"But is it Art?" by Cynthia Freeland

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Cynthia Freeland, Chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Houston, came out with But is it Art? in 2001. It’s an excellent introduction to various theories of art, particularly for an abject layman like me. In it, Professor Freeland expounds on competing and converging beliefs held by critics and philosophers, and she does so in a logical, concise, and accessible way. The book is a slim one, bolstered by References, Further Reading and an Index, like any scholarly book will.

However, as I say, the body of this book contains no stuffy jargon, no obfuscating phrases; its points are painstakingly made, and highly accessible to the average adult reader. Her own preferences and beliefs are no mystery, but she handles the presentation of competing thought processes with commendable fairness and even-handedness.

You will get a very convincing and non-judging assessment of some of the more shocking art which has been presented in the last 25 years. You will encounter deep discussions on such thinkers as John Dewey, Arthur Danto, the anthropologist Richard Anderson, Marshall McLuhan, and Jean Baudrillard, among numerous others.

This book is required in an aesthetics class at a local university. I have taken copious notes from it, but won’t bore you with them. Suffice it to say, I found this brief, direct, and accessible book a commendable starting point in discussing art. The flow of the ideas reach other media besides graphic art, but those media are its main focus.

"A Peculiar Grace" by Jeffrey Lent

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Jeffrey Lent’s heroes face challenges out of the run of the mill. Some of these, as in In the Fall and Lost Nation, face an onslaught of outside forces strong enough to bow or break even the strongest protagonist. In A Peculiar Grace, hero Hewitt Pearce’s toughest tests result instead from his own past and his not-always-healthy ways of coping with it. In this book, Mr. Lent has shrunk his canvas down from the sweeping, heroic backdrops he used in Fall and Nation, to the emotional life of one stubborn yet searching man, who trusts his emotions and views of life maybe a little too much. And he succeeds beautifully again, the author does.  This book makes me feel many things; however, surprise at the author’s skill is not one of them.

Vermont blacksmith Hewitt Pearce was lucky enough as a teenager to feel the desperation and euphoria of deep love. When this affair ends unhappily for him, he lets it sink him into an alcohol-soaked despair which he survives only through the last-ditch efforts of his friend Walter. Twenty years later, he’s essentially a hermit with a good blacksmith’s practice, and a tractor for getting to the store. Suddenly twenty-something Jessica crashes onto his property and into his life.  She’s a fugitive from life’s vagaries, somewhat in the mold of Hewitt himself. Their quirky exploration of each other’s boundaries, beliefs, and personality form - and charm - the bulk of the book. This is the “peculiar grace” of the title. Although Hewitt’s life and heart become torqued up again when his onetime great love is widowed, he cannot revert to form - to chase her and/or pine after her - because of the new presence in his life.

I did what I very seldom do after finishing a book. I went back to re-read scenes of especially well-done dialogue, because they are some of the great charms of this charming book. We sink neck-deep into Hewitt’s psyche, and watch him

take his painful steps toward a more balanced emotional outlook. Mr. Lent grants his hero the capacity to give and also gives him the knack of communicating, through a forthright and laconic way - almost a shorthand - that captivates. His writing captures this perfectly. 

I wasn’t sure what to expect from A Peculiar Grace, after the previous heroic entries I mentioned. What I got demonstrates Mr. Lent’s mastery. He remains one of the very best practicing the craft today, as his every book amply proves. Take this up. It’s also one of the few that I definitely plan on rereading, even with my reading time at such a premium. 

"The Empty Throne" by Bernard Cornwell

Friday, April 17, 2015

So. When last we saw Uhtred of Bebbanburg, he was fighting a desperate battle against extremely long odds, even for him. Overwhelmingly outnumbered, fighting for his life, he is savagely wounded in the same instant that he kills his enemy.

And at the outset of The Empty Throne, the eighth entry in Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tales, Uhtred is indeed gravely wounded, limping as he walks, stalked by agony if he simply turns his body or mounts his horse. Aethelred, the puppet ruler of Mercia, dies from wounds himself relatively early in the story, and the jockeying for lordship over Mercia begins. Uhtred is just as good at royal politics as he is at fighting, and maneuvers the assembled nobles into accepting Lady Aethelflaed as the now-famous Lady of Mercia. I invite you to look up her legacy and exploits.

Mr. Cornwell consistently brings us to the middle of 10th-Century Britain. The sights and conflicts, the smells and superstitions, envelop us as always. And the indomitable Uhtred lives to plot and scheme and bully his way to victory yet again. I confess I more than half expected this to be the final chapter in this riveting saga, but the author concluded once again with a note that unmistakably indicates that at least one more book is coming in the series. And I am betting that two more books will follow The Empty Throne. I know I hope it’s at least that many.

"The Buried Giant" by Kazuo Ishiguro

Friday, April 3, 2015

Kazuo Ishiguro adopts a surprising setting for The Buried Giant: Britain in roughly the sixth century AD, and he conjures a dark and enfeebled mood for the island’s inhabitants, who are held in the thrall of a dragon’s amnesia-inducing spell. In addition to the dragon, there are ogres, evil sprites, and a flock of ghostly harridans to bewitch and bedevil. 

Mr. Ishiguro chooses this milieu to explore two combating ideals: one demands redress of injustice even if it means opening old wounds to do so, and the other seeks to forget the battles and conquests of the past and get on with life. On the large canvas, this means ending a dragon’s spell so that the country as a whole may remember the enormous injustices inflicted on the Saxon immigrant/invaders by the native Britons. And the married couple, Axl and Beatrice, whose story focuses the book, winnow this conflict down to its essentials.  They fret between themselves about what they’ll remember when the amnesia lifts, and what they’ll find at the end of their journey.

The author has a certain position on the issue, and it shows in how he resolves the conflict. He chose his setting very subtly, very shrewdly. By plunging his reader back to a time when King Arthur’s aged nephew Sir Gawain lives and still serves his long-dead king, he strips away anything that might distract from the problem at hand. The legend/lore aspect of his story serves to highlight the universality of the problem at hand. The balance evoked here is a tragic one; the Saxons in the story sing the lament of the vanquished, but we know their eventual success over the Britons does not same them their terrible trial with the Danish vikings centuries later. And I’m convinced this is part of Mr. Ishiguro’s design. I compliment the author both on his treatment of the issues undertaken and the elegance of his construct for doing so.

My qualms arise from some plot features that seem unnecessary - are the river-sprites really needed? The mortal danger Axl and Beatrice find themselves in could certainly have been illustrated without extra creatures. And the children on the mountainside and the poisonous goat? There are several places where I felt befuddlement about it all. And the aspect of nothing-is-as-it-appears felt too insistent at times, and at other times too slowly resolved.

On the whole, Mr. Ishiguro demonstrates his championship versatility - to have written this and The Remains of the Day just boggles the mind. I understand the thrall other readers feel, I do, but this effort falls a little below what I anticipated.

"Winter's Bone" by Daniel Woodrell

Friday, March 27, 2015

Daniel Woodrell’s prose in Winter’s Bone reflects his characters’ thought and speech: it’s pared down to the essentials – so laconic and economical that it almost becomes oblique. This is one of the main charms of this novel – the whittled-down telling of the raw emotion and ever-present tendency to violence of the characters; the stark natural world in winter fury and snow-bound calm; the harsh truth about backwoods mountain folk who are almost all related, and who as often as not, operate on the wrong side of the law.

The meanness and betrayal swirl around a sixteen year-old girl, Ree Dolly, whose father has run from the law again. Not only has he gone on the lam, but has signed over his home – Ree’s home, which she shares with her addled Mom and two younger brothers – as collateral for his bail. Ree must try to find and deliver him into court, but begins to suspect something much more … final has happened to him.

Because of her Dad, Ree’s family and kin are persona non grata around the Ozark woods and hollows where they live. While she herself is blameless, she is still stopped from seeking help in finding her missing miscreant Dad. The way Mr. Woodrell portrays the boundless courage she shows in the face of mortal danger, warrants your reading this book by itself. Ree is a stunning invention – pre-eminent in her neighborhood at sixteen, withstanding threats, teaching her brothers how to shoot as her quest becomes tougher, defying friend and enemy alike to achieve her goal – she’s a stunner, and I honor the author for conceiving her and executing her portrait so cleanly and convincingly.

I also honor Mr. Woodrell for adopting the language of his characters as his own for his narration. It places him and us squarely in the action. And there is action aplenty. This is not a story for the faint-hearted, what with the beating and (behind the scenes) murder and rampant meth production and the drinking and the getting high. This book deals with life-and-death issues in a way that honors the courageous and loyal, and does it in a way that fits its subject matter perfectly.

This novel really sneaked up on me. It’s grand. Check it out.

"Me and Mr. Booker" by Cory Taylor

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Author Cory Taylor takes us on a frank and funny journey in Me and Mr. Booker: this story of a teenaged girl’s - Martha’s - seduction by a man twice her age has dark, precocious humor, but it cautions us about the relationships grown-ups suffer through their entire lives. It’s brutally honest,but also unsupported by strong adult presence, or any kind of responsible guidance for the youngster at her moment of need.

Ms. Taylor aims to amuse, and maybe obliquely to instruct, but this is a sixteen year-old girls’ monologue. We observe adult failings through her very jaundiced eye, and rue the fact that she’s simply following in their footsteps. The sex she enjoys with university lecturer Mr. Booker proves quite the narcotic, but in the end she must give him up when she gets ready to leave her own studies and go to Paris. Her mother sets a very poor example of whom to marry, and her other women friends are a jaded, dissipated lot.  

In short, I found very little to admire or enjoy here. I like the spunky wit of our underage heroine, but its caustic sophistication stands as just another reminder of her corruption. It’s clearly a very painful coming of age for Martha, complete with the sadder-but-wiser end. I can’t recommend this, although Ms. Taylor’s powers are apparent. I’d look forward to her treatment of different subject matter with great interest.

"How Gone We Got" by Dina Guidubaldi

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Throughout How Gone We Got Dina Guidubaldi expounds on young alienated women struggling with life and those around them. Whether its remembering finding a corpse on the Its a Small World ride at Walt Disney World, or dodging the advances of a handsome Latin ambassador, or getting ready to jump to her death in a dystopian future, Ms. Guidubaldis heroines face steep odds, perhaps constantly at the point of insurmountability. In the seventeen servings in this short story collection, the author shows a very impressive range of setting and plot, and takes a look at sadness and desperation from a wide variety of angles. Im rather taken by it.

Ms. Guidubaldi demonstrates her powers very consistently from story to story, but I want to single out a few for special mention. The Love in Your Mouth captures the life a woman and her boyfriend find when they run away to Florida. Its unusually visual for this collection, and the passive, pessimistic view this woman has for her life and her relationship sets the tone for much that follows. The toxicity that runs through these stories takes the form of actual poison from jellyfish in this story. She repeats this watching-my-relationship-disintegrate theme in a couple of other stories, notably The Desert: A Field Guide. Its never ver clear whether the protagonist really values the relationship, or whether she recognizes the inevitability of the breakup and her own powerlessness to stop it.

Ms. Guidubaldi launches these pieces from a place where things are already broken down - the damage has already been done, and feels like it was done a long time ago. In some stories we witness events at their logical, whimpering end, but in others the concluding moment is very dramatically poised - about to happen. Her stories show a very consistent mastery of her form and she combines this with a raw honesty to make a very impressive, worthwhile whole. These stories come from an interesting new voice, one to keep an eye on, certainly.

"Lila" by Marilynne Robinson

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Author Marilynne Robinson concludes her Gilead trilogy with the story of Lila, the plain-spoken onetime drifter and whorehouse worker who marries Reverend John Ames, a chief character in the two prior novels Gilead and Home. Echoes include the characters and themes of the two previous entries, of course, but the author also maintains the same reverent, natural tone that respects and understands all life, whether lived in a state of grace or outside of it.

And grace has everything to do with Lila the novel and Lila the character. The book is among other things a beginner’s catechism. Lila doesn’t know that much of what’s in the Bible, but she has read some things that make perfect sense to her, about rage and voices from on high, but also some other things that need quite a bit of explaining.

She travels with an itinerant group, a loose assemblage that seeks temporary work. She grows up in this hand-to-mouth fashion, having been saved from neglectful parents by a woman named Doll. Lila has drifted outside of society, working as she could, eventually finding herself employed in a whorehouse. However, her potential for grace is always there: she has an inquiring mind, is never as mean as the girls and women around her, has never stolen, nor harmed another. She finds herself in Gilead on a rainy afternoon, letting her clothes drip dry inside a church. She eventually engages Reverend Ames in conversation, and then as a spiritual consultant on certain philosophical questions. She asks him why things work out the way they do, and it’s a question that occupies them both, along with the author and the reader, for the remainder of the book.

Lila plunges into the consciousness of its heroine in a way that bounces around considerably in time, but this journey shows the author’s remarkable skill in using Lila’s consciousness as a way of exploring deep and difficult issues. This is a main purpose here: we accompany Lila in her beginner’s quest to understand her universe. Along the way we have the kindly, beautiful John, her mentor and student and lover, and his highly examined and literate relationship with God. It’s as unique a romance as you will encounter in literature, this marriage of John and Lila. It’s beautiful in itself, carefully paced, and expressed with all the grace and respect Ms. Robinson can summon, which is – all of it, I think. That also is one part of the point: I believe the author definitely wants to leave her readers with the very distinct impression that you can approach life’s vagaries, and the eternal questions, in a spiritual way, and you will be made to feel welcome.

The book in effect introduces the Gilead trilogy, although it is published last. Its events anticipate those of the other two books, and Lila’s new child and her husband and her beliefs lead us up to the beginning of the first book in the trilogy, Gilead.  The tone and consciousness, the effortless - and chapterless - flow forward and backward in time, the masterly yoking of her language to her purpose – Marilynne Robinson is, after all, the finest living American writer – all of these feature in this excellent piece. It somehow achieves a pastoral flavor (the book is dedicated to Iowa) amid all the philosophical grappling and exegesis, Depression subsistence and petty whorehouse meanness. It’s a tribute to our intrepid author’s skill with her subject. I unreservedly and unabashedly recommend all three books. Read them in order for the full reward.

"The Narrow Road to the Deep North" by Richard Flanagan

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Throughout The Narrow Road to the Deep North protagonist Dorrigo Evans strives unwillingly, unwittingly, “… (t)o follow knowledge like a sinking star/Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.” These lines from Tennyson’s Ulysses capture the hero’s plight: the more he experiences, the less he seems to know, the less he seems to be capable of dealing with. Like Ulysses, Dorrigo finds late in life that he lives among “a savage race,/That hoard, and sleep,  and feed, and know not me.”

After becoming a doctor and enlisting in the Australian army in 1942, Dorrigo Evans, promised to another, meets – or is captured by – Amy, a young woman who is married to his uncle Keith. And in her arms he finds he understands nothing of love, of human conduct, nor of the attractions of any other woman. He experiences extremes of confusion. Life, the world, the human race – all are incomprehensible. He never feels more alive nor more confused as during his weeks with her by the Adelaide seaside. His resulting unmooring, through his heroic service with doomed Australian POWs in Siam and Burma, and his subsequent honors and fame, imprisons him in an impenetrable solitude.

Richard Flanagan, author of the astonishing Gould’s Book of Fish, has produced a work of overwhelming power; it will sear your consciousness with the staggering facts of heroism, murderous cruelty, a boundless love beyond comprehension. And yet through it all, our hero cannot feel certain of these basic facts. Dorrigo’s confusion rings true because the author displays a master’s command of language and consciousness. He sets Dorrigo and Amy alone in the universe at the seaside resort, in the thrall of a passion that overwhelms any description, that surpasses rational thought. He tells of the POWs on the death railway in a more straightforward way because that story has its own enormity, its own incomprehensibility.

I’m tempted to quibble about a couple of plot points that seem to rest on flimsy foundation, like Dorrigo’s and Amy’s postwar failure to seek each other out, or the not-quite-necessary family connection from the POW camp. But these are quibbles, and certainly not the right way to end this review. Take this stunning book up. It deserves its accolades, and Richard Flanagan deserves his prominent place in today’s pantheon of writers.

"Goliath Gets Up" by Starbuck O'Dwyer

Sunday, February 15, 2015

As one gets further away from first-person narrator David “Dragon” Horvath in Starbuck O’Dwyer’s gonzo Goliath Gets Up, the characters become less and less real. And Dragon himself, although his heart is always in the right place, is a few cards short of a full deck when it comes to brains. Don’t look for the ordinary or the logical, or even the responsible, because they’re all missing from Goliath Gets Up. What this frenetically funny book has: a small band of down-on-their-luck adventurers, a Chinese-American woman who would be an eco-terrorist, a criminal lawyer with ambitions to be a stand-up comic (he’s terrible at both), and two geriatric women. One of these is the 87 year-old sex-crazed mayor of Rochester who wants to bring the Oscars ceremony to her Upstate New York city (along with gambling and prostitution), and the other is the narrator’s 102 year-old grandmother who wants to jump into the Genesee River and go over the High Falls in downtown Rochester.

Got all that? If it sounds ridiculous, it is, but author Starbuck O’Dwyer has done something remarkable. Early on, he fills his book with over-the-top one-line gags, but that style won’t sustain a novel-length book. So he transitions gradually away from the merely laugh-out-loud funny and lets the absurd premises flow to their inevitable conclusions. (I can’t believe I just typed that about this book.)

The plot revolves around some men in early middle age and stunted emotional development who agree, kind of, to try to stop the mayor’s evil plan to develop and corrupt a beautiful natural section of Rochester. Their strategy involves a major stunt at Rochester’s High Falls, which attracts national media attention. Along the way we have a writer of doggerel who’s on dialysis, an overweight man with discolored teeth who wears t-shirts that say “Have a Penis Day,” and who becomes engaged to a feminist college professor. We have a politician who employs loan sharks and hit men and an older couple named Biff and Beatie. I didn’t look for it, and so didn’t find it, but if the author included a disclaimer about characters and events not referring to anything or anybody real, it wouldn’t have been necessary. Nothing in this book resembles anything real, except for the greed, ambition, ruthlessness, and lack of any moral compass on the part of politicians.

This book was a 5-star finalist in the 2012 Indie Reader Discovery Awards humor category. That’s perfectly understandable. What’s harder to understand is that there was something funnier out there to win. Incessant humor, frequent misadventures, and a roaring climax – take it up if you dare!

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