Sunday, February 25, 2007

3 More Books

Just finished No Friends But the Mountains: The Tragic History of the Kurds
by John Bulloch and Harvey Morris. Emphasis on the "Tragic." Good book to read though. Not as well written as the material demands but as background for what's happening in Iraq now, an important book.
On the CBC-AM radio show Writers and Company, I learned that the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinki had died, and heard several interviews with him. I had read short selections of his journalism in magazines over the years but not his books. Luckily my North Van library had Imperium and Shah of Shahs. Both are very well written. Shah is about the downfall of Iran's last monarch, and goes a long way to explaining how and why he was evicted from his throne. A good couple of books to read along with Shah are Marjane Satrapi's 2 volume graphic novel of growing up during the Iranian Revolution called Persepolis 1 + 2. Here in North Van, Persians have flooded in, making this a kind of Little Tehran. Always good news for a foodie like me, but Shah offers perhaps more insight than a foodie would care for about why so many Iranians left their country and settled here to open these restaurants. A visit to a Kurdish restaurant near our hotel at the Gare de Lyon in Paris 4 years ago kept swimming up in memory as I read the Kurdish history. Even more historical memory/allusion is summoned in Ryszard's trek around the imploding Soviet empire. My mother's parents are from Ukraine. Happily they escaped before Stalin came to power and starved 10 million of their friends and relatives to death, as is described in this book. My father's father was from St.Petersburg. All that borscht in my family history. Ryszard buys into the myth that Russia is a "special" country, different from others. Of course, the same could be said of all countries. My decades in Japan (as well as in or next door to the US) have made me more more than a little tired of the idea that some countries are more special than others. But he does know Imperial Russia better than most non-Russians. His description of how to avoid the police in various Russian republics by posing as someone from a different part of the Imperium, speaking Russian with a Latvian accent for example to get out of sticky situations, is not the sort of reporting I'd get from a Russian reporter, much less someone lacking Ryszard's linguistic gifts.
What is enjoyable in Ryszard's writing is in how much time he spends giving you the background of what he's reporting, including wonderful interviews, not with the usual suspects at the top of the pyramids but the oppressed workers doing all the heavy lifting to keep those Pharaohs in their imaginary heavens. The Kurdish book could have used his writerly skills. Now that he's dead, where will be find another writer as good?
"Samarkand is inspired, abstract, lofty, and beautiful; it is a city of concentration and reflection; it is a musical note and a painting; it is turned towards the stars. Erkin told me that one must look at Samarkand on a moonlit night, during a full moon. The ground remains dark; the walls and the towers catch all the light; the city starts to shimmer, then it floats upward, like a lantern."
Imperium. p.77

Sunday, February 11, 2007

3 Books

A friend of mine leant me Dave Eggars' memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius a few weeks ago. I had tried to read the book when Steph brought it on our trip to Japan at the end of 03. So I made another attempt to read this book. Both attempts unsuccessfull. Eggars never really captured my interest, in his writing or what he's writing about. Maybe it would have worked better as a magazine article.
Speaking of magazines, I found Freakonomics: a rogue enonomist explores the hidden side of everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner at the North Van library. My friend Stephen Huddart had reccommended it and I'd read quotes or references to it over the past couple of years. Another strangely magazine-like book. Levitt hardly has insight on everything. His insights are dribbled out, surprisingly few in this book. His discovery that legalized abortion in the States is responsible for falling crime rates is indeed interesting but I wonder if the same statistics from other abortion-liberalizing societies shows the same result. His last chapter, blaming parents for giving their kids "weird" names and thus guaranteeing they'll have a harder time in life than kids with "normal" names, is something I'm seeing refuted as I type. On TV, Kobe Bryant is playing against Cleveland in an NBA game. The NBA is full of players with names the announcers struggle to pronounce, but I see that as a good thing, showing how basketball is globally popular and not dependent on the US for all its good players. Can we blame Kobe's parents for naming him after a beef dish they were fond of? His name doesnt seem to be doing him any harm. As the owner of a "weird" name myself, I've found there are 10 strangers who, when they hear my name, express liking for it, as if wishing it were their name, for every person who criticizes it.
The one chapter I particularly enjoyed is called The Ku Klux Klan and Real-Estate Agents. The story of how one man, Stetson Kennedy, infliltrated the Klan in Atlanta, and gave away its secrets to the Dick Tracy radio show, which made a laughing stock of the Klan for kids of America, is an inspirational tale. Almost Firesonian (power or radio, power of humour).
But the insights Levitt offers are few. It's not as if he's teaching us how to discover the truth buried in statistics. Imagine if Al Gore promised us all the secret to stopping Global Warming if we each send him $19.95.
Along with Freakonomics, I picked up Prime Green: remembering the sixties by Robert Stone. I had read his novel A Flag for Sunrise many years ago and enjoyed it. Before I could open the book, the latest issue of The New York Review of Books appeared in my mail box, with a critical review of Prime. The reviewer was disspointed that Prime has so little about religion (apparently a major preoccupation in Stone's novels) and so much about drugs. Well, it is a book about the 60s, and Stone hung out with some of the most stoned people of his era. His insights into his friends Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady are of particular interest to me as I wrote a radio play about Neal.
Stone's description of tripping with the Merry Pranksters at the NY World's Fair in 64 is also of interest as I attended that fair. Unfortunately, Stone calls it the last real world's fair. Nonsense! 3 years later, I attended Expo 67 in Montreal, which was a Very Big Thing in Canada that year, and the best of the 5 worlds fairs I've attended.
Throughout the book, I kept finding paragraphs that I'd like to underline, but it's a library book so I can't. That's the sign of a good book. I'm pretty sure I read the story of Kesey in Mexico that Stone writes in some magazine. But unlike the other two books, Prime is more than a good collection of magazine articles. It made me want to read Stone's other novels. And unlike Kesey, Stone isn't dead, so perhaps there'll be more to come. Whether it's a familiar place Stone is describing, like the NY World's Fair or Shakespeare &. Co. in Paris, or an unfamiliar place like New Orleans or Antarctica, Stone's descriptions are so vivid it's like being in those places, without all that expensive air fare.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Ronald Reagan Murder Case

First of all, David Ossman is a great poet. I've heard a lot of poets whose work will still be read in centuries to come read their work, but Ossman's reading of his poem of fellow Firesign Peter Bergman in Turkey, called 12 Suppositions, is as good as a poem can get. Ossman has several volumes of poetry out, but to hear/see him perform these wonders, get a copy of the videotape An Autobozographical Evening, Ossman reading in Grand Rapids in 1986. The show ends with a poem Ossman wrote about the day in the place he was born, Santa Monica 1936 is even better than 12 Suppositions. It blends Ossman's obsession with Raymond Chandler and the Hollywood of his youth with amazing invocations of his parents, as real as anyone ever invoked. Ossman's first novel finds his alter ego Tirebiter in Santa Monica. It's 1945. The Axis are falling and Tirebiter's star is rising. At a party, George and his pal Ronnie Reagan discoverer a dead double of the Great Communicator, drowned in a duck suit. The duck images at the end of the Firesign album We're All Bozos on This Bus, and the evoked Hollywood of his youth. This is gonna be good. The photos in the book add a mysterious allure as well. Who are these people? Who's Peggy?
There are actual quotes from Firesign albums. Many moments of humour, though not as many as one would expect from the author of the vast treasury of humour that is the Firesign work.
Ossman is particularly skilled at evoking the placeness of LA. I came to know the Toluca Lake area where Tirebiter's self named character lives a decade after the story is set, when the valley was still filled with orange groves. His characters eat at Dupars on Ventura, a favourite of my childhood. His visit to the great Pickwick Bookstore on Hollywood evokes warm memories.
The plot, unfortunately, wanders around. Most disappointingly, the Ronald Reagan angle never gets the sort of development you'd expect from Ronnie's place in the title. The movie The Cat's Meow, about Hearst's killing an opponent on his boat, seems to have been looted for much plot in this novel. I haven't read Raymond Chandler in 30 years or so, and don't care for the mystery genre outside of Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allen Poe so I'm not the best audience for Tirebiter Mysterys. One mystery to me is how different Tirebiter's voice is from Ossman's. Ossman's solo album How Time Flys is one of the most pleasurable things you can do to your ears. It's dedicated to Ray Bradbury, who makes an appearance in the novel. That was neat. But the magesty of How Time Flys is absent in the printed work. I think Ossman's genius as a writer is when what he writes is spoken, by himself or others. I can summon Ossman/Tirebiter's voice in my head while reading George's voice telling the tale. The other characters, I can't do that, except the other Ossman characters Ben Bland, and, nastier than in the radio tales, Max Morgan, Crime Cabbie. What the women would sound like, I haven't an audio clue.
There isn't much in the way of character development in any of the Firesign plays, with the possible exception of the Tirebiter meta-character, interacting with himself in and out of chronology. In performance, the Firesign frequently offer slices of their older work with a topical update or perhaps an extended venture in a direction from what we knew and loved long ago. Times change more than characters, up until the last Firesign album Bride of Firesign.
One of the first things we learned about George from the Dwarf album he dominated was that his ex-wife was trying to kill him. Seeing George and Lillie in happier days having cocktails with their Hollywood pals, I felt a dread, the echo of sadness from the future because I knew their happiness was doomed- just from that first learning of their marital end in Dwarf. Lillie's conversion by her guru in Santa Monica or contributing to George's being blacklisted is never shown in this work. Too much George, not enough depth to those he interacts with. Tirebiter wants to say something clever when the reader would benefit from more information. Yet the book is almost devoid of poetry. It's very good on geography, and if you know the area as well as I did 40 years ago, that's fun to read. The book wants to be a page turner. There is danger aplenty, but no Nick. I guess Ossman decided he wanted to attract the mystery readers, however many they may be. I'd like to hear from someone who knows nothing of Ossman's or the Firesign's audio work, only the book. Yet people who know David's name from his relative fame with Firesign would be his most likely audience.
As I was reading this novel, I kept thinking of another Firesign's work. Phil Austin is as besotted with Raymond Chandler as Ossman, yet his Tales of the Old Detective Audio Book is far more poetic, funnier, even Chandleresque than the Reagan mystery. I would have expected the opposite. But then Austin remained in the audio realm. With no production, just him reading and a tiny bit of music, Old Detective resonates in your brain long after you listen to it. It's also most eloquent about death. People's deaths in the Reagan mystery are cartoon like, from the drowned Reagan on. And unfortunately, the surrealism, which lights all the Firesign work brighter than Tesla's most incendiary dreams, departs after dead Dutch in duck. The word is Un-learned. Ignorance swallows Grouchos' moustache. Dali throws away his paints and takes up plumbing.
"I like things which demand that you use more than one part of your brain at a time," says Ossman in Autobozographical Evening. To listen to any of Ossman's work is to get that intense intellectual work out. You can feel your brain expanding. New universes aborning. Spinache speeding to Pop Eye's muscles. Light putting on its sneakers.
To read The Ronald Reagan Murder Case, A George Tirebiter Mystery is to pick up a thin paperback. An entertainment.

Wild Ginger

Steph called and wanted to take us out to dinner downtown. I knew that Wild Ginger wasn't far from her new place and had long wanted to go there, so that's where we went. I had noticed Wild Ginger when attending flicks at a strangely empty mall called Tinseltown near Chinatown. The restaurant billed itself as Chinese fusion, which seemed like something worth checking out. Friends who'd eaten there were impressed. The menu seemed heavy on Korean as well as Chinese dishes, many with playful names. Above, Fumiyo feasts on Eggplanet, an eggplant and ground pork dish that she makes, only far bettter.
Steph had a mild chicken curry, which she enjoyed.
I foolishly ordered two things. The tuna in a sweet sauce with tofu was outstanding. The scallops with mayonaise and corn would have been a lot better without the corn. The celery stalks make an interesting image more than a delicious meal. After stuffing ourselves with rather mediocre food, I ordered a pot of rose tea which we all enjoyed. The first time I've ever had this tea. Normally I like weak tea, but this actually improved as it got stronger.
I'd go back to Wild Ginger for the tea, but probably not the food. Tinseltown seems to have great difficulty keeping tenants. There is a food court on the 2nd floor, which you walk through to get to Wild Ginger; and some fast food outlets on the first floor but surprisingly few open stores. Indeed, you have to know Wild Ginger is actually a restaurant in order to enter it. I wonder if they have wild ginger tea?