Orion Reads
a diary of books etc.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Hunger Season

I was once in the process of trying to get a date from a cute bartender i know, and things were going pretty well until she suddenly asked me if i like poetry, which, by and large, i don't. Fortunately however, she turned out to be referring specifically to a man who happens to be both a friend and by far my favorite poet, William Taylor Jr. Bill's second "proper" book of poems just came out, and it's hopeless, hopeful, painful, and beautiful as heck. The Hunger Season is mostly poems about the secret subsocietal world of San Francisco's Tenderloin district, a literary topic i admittedly find enormously compelling. The Hunger Season is also mostly poems about love, relationships, and beauty. I hope Bill won't mind if i quote two of the ones which affect me most powerfully.

along the way

we forget
to be beautiful

and this is where
all other deaths

Her Face, the Sometimes Gentleness

Let's not speak of hope;
whatever it is that gets you
through the day will
have to do for now.

Embrace the hours as best you can;
your failures

and the evil you've done drift out
with the eventual tide

and the void forgives all in time.

Think of her face,
the sometimes gentleness of things;

make the feeling concrete in your mind:
hold it in your fist
tight against your breast

and if you want, you can
call it love.

and i apologize for so much quoting,
but just one more which for me captures so much of what i love about Bill's writing as well as William Vollmann's.

When She Lights a Cigarette and Asks

God is yourself
walking out into yet
another day never knowing
exactly why.

God is the yellow sun
shining down
so uselessly upon everything

because that's all it knows how to do.

God is the laughter
of the girl on the bus
beautiful enough to remind you
why you ever bothered
to exist at all.

God is a story you can't guess
the ending to,

enough change in your pocket
for another drink,

the bright red polish
on the barefoot toe
of the skinny prostitute on Larkin Street.

God is the voice of the old bartender
at the Gold Dust Saloon
as he laughs and tells me he's looking forward
to the beautiful nap.

God is a half-bottle of wine
found in the cupboard at 3 a.m.,

the man
with a handful of pennies
who asks
what I can spare,

and the laundry quarters
I give him simply
because I am too ashamed
to do otherwise.

God is every splinter of light
in between all the darkness

and god is the darkness.

And when she lights a cigarette
and asks why i never
go to church

I can only wonder where it is
she thinks we are.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Angela Carter

I was at Borderlands in SF, asking if they had any Ligotti, and the guy asked if i'd read any Angela Carter, and i could tell by his shocked expression when i answered "No" that this was someone i should probably check out. So i got Burning Your Boats, the collected short stories. Bear with me: most of the stories in the book are re-tellings (or re-imaginings) of classic fairy-tales, with hyper-sexual and strong feminist themes added in addition to ordinary adulting-it-up. But here's the nutty part! They're really good! I think Janina put it best as "don't think of them as feminist re-imagined fairy tales, just think of them as stories", and it's true. I have to admit that i skipped one or two of the stories because they were too floaty or abstract for me. Also i don't quite understand the fascination Lizzie Borden holds over some writers. I think my favorite story is probably The Bloody Chamber, in which a young poor girl is married to an enormously wealthy marquis and goes to live with him in his remote castle on the French coastline. It develops that he has killed his previous three wives in grotesque manners, and that the ruby choker he insists our heroine wear presages her decapitation. However, a young blind piano-tuner becomes her lover and delays the fatal incident by just enough time for our heroine's mother to literally gallop to the scene and shoot the marquis dead using her dead husband's old service revolver. The girl and the piano tuner marry, give all the wealth to charity, and with the mother turn the castle into a school for the blind. - What i like about this story is the partnering of extremely adult writing (murder, sex, etc) with an outrageously saccharine plot.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Omnivore's Dilemma, the

Mykle and i were traveling in China. I'd brought Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh, and The Rainbow Stories by Bill Vollmann. Mykle had The Omnivore's Dilemma, and one other rather thick book that is seventh and final in a very well-known series. By the end of the trip we'd both cleared our list, and Mykle went to the shop to get something for the ride home, and i snagged Omnivore's Dilemma.
I'm not going to summarize OD, because i think everyone knows that it's a justified diatribe against the monoculture of Corn in industrial agriculture and the concomitant non-sustainability & general crappiness of that industry.
I am, however going to join what is probably a pretty large camp and criticize Michael Pollan for a certain glaring blind-spot in his criticism of the non-sustainability of industrial agriculture. And this is that his entire exploration has an unstated focus: How do we achieve sustainable farming methods for the production of meat ? ie, it's specifically farming which results in steak on the table that he's interested in, and clearly illustrates how many problems that generates, yet never broaches the topic of perhaps eating way, way less meat. He even has an entire chapter titled "the ethics of eating animals", which presents and discusses several 'ethical' issues around human carnivorism, but never once raises what in my mind is the primary ethical issue here: environmental responsibility.
I am also going to rage against his rhetorical and prose styles. They are god-awful. Here are a few sentences which each begin not merely paragraphs, but entire sub-chapters: "To contemplate such questions from the vantage of a farm .." "Part of me did not want to go." Or here, the first sentence in chapter 20, "The Perfect Meal": "Perfect?! A dangerous boast, you must be thinking." These of course are stylistic quibbles, but i read for prose style at least as much as content. Pollan's rhetoric is similarly sloppy. One technique he uses frequently is to introduce us to a slogan of some sort and then repeat that slogan over and over, until a chapter and a half later it's been transformed from slogan to actual fact. A particular case of this is the phrase "you can't change just one thing [in a farming ecosystem]", meaning that if you raise chickens and cows, you can't just add more chickens and expect there to be no effect on the cows. This is certainly good advice, and very likely true. It's not the truth or utility of this particular slogan which i'm against, but rather the fact that it's introduced as a slogan and leaves as a rhetorical argument. I was also pretty disappointed by Pollan's presentation (if not his understanding) of natural selection. The book is rife with personification of nature and even specifically of natural selection, constantly using phrases such as ".. helped them to displace the native plants and animals allied with the Indian" - huh ? plants allied with Indians ? Or: ".. in fact it makes just as much sense to regard agriculture as a brilliant (if unconscious) evolutionary strategy on the part of the plants and animals involved to get us to advance their interests." - there's so much wrong with that sentence from a scientific point of view that it's difficult to know where to begin.

Anyhow. So, in summary, i think it's a good book which certainly presents a lot of interesting information (except in the chapters about hunting and mushroom gathering - that's interesting, but not very) but it's horribly written and has some serious rhetorical blind-spots.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Vollmann - The Rainbow Stories

The thematic breadth of William Vollmann is simply stunning. I first read The Royal Family (about which i wrote far too little. the exegesis on the corruption and screwed-up-ness of the penal bail system alone is fantastic), which is a novel set in SF relating the downfall of a private investigator in love with a rich and suicidal Korean woman while at the same time falling in love and chattledom with a nearly-mythical prostitute/pimp in the streets of the Tenderloin. Then there's his most recent work, Europe Central, an incredibly erudite work about various aspects of the USSR and Germany during the years anteceding and following WWII. It manages to portray large portions of the war through the lens of classical music! (the main character is Dmitri Shostakovich) The entire thing is meticulously researched, with footnotes and sources for each historical reference. It's also about a zillion pages.
So, my experience has been that Vollmann is often a bit difficult to approach, but has always been rewarding, and so i had confidence when i picked up one of his earlier works, The Rainbow Stories out at the Friends of the Library Shop at Fort Mason. Written in the late 1980s, The Rainbow Stories is a collection of short writings mostly about various marginal groups or scenes in San Francisco during the 80s.
The story which asks the most of the reader is "The White Knights", where Vollmann actually became (or simply was?) friends with a gang of white-supremacist skinheads named "The SF Nazi Skinz". I believe this is them on the cover of the book, sig-heiling away, skateboards in tow. Vollmann basically hung out with them and asked about their various life stories, and did an admirable job of writing them down without too much editorializing or judgement. He follows a few of them in particular, getting the story of how they became a skinhead, some stories of their life now, and the seemingly inevitable dissolution to jail or death. Clearly these people lived sad, horribly fucked-up lives of misery and viciousness. But Vollmann's take seems to be something like "we all choose our fucked-up-ness in this world. the skinheads have chosen violence and squalor, while the commuters on the bus have chosen to live without souls and work for the man". - or something.
The skinhead story becomes truly amazing when held against the next one, in which Vollmann during this same period was also becoming a friend (and client) of the SF prostitutes, most of whom are distinctly not white. He describes what it's like to smell the hair of one particular black girl, whom he knows the skinheads personally hate and often talk about beating up. He asks the girl, "what do you think of those skinheads?" and she replies "i don't like 'em. no, i don't." In a later story, Vollmann has a korean girlfriend, and the girlfriend is throwing him a birthday party, and it's mostly her middle-class korean friends over, and Vollmann also invites two bootwomen from the Skinz (apparently female skinheads are "bootwomen") to the party, and then the girlfriend's wallet goes missing.
Along the way, there is a rather overly long and bookish dramatization of the bible story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, a story about a leader of Thugs on Thuggee and his supernatural servant (the devil), an interview with a man who blew up an occupied department store in ireland, a typically personal and human exploration of the homeless of golden gate park and a fictional-but-possible story of a murderer preying on them (based on real events), and finally a portrait of our much-beloved Survival Research Labs. (makers of large destructive robots which fight each other in imitation of human sexuality, and pretty much the genesis of the much tamer robot-wars industry we have today)

Basically, he wears a lot of hats, most of which are hats i would have a lot of difficult wearing, and many of which are hats i wouldn't even want to be in the same room with, and it's well-written and amazing.