Book Jones Books

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Review: The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May by Mark Z. Danielewski

The Question (and Xanther) Song


Two of the reviewer's own Narrative Constructs* discuss the latest book (?) by Mark Z. Danielewski

TQSNarconQ: Will Mark Z. Danielewski change the way we read fiction?
TQSNarconA: There's a question I'm sure has been asked since the publication of his groundbreaking text , House of Leaves. He has definitely changed the way people read his fiction. His prose is a mash-up of style: Joycean, Pynchonesque; tone: Jacksonian, P.K. Dickish; and form: graphic novel, expressive typography, use of signicons (signs+icons), and fonts as identifiers. However, I don't think his influence is strong enough to trigger a paradigm shift in literature.

TQSNarconQ:  What has he written for us lately?
TQSNarconA: His latest work is entitled The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May. It is the first volume (840 pages) in a proposed 27 part epic work revolving around 9 core characters.

TQSNarconQ: Why is it called The Familiar?
TQSNarconA: As far as I can determine the title most likely refers to the meaning:

familiar: noun

9.Witchcraft and Demonology.
  1. an animal, as a cat, that embodies a supernatural spirit and aids a witch in performing magic.
  2. familiar spirit.
 excerpted from Dictionary.com
TQSNarconQ: Wow, sounds spooky, what's it about?
TQSNarconA: Well as I said there are 9 core characters, 9 points of view (not including the 3 Narcons, or Narrative Constructs, absurdly structured voices who barge in on the tale periodically), but 3 are immediately related to each other. So there are 7 distinct story lines, which may (at least I hope) by the end of the 27th volume, merge into one coherent narrative. 

The main story line is about a married couple from Los Angeles, California, Anwar and Astair, who have three daughters: the twins Freya and Shasti, and their very special epileptic daughter, Xanther, 12 years old (the X Factor of the tale). Xanther is Anwar's step-daughter, her real father, Dov, having been killed-in-action, a hero of a foreign war. Anwar and Astair have decided to buy a dog for the family in hopes of aiding Xanther with her debilitating condition. We pick up the action as Anwar and Xanther venture out on "one rainy day in May" to purchase a canine surprise. As it happens, and I won't spoil it for you, not that it hasn't been spoiled already, they get sidetracked, but arrive home safely..

TQSNarconQ: That's it? That's the entire plot?
TQSNarconA: Well it is only part 1 of 27. We also learn a lot of back story, like about Anwar's career as a video game designer (AI/Engine his specialty). And besides, a lot more happens in the chapters featuring the 6 other characters.

TQSNarconQ: OK, who are these other characters?
TQSNarconAThey vary from Jing Jing, a Chinese drug addict in Singapore, to Shnorhk, a taxi driver in Los.Angeles., to Isandôrno, a superstitious traveler in Mexico. From The Wizard (Cas) and her Orb in Texas to the gang leader Luther, and the detective Özgür both from L.A. They are a mysterious and random bunch, yet there are some common threads that can be drawn between them. For instance, each one of them can sense the faint cry of their so-called familiar (...), a plea for salvation. 

TQSNarconQ: What the hell is the point of all this quotidian trickery? 
TQSNarconA: To be honest, which, by the way, I cannot be otherwise, I haven't too much of a clue (one book's worth to be exact (840 pages)). Here's the thing, the reader needs to place some trust in the writer, otherwise the question of time and money spent can get a little dicey. I, for one, am willing to extend a soupçon of faith to the author, at least until Part 2 drops in October (the birthday of Book Jones)

TQSNarconQ: OK, I just sneaked a peak at the title of this review. What in the reviewer's name is "The Question Song" a reference to?
TQSNarconA: Why, Xanther's coping mechanism in the book of course. "Curiosity was her constant" says Anwar of Xanther. She vocalizes her anxiety in expectation of a possible seizure by asking series of questions until they mimic a song. Unverbalized, however ("how many raindrops?" (obsessed over on that rainy day in May)), they can lead to trouble.

TQSNarconQ: I'm guessing you really enjoyed this new novel by MZD, as the author has been referred to. Is this correct and if so, to whom would you recommend it?
TQSNarconA: You guessed right, partner, I did kind of enjoy this odd foray into combi-form writing and graphic story-telling. And I look forward to sharing more commentary about The Familiar, Volume 2: Into the Forest at the proper time. 

If nothing else, the book itself is a beautiful object, a softcover tome which makes use of thick, art quality paper; if has an important feel and heft to it. Danielewski succeeds in plying his literary trade without seeming too pretentious, a tough trick accounting for the breadth of originality he invokes (I mean: there is even this from the top of the copyright page: "Because Fiction's province is the imagination and thus concerned with the argument of empathy over representation, any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales, no matter how familiar, shall be considered coincidences born out of the readers' very keen and original mind"). 

Thoughtful open-minded and curious humans with patience to indulge on borderline eccentric art will reap some rewards from this particular volume. Books such as this often require supplemental material to garner a more substantial understanding and informed interpretation of their obscure themes and cryptic messages. A fairly comprehensive and scholarly resource can be accessed on line at https://thefamiliar.wordpress.com. One caveat: please do not read this book on an electronic device such as the Kindle, you will not take advantage of the full sensory experience.  

OK, TQSNarconQ that's it for now, We'll reconvene for the next volume in the Autumn of the year.

TQSNarconQ: Promise?
TQSNarconA: I will give you my word (familiar), In full color, no less. 

MZD w/ white cat
* Rules governing the Narrative Constructs in this review do not apply to The Familiar's family of Narrative Constructs.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Book Review: One Righteous Man: Samuel Battle and the Shattering of the Color Line in New York by Arthur Browne

Samuel J. Battle with Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia


The Heat From Harlem


One Righteous Man, the story of Samuel Battle, the first African-American to penetrate the thick white wall of New York's finest, is the history of race relations in the Big Apple, most specifically the neighborhood of Harlem; it's a shameful history, as one might have guessed, laying bare the insecurity, hubris, and ignorance of the non-black citizenry of New York from the fin-de-siecle through the decade of Civil Rights. 

Though its author, Arthur Browne, a veteran NYC journalist (a Pulitzer winner who co-authored I, Koch), presents a microcosm of the wider world, an America of the Jim Crow South and Northern urban instability in cities like Chicago and Detroit. It is also the history of prohibition; the birth of organized crime, and the slow death of Tammany Hall. It's the tale of racism in Sport as well as the reawakening of African-American culture in literature, art, and music. Battle's story is as much an emblem of his times as the badge he wore was an emblem of protection.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Mister Mixixaplix Music: Sub Pop

Sub Pop artists Rose Windows

Sharing a Mixcloud post from James Blake entitled Nevermind; this one featuring Seattle's Sub Pop Records artists Rose Windows and Metz. Great stuff!! Listen and Enjoy...

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Book Review: The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle

  The Mountain Man


The explorer John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition and widely considered the first Mountain Man in America, famously once escaped a murderous mob of Blackfoot Indians through a series of maneuvers which is known now as Colter's Run. This legendary gauntlet, outlined in T.C. Boyle's novel, The Harder They Come, is just one the heroic feats which guide one of its main character, Adam Stensen, through his cracked existence. Adam identifies so much with the mountain man, he christens himself with his  champion's surname; Colter: evocative not only of the explorer himself but of guns or horses or of the plow wheel it describes; an instrument used to cut through the earth. It seems the real John Colter lived his life in a far different environment, in a more brutal, less sensitive world; one which celebrated violence and aggression as much as it is misplaced today

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Column: The Interrogatory Mood

Do authors tend to become less satirical and more serious, with regard to their writing, as they get older?


Columnist Jones
The spark of this question ignited this morning as I was reading a review of T.C. Boyle's The Harder They Come by Dana Spiotta in the Sunday New York Times Book Review section. "This could easily have been an opportunity for a writer of Boyle's comic gifts to go full-tilt satirical, Boyle takes a darker and more restrained approach." she writes. This got me thinking about how many authors , not just Boyle, have grown away from the satirical or comic novel and have embraced or perhaps began to trust sincerity in their writing. Maybe as they mature they become more confident of their craft because, let's admit it, it's a lot easier to convey a strong message through satire, though it does require more flexing of the writing muscles (but by that I mean being ostentatious) than does serious, straightforward, or a restrained technique. Subtlety and nuance come with experience.

Some examples which should support my view include: 
  • Philip Roth whose early novels include Goodbye Columbus (1959) and Portnoy's Complaint (1969) both comic and satirical portrayals of Jewish morals and attitudes of the time. His later work turned quite serious with novels like Sabbath's Theater, American Pastoral and The Human Stain.
  • Thomas McGuane with early work like The Sporting Club (1969), The Buswhacked Piano (1971), and Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973), all darkly comic took a sharp turn after his 1978 autobiographical novel Panama to a more restrained tone in work like Nobody's Angel (1981) Nothing But Blue Skies and the short story collection Gallatin Canyon.
  • John Irving's early novels The Water Method Man, the 158 pound Wedding, and The World According to Garp were all darkly comic though later The Ciderhouse Rules marked a change in tone to the more straightforward and politically driven work that would come to be his trademark style. 
This of course is not to say all satirists grow more sincere as they age. Think of Swift, Vonnegut, Nabokov; all employing humorous parody to the end. But I do feel many writers begin their career with caricature and slowly hone their craft to either more realistic or subtle impressionistic prose.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Book Review: The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

ARC cover art

Eau, Brother, Where Art Thou?


What happens in the near future when, in the face of Global Warming and impending permanent drought, the infertile lands of the American Southwest lose the use of  water pipelines from Lakes Meade and Havasu, and the Colorado River? I'm not too sure, but the novelist Paolo Bacigalupi has a handle on that harrowing question and has written a new Sci-Fi Thriller around it. The Water Knife, his latest, is a speculative semi-apocalyptic tale for adults (he has written a number of books for young adults and kids) in which the planet's carbon boot has tread all over its already dry regions leaving a permanent footprint of drought. In this new world water equals power and the powerful will not hesitate to carve their own arterial conduits, when necessary, to feed the heart of their influence.

Three main characters drive the narrative throughout the book: Angel Velasquez, the water knife of the title, whose boss, Catherine Case, quenches Las Vegas with her "arcologies", or water independent residential towers, unafraid of wetting her far reaching talons; Lucy Monroe, a "Journo", who reports on the corruption and machinations surrounding the Taiyang, a Chinese funded arcology in the middle of Arizona; and Maria Villarosa, a teenager refugee from Texas, who, along with her room-mate Sarah, struggles to survive on the incendiary streets of Phoenix (the symbolism of which is not lost on this reader). Bacigalupi eventually tosses the three together, stirs and turns up the heat. The recipe is tried and true; It's delicious to consume, but still, a burrito is just a burrito (refried beans and all).

Friday, March 27, 2015

Nachman, Is That You? *

The Short Stories of Leonard Michaels 


There has been a slight resurgence of the short stories of Leonard Michaels who passed away back in 2003. What do I consider a slight resurgence? Well, it is quite a subjective statement, based solely on the podcasts I consume. The New Yorker Fiction July 2014 podcast features Rebecca Curtis reading The Penultimate Conjecture, one of a septet of stories dubbed the Nachman Stories written by Leonard Michaels near the end of his life. Another podcast, Selected Shorts from PRI recently presented a program in honor of the late David Rakoff where Mr. Rakoff performs Cryptology, the last story in the Nachman septet, at Symphony Space in New York City.
Leonard Michaels
Leonard Michaels' writing has been compared to that of Isaac Babel, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth. His protagonist, Nachman, is a world-class mathematician originally from Cracow, living in Los Angeles. He hates to travel, doesn't particularly get along with too many people, he ironically seems more suited to New York than to L.A. The Penultimate Conjecture follows Nachman to San Francisco where he is attending the annual meeting of the Pythagoras Society. There, a young Scandinavian Mathematics colleague, Bjorn Lindquist, is expected to layout his solution for the infamously difficult math proof, the Penultimate Conjecture, which British cryptographers formulated during the second world war. At the upstart's presentation, Nachman meet's another math wizard, a Russian by the name of Chertoff (which means something diabolical in the Slavic language) , who urges Nachman to reveal what he knows is true in his heart: that Lindquist's solution is flawed.

In Cryptology, we find Nachman out of his comfort zone again, this time in NYC to attend the annual cryptology conference. He meets an old friend ("I'm Helen Ferris now") on Fifth Avenue, a woman whom he simply cannot place. After handing over her address and apartment keys to Nachman, she invites him to dinner with her and her husband: “If you arrive before us, just wait in the apartment,” she tells him. But when Nachman arrives at the posh Chelsea flat he finds it deserted; until he perceives the faint hiss of a shower and voices carrying from the next room. Cryptology is a story infused with mystery, both outward and inward. By the end Nachman is musing on not just who Helen Ferris could be, but who he, the enigmatic Nachman, really is.

All of the Nachman stories can  be found in: The Collected Stories by Leonard Michaels

* This post was originally published on the Echidna blog in July 2014 


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