at the time, he might not have said those things.

"Billy Lynn," juxtaposes the deadly serious concerns, thoughts, and fears of Bravo Company's legitimate Iraq war heroes with the predatory motivations of Hollywood (they want to make a movie of the yunguns exploits), and the silliness and excess of the culture around the Dallas Cowboys football club.

The setting is mostly the old stadium the "Boys" played in for 30-plus years. It's where Bravo Company is to be feted at half-time for battlefield heroics witnessed by the entire country thanks to the extended reach of modern telecommunications.

And thanks to the longevity of Beyonce Knowles's career, her turn as star during that half-time in BLLHW was matched at the 2013 Super Bowl, keeping Fountain's novel relevant and hip despite the passage of time and further degeneration of national discourse.

The author has great fun making great fun of conservative Texans, Cowboy fans, and overpaid, overfed football players sacrificing nothing but a lot of hot air for a war the Bravo boys feel they are fighting on their own.

Texas is the place, but the extrapolation to the farthest regions of our country is easy because BLLHW has little patience for yahoo-jingoism, conspicuous consumption of the vulgar kind, and the disconnect Fountain proposes exists between the lifestyles of most Americans and everybody outside the bubble dome isolating them.

BLLHW goes down easy as fast food, but its nutritional value is without question.

"Wilson" by A. Scott Berg

This book should be entitled, "Everything You've Ever Wanted to Know About Woodrow Wilson"*

Author A. Scott Berg leaves no stone unturned in the voluminous work covering the entire life of the former president. You'll know what the New Jersey legislature was up to behind closed doors when the hero was governor of that state, and you'll learn that Wilson had two biscuits and earl gray tea before singing George M. Cohan tunes to his daughters in the sitting room.

This is one of those big books where the author reaches back into history and dusts off a worthy figure fallen into something of a national forgetfulness.

Wilson brought you the Federal Reserve Bank, progressive taxation, the precursor to the United Nations, the state of the union speech before both houses of Congress, Princeton University, college football, American political science and so on and and so on.

Our modern polity, if this account is correct, has been much shaped by the guiding hand of Wilson. He comes across as a kind of second-wave founding father, acting most selflessly for the good of the Republic, skillfully assuring the country takes the medicine Good Doctor Woodrow has prescribed.

Berg's detailed portrait is of a person whose intellectual capabilities and moral rectitude really put him heads above the American men of his time. There's no point saying anything more about this remarkable fellow if you consider what Mr. Berg has in store for those who choose to read "Wilson."

What can be said is that, for all its historical accuracy and research bona fides, the author tells Wilson's life as a story.

And though some sections will command a greater degree of patience and attention than normal, readers can still follow an engaging narrative about a Herculean man brought skillfully to life, with a strong background of the times surrounding.

(*But didn't even know you were supposed to ask.)

"La Regenta," por Leopoldo Alas "Clarin"

Basta decir que "La Regenta" es mucho "La Regenta."

Cuando se trata de cosa tan clasica como puede ser éste obra monumental de Leopoldo Alas, "Clarín," poco sentido tiene el declararlo "bueno" o "malo." Mas seguro es alistarse con los en "pro," que tampoco cuesta tanto con un libro de valor tan indiscutible.

Mejor escarbar unas cuantas palabras acerca de cómo "Clarín" hacia su trabajo y de que va este enorme esfuerzo.

La historia se trata de una lucha entre dos hombres, rivales sociales, y enemigos espirituales, para seducir a una bellísima casada, Ana Ozores. Como está casada con hombre que fue "Regente" sobre la pequeña ciudad bajo escrutinio, Vetusta (que dicen que se trata de Oviedo), todo el pueblo la hayan puesto el mote de "La Regenta" y asi un señal del modernísmo utilizado por el autor, de su íntima relación con lo que se califica como lenguaje (y mentalidad) de la calle.

"La Regenta," como libro, es una ópera epica, con un ejercito to personajes que representan lo mas barriobajero hasta las alcurnias mas altas. Lo peor de Clarin is su técnica de introducir los personajes todo de entrada, de sopetón, lo cual requiere del lector que se vuelve atrás para confirmar de quien esta hablando y como son.

Esto hace la lectura mas difícil, y menos placentera que una obra donde los temas y personajes estan mejor tejidos.

Através de su menáge a trois, el libro es todo un comentario sobre los vaivienes de una sociedad cerrada y católica a fines del Siglo decimonico. Obviamente, La Regenta, casada como es con un viejo de la alta sociedad, no puede consumar la relación sexual que le brinda el seductor, Don Alvaro Mesías.

El Provisor de la catedral, prominente miembro del clero, tampoco puede ser honesto consigo, ni con los demás, sobre su deseo de pelar la bella confesante. En estos conflictos, y los de carácteres menores, se investíga de pies a la cabeza la iglesia católica Española, la socieded que rige, la política progresísta, y la mente proletario de la epoca.

Tampoco son del todo tejidos estas discusiónes del antiguo periodista Alas, pero cuenta con suficiente talento e ideas para enganchar un lector dispuesto a "estudiar" su obra mas que simplement leerlo.

Se siente este libro-de-sexo-casi-sin-sexo como se lo ha vivído el sexo en España durante siglos.
Lento, sugeriente, descriptívo, espíritual, "La Regenta" calienta al lector baron y viríl hasta dejarle con ganas de saltar la página y cumplir lo que Mesías y El Provisor tarden tanto en iniciar.

Guiado por las mismas reglas que la sociedad retratada, Clarín no se nos pega con gran sorpresa al fín de su tragedia, pero aún asi queda sorprendente la resolución aquí en oferta.

"Gascoyne" by Stanley Crawford

Instead of putting his anti-hero Gascoyne behind the wheel of a "Kaiser," author Stanley Crawford might have made a clearer statement by opting for a "Rambler" instead.

For ramble indeed is what the author's main character and first-person narrator does for 245 pages of "Gascoyne."

This is an elder scoundrel who pulls the strings via corruption in a metropolis hard to place on the map until the very end when we learn Gascoyne is leaving town for the desert. It's black comedy and Gascoyne is hard to root for, even when today's television fare can hook you into siding with Tony Soprano ("The Sopranos"), Don Draper ("Mad Men") or Walter White ("Breaking Bad").

The set-up is simple enough. Gascoyne gets into an old car and begins tooling around the unnamed burg under his tutelage, only to stumble into an apparent murder at the palatial home of a rival/business associate.

This triggers a long series of cruises, with a few different cars, throughout the city, which is bucking Gascoyne's crooked authority even as he shambles around trying to solve the mystery murder. Are we sad? Perhaps. Gascoyne is hardly likeable, but the people out to uproot him appear even worse.

The presentation is slapstick. You follow the effusive narrator from one outrageous and impossible situation to another. You may find the give-and-take funny, you might not.

Here's a bit this reviewer liked:

"He sees me and says, 'All right drop your gun GASCOYNE.'

Which is really my line he's stealing..."

And here's a passage that will give you the tone of the work while summarizing the essence of Gascoyne, The Man:

"I zip under the Turnpike Tollroad underpass but of course I'm not going to take the tollroad because I absolutely refuse to pay another cent to officials I'm subsidizing in other ways, so I keep on Clyde Hopkins Bird Sanctuary Road which angles back toward the center of town."

The author is, throughout, obviously unabashed and out to push buttons, but there's a lot that happens in "Gascoyne" that doesn't add to anything more than its length and somebody might have stepped in and shortened the old man's day for the good of the story.

It seems that neither plot nor cast of characters are developed enough to hold up the long and repetitive descriptions of mayhem or rudeness that are the book's stock and trade.

"Gascoyne" is a triumph of language over structure, a painting done with words rather than an analysis that marries them to thought or insight. Your liking or not liking it are tied mostly to whether you find what the protagonist has to say darkly mordant, or extended flight of fancy.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

"The Noir Forties," by Richard Lingeman

"The Noir Forties" promises less than it delivers.

By his own admission, author Richard Lingeman was counseled to shorten his manuscript, but you may find he did not achieve good enough a pruning.

Or, sometimes less is more. The author has an engaging idea about the collective American mind in the years immediately after World War II. Lingeman's proposal is to draw lines linking the particulars of that mind-state and what it projected onto movie screens in late 1940s America.

In films like "D.O.A.", "Double-Indemnity" "Blue Dahlia," and others, the writer says, "The war's psychological shocks reverberated through the popular culture, most prominently in the films noir that proliferated in the late '40s...."

Lingeman notes that strikes, a desperate rush for security, continued wartime rationing, the readjustment pains of 14 million veterans, were all moods that, "merged into a vague sense of gloom and pessimism, the reverse image of traditional American optimism and faith in the future. It tempered the victory dreams of postwar abundance, which seemed ephemeral to a generation scarred by the Depression."

In the book's best moments, the author weaves policy and news both big and small with films noir that serve as literary and cinematic parallels. The fun thing to do is watch the movies as he brings them up for discussion.

Having developed the idea a bit further, perhaps examined a few more films and drawn a more developed argument to completion, Lingeman might have had a sweet, pocket-sized seller that was attractive to a cross section of film fans/students and American politico/cultural buffs.

But it's his book and his call, and the author decided upon a path that winds into the "rouge" fifties of anti-communist propaganda films, the Korean War, and McCarthyism.

Mr. Lingeman served in the Korean War and a lot of what he presents in "Noir" is clearly of personal import to him.

A writer with "The Nation," his progressive analysis of President Franklin Roosevelt's absent vision for a post-war world, Harry Truman's capitulation to the country's most rancid and conservative forces, and the Red Scare, are all fine and good, especially if you have never delved into such topics in the kind of detail a knowledgeable journalist and political writer would.

Just know that's what your buying, that the focus on film fades (though is not completely abandoned), as the book goes on, replaced in its stead by something closer to a harrowing account of the shabby treatment endured by liberals, veterans, unions, and responsible scientists during what was, for many including the author, a kind of dark age.