Monday, July 15, 2019

Dancing with myself

I picked up Billy Idol's 2014 memoir Dancing with Myself at Horizontal Books, a discount bookstore in Cleveland.  I was curious to read what he had to say, figuring I would just skip around and look at the pictures before giving it away.  The book turned out to be more engaging than I expected and I ended up reading the whole thing.  I have always been aware of Billy Idol; his songs were a constant on the radio when I was a child and I discovered his band Generation X when I was getting into punk rock.  It is safe to say that I knew the broad contours of his career from his early days through the bad press of his Cyberpunk album, but did not know much about the solo portion of his career specifically.
Billy structures his memoir around a motorcycle accident that occurred in 1990.  He opens the book with a description of his crash, and then sees this as a turning point in his solo career while he was making his Charmed Life album, and then he circles back to the accident in the epilogue to reinforce its pivotal role in his life.  If this was a 12-step talk, the accident would have been his bottom, the thing that finally helped him to get over his addictions.  But he doesn't quite phrase it that way.  It more that this was a culmination point for many of the events in his life.
I mention this structuring because of the way that it sets this book apart from other rock 'n' roll memoirs that I have read.  Mick Wall's book about Lemmy tends to mythologize the man by nearly erasing narrative plotting.  So much of Lemmy's life seems just a continuation/repetition of his early days that the stories within the book run together.  Elvis Costello's book reads more like a picaresque: a string of events that create a sense of forward momentum but which don't necessarily add to an overarching plot.  Both of those books are more meandering and seem more personal.
It was interesting to read about Billy's early days in the Bromley contingent and on the London punk rock scene, but there was not a lot that I didn't already know.  He writes lovingly about a broad group of people in his book, but they are all held at a certain distance.  Even his long-time lover Perri comes and goes throughout the book but the reader is left knowing little about her aside from her connection to Billy.  In a certain way, this makes sense.  It is his book, after all.  But it seems to reveal more about the author in its way.  Billy often seems contrite about the way that he treated people near him during his drug-using days.  He writes about the way that addicts will use people close to them.  But these people still seem kept at arm's length in the book.  It is not until the very end of the book that Billy writes about his father's failing health that some of the personal emotion breaks through.
Billy and his father share a moment when they discuss his choice to pursue music and some of the difficulties that their relationship faced.  The scene is well-written and seems like a genuinely touching moment that is much less guarded than much of the memoir.
I did enjoy the sections about his time in Chelsea and Generation X more than the rest of the book.  Like the scene with his father, these sections seemed less guarded.  He seemed less defensive of those bands than he does about his solo career.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Unfinished Reviews, Part 1

What follows is a partial review/reaction to Stephen King's novel Revival that I wrote shortly after reading it when it came out in 2014.  This is unfinished for a variety of reasons but I like it because I muse a bit on the development of my reading life and the damage that high school English classes caused it.  Luckily, I was able to recover with the help of some great college professors who were more inclined to read books the way that I wanted to.

Revival, by Stephen King

As a young reader I took book suggestions from anyone willing to give them and I read nearly anything that seemed at all interesting.  It wasn’t until I was in high school that I began to learn that different authors were held in different esteem based on their perceived position along the “literature-pulp” axis.  This meant that I read an awful lot of genre fiction and novels that I was later taught were less worthy that what I might be reading.  High school was a horrible period in my reading life because those AP English classes encouraged me to look down on some books and authors, many of which are actually quite good, and work to dig the worth out of some boring books considered classics.  To be fair, there were also a lot of books that I hated in high school but have come to truly love on second readings.  

My early years in college continued in a similar vein and I stopped reading a lot of authors I enjoyed because they didn’t write the right kind of books.  It wasn’t until I was in graduate school, pursuing my Master’s in literature that I lost the last vestiges of this non-sensical way of reading literature.  I finally shook off the last bit of guilt I felt for reading horror, sci-fi, and crime books.  This happened when I re-read Stephen King’s The Shining.  The novel had its moments and was enjoyable overall.  But this isn’t about that book.

The book I recently finished is King’s 2014 novel Revival.  This novel blends elements of Lovecraft and Frankenstein with a coming-of-age/redemption story.  Jamie Morton, the narrator, relates the story of his relationship with Charles Jacobs, a one-time reverend who is obsessed with a secret occult power source that he discovers.  Jacobs draws Morton into his life at several points, at one time curing him of his heroin addiction using the secret power, and becomes more drawn into his secret researches all the while. Jacobs is a character like many in horror/sci-fi who is drawn to the sublimity of the unknown.  He finds a little-explored corner of knowledge that hints at bigger secrets to be discovered and begins to uncover an even greater power source beyond his control. King takes a play from Lovecraft’s book and sticks mainly to Morton’s reactions of terror than to the actual images of horror.  This keeps the horror more subjective and leaves more up to the reader to imagine.  

Revival is not my favorite King book.  I think he could have shaved off about 30% of the text and been left with a better novel.  A lot of Morton’s narration about his own life seems unnecessary and I spent a lot of time wanting to get to the main line of the story instead.  Morton thinks he is telling the story of Charlie Jacobs and his obsession with secret electricity, but he manages to get a lot about himself into it as well.  A bit more balance on this score would have made the book more enjoyable to read.  

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Legacy of Horror

I just finished reading Joe Hill's 20th Century Ghosts on recommendation from an old grad school friend of mine.  This friend and I share tastes in heavy metal and weird fiction, so this seemed like a promising book.  He told me that Hill is Stephen King's son and that the two shared some common sensibilities but that Hill had a better sense of humor.  Being a sometimes-fan of King, I took up the recommendation and found the book to be everything that my friend had promised.
The collection is strong with a few standouts.
The first story in the book, "Best New Horror," took me by surprise from the beginning.  The story is about a writer and editor of a famous horror collection, named Eddie Carroll, who is given a supremely creepy story that jerks him out of his complacency.  Carroll, wanting to include the story in his newest collection has some difficulty tracking down the author.  This is because the author is a bit of a drifter and has bounced around.  Carroll eventually does track down the author, but I will leave plot discussion at that because the reveal of the rest of the story is worth the read.  "Best New Horror" shares some common elements with King's fiction.  First, it tortures its writers the same way that King always has.  It also dabbles in the sort of metafiction that King always claimed was just "story-telling."  Hill handles it better, though.  He doesn't call more attention to it than necessary.  As postmodernism has shaded into post-postmodernism, the tropes become less tricks and become a part of the artistry.  So too, Hill buries the anxieties of writing and tiring of one's art in the story so that it seeps out in mood and characterization rather than being put into exposition.  The story shows more control of plotting than most of King's work.
The title story of the collection, "20th Century Ghost," is about a haunting in a movie theater.  The ghost of a young woman appears sporadically to lone move-goers, wanting to discuss whatever movie is playing at the time.  The elderly owner of the theater had first seen the ghost as a child and has tracked her appearances over his long lifetime working in and then managing the theater.  The ghost seems to only appear to those true cinephiles who will continue to work with film through their lives, though it is left to interpretation whether this is because of the ghost sighting.
Hill also ventures into the absurd in a story called "Pop Art."  In this story, the protagonist's best friend is a balloon.
Hill pays tribute to classic weird fiction in several of his stories, adding his own turn to each.  In "You Will Hear the Locust Sing," Hill invokes Kafka's Metamorphosis by envisioning a boy (Francis Kay, no less) who awakens to find himself transformed into a bug.  But rather than cower and efface himself to his family, Francis uses his new body to take revenge on those who have wronged him.  The story is thus transformed from Kafka's study in absurdity and futility into a fever-dream revenge story.  In "Abraham's Boys," the children of famed vampire hunter Van Helsing try to adapt to life in America after Van Helsing was forced to flee Denmark under a dark cloud.  Again, I don't want to get too far into plotting here because the treatment that Hill gives the character is better played out in the story than revealed here.
This short story collection is a great introduction to a newer generation of horror writing that travels some familiar territory in addition to providing some of its own original twists.  Hill, like his father, champions the downtrodden and seems to have a soft spot for troubled kids.  Unlike his father, however, Hill has a way of bringing out the humanity and hidden talents of these down-cast characters.  I was only two stories into this collection when I picked up a copy of NOS4A2 and I have every intention of diving deep into this author's work.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Rediscovering heavy metal, Part 2

Amon Amarth's viking boat set
A few weeks ago my brother and I traveled to Youngstown, Ohio to see Slayer on their final tour.  We had seen them play together a few years before in Cleveland following the release of the album Repentless.  My brother has used the same picture of the backdrop behind the band as the wallpaper on his phone ever since.
Slayer had been through Cleveland once since then on the first part of their final tour but we had skipped it because we had seen them so recently and neither of us was hot on the venue.
I remember texting my brother the day of the show to tell him that I already regretted deciding to skip it. He agreed.  So when Slayer announced that they would be extending the tour to return to America, we made up our minds to see them play again, not matter what.
I was particularly excited to see the show because of the line up.  Cannibal Corpse, Amon Amarth, and Lamb of God were all on the bill to support Slayer.

We ended up missing Cannibal Corpse but arrived at the venue just in time for the beginning of Amon Amarth's set.  I first heard this band a few years ago and have been waiting to see them.  They are Swedish and do not tour America very often, so I was definitely looking forward to seeing them play live.  The sound for this band was incredible.  Everything was crisp and well-balanced.  A lot of metal acts tend to overbalance the low end to help it cut through the treble, and this can muddy the sound.
I discovered Amon Amarth a few years ago and was most familiar with their album Deceiver of the Gods.  All of their songs are very heavily inflected with Norse mythology and evoke viking imagery.  I didn't immediately catch on to this because the lead singer uses a typical death metal growl, but I have been able to hear the lyrics better the more that I listen to them.
They played a lot of songs from their newest album, Berserker, which I had been playing a lot in preparation for the show.  Berserker is a strong album that hits a lot of the same notes that their other albums do: lots of driving drums and bass and loads of doubling on guitar riffs and solos.  
Standout song of night: "Crack the Sky" from Berserker.  It is about Thor's hammer, Mjolnir.

Lamb of God followed Amon Amarth.  This band has been around for a while and I knew about them for a long time before I started listening to them.  I like a few of their albums, but they tend to edge a little close to Nu Metal and some other stuff that I don't like.  They put on a good show and played a bunch of songs from their first couple of albums that I recognized.  I have trouble devoting too much time to Lamb of God because their singer, Randy Blythe, was involved in an incident on stage that resulted in a fan's death.  I don't know the particulars of this but it had something to do with the fan falling from stage and landing on his head.  Blythe was not found to be legally responsible for this but this knowledge has always been in the back of my mind when I hear the band and taints the experience.

Slayer took the stage after a short break between acts.  They opened the same way as the last time I had seen them.  The stage is dark and the beginning strains of "Delusions of Saviour" from Relentless  begins playing.  The drums kick in as a series of red crosses appear above the still-darkened stage.  Throughout the opening of the song the crosses slowly rotate until they are all upside down and the band kicks into "Repentless."

Tom Araya and Slayer
Slayer played a long set full of a mix of classic songs and newer material.  Even though the shows is a part of their final tour, and even though I had seen essentially the same show a few years before, everything held up.  The songs were tight and the sound was generally good.  They did not show the wear of a year and a half on the road.

Tom (left) and Kerry King (right).
I was glad to see the show with my brother.  We never really listened to Slayer together when we were young, but we've talked about them a lot since then.
While we were getting ready to go to the show and afterwards, we talked about the some of the shows we had seen recently and we also talked about the bands that we would never get to see. We got to relive some of the excitement of discovery.  Last year when Slayer came through and I opted not to go, I worried that I really had missed my last chance to see them.  If this does turn out to be their last tour -- and I am still not convinced that this is definitely so -- then I am happy with what they have given me.  I would be happy if this was the last time I got to see them play, and I would also be happy to go back and see them again if they decide not to retire from the road after all.
Slayer was not the first metal band that I heard or loved, but they were an entry into a different kind of metal.  Slayer's brand of thrash metal proved a really easy transition into punk and then back into metal again.  

Friday, June 7, 2019

Academic Fragments, Part 2

What follows are segments of a review that I worked on back in 2012 when Vonnegut's collected letters was first published.  I think some of the parts still have legs, I just never finished writing it or paced it anywhere.  There are some notes I made for myself at the end of this and I have not edited this at all.

Review: Kurt Vonnegut: Letters

By Matthew Raese

Kurt Vonnegut: Letters edited by Dan Wakefield.  New York: Delacorte Press, 2012, xxvi + 436 pages.

There are few collections of letters that I have been as excited to read as Kurt Vonnegut's.  Of all of the favorite writers I have had, Vonnegut's personality has always loomed largest and resurfaced the most often.  He was the one, and I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking this, who I seemed to know the best.  His engaging, energetic, sharply critical style never seemed like a put on.  At a time in my life when I felt that very few people were being honest with me, I never doubted that Vonnegut was.  In the fall of 1998 I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Vonnegut speak at the Ohio State University as a part of his publicity tour for Timequake.  Much of what he had to say that night sounded familiar.  He explained his structuralist theory of plot (a portion of which appears in Foma, Wampeters, and Granfalloon), he talked about what art is, and what it means to be a human being.  It takes a rare intellect such as Kurt Vonnegut's to tackle these enormous topics and make them seem the obvious starting point.  That evening fifteen years ago convinced me that, when it came to Vonnegut, what I read was what I got.
I am happy to say that Vonnegut's letters solidified my intuition that Vonnegut had no false surface, that he truly was the person so many of his readers needed him to be.  There is one line that Vonnegut writes to his daughter that I must repeat before getting into the meat of this review to set the mood.  At a time when Vonnegut was teaching and living in Iowa City and his family was still in Cape Cod, he wrote a letter to his youngest daughter for her birthday.  The postscript: “The last time I saw you, you were certainly one of the nicest people I had ever seen.  Now I hear that you are learning to dance.  That makes you just about perfect” (111).  

Dan Wakefield edited and wrote the introduction to this collection.  His work in historicizing the Vonnegut family in Indianapolis and providing key context throughout the book prove invaluable to understanding Vonnegut's letters.  Wakefield divides Vonnegut's letters by decade, providing a short summation of the major events of the decade in an introduction to each chapter.  What this does is stitch the letters together into a cohesive narrative of Vonnegut's life.  Wakefield is free to comment on Vonnegut's development as a writer, a thing that Vonnegut does not do in his letters.  

Wakefield's arrangement of letters by decade makes perfect sense for the structure of the book that he edited and could not have been done in a better way.  However, rather than addressing the book in a like fashion, I think that for the purposes of reviewing the work it makes more sense to approach the letters as they may have seemed to Vonnegut – that is, as separate but intertwining connections with those closest to him.  Over the course of the work it becomes very apparent the regard Vonnegut felt for his fellow writers and the love that he felt for his family.  Vonnegut seemed perpetually generous to his family and his consideration of what comprises a family matches closely the concept of the karass that he develops in Cat's Cradle.  For Vonnegut, family means both those to whom we have close filial ties and those to whom we find spiritual connection.  In a letter to Gail Godwin in the late 1970s, Vonnegut writes of the “very classy extended family” that he gained while teaching in Iowa.  “Suddenly,” he continues, “I was a member of a really great gang.”  
Among the most frequent recipients of Vonnegut's letters are those to his youngest daughter, Nannette, to whom he writes moving and tender letters full of reassurance of his love.  Since Nannette, or Nanny as he called her, had been very young at the time of Vonnegut's first separation from his first wife Jane, he reminds her often that he continues to love her mother very much and asks her not to blame Jill, his second wife, for the end of that marriage.  It is evident that his concern comes from the desire that these two women come to care for one another.  While Wakefield compiles only the letters that Vonnegut himself wrote – in contrast to those collections that print both letters to and from the author in question – the letters that Vonnegut wrote to his daughter are the ones of which many readers may wish to know the other side of the conversation.

-W prefaces many of the letters w context info.  W includes many details about V's personality in addition to historical context.  For example, in a letter in which V offers to lend money to Knox Burger, W notes V's “lifelong generosity to friends and fellow writers, even at [. . .] time[s] of his own continuing money pressures” (80).  In this way, W helps to further shape perception of V as a person behind the writing.
-the letters relate V's life, particularly in the 60s when he was living in Iowa City, teaching at the Iowa Writers' thing (look up what this is called) while his wife, Jane, stayed in Cape Cod.  More personal details revealed during this time
-p102 charming passage of V explaining the time difference between Iowa City and Cape Cod so that he can speak with his wife for the cheaper evening rates
-119-20 assignment written as letter

208-10 letter to Drake school board chair who burned V's books in school furnace

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

ebooks and murderbots

Earlier today while eating lunch I finished reading Martha Well's novella All Systems Red.  The book is part of her murderbot diaries series and this is the first of those that I have read.  The story is narrated from the murderbot's perspective and details one surveying mission that it is contracted on as security.  What is interesting is the kind of self-consciousness the bot has.  It is able to act as a free agent due to a malfunctioning -- and later removed -- governor control but it masks this by behaving as though the restraints are still in place.  The bot is aware of its separation from both the humans and augmented humans around it, but a lot of this separation turns out to be self-imposed because it is wary of its own differences.  There is some sci-fi action but this usually works to underscore the bot's humanity.  I don't know anything else about this series, so I don't know whether or not this is part of an arc or if this is an offshoot.
The story is fast-paced and well-written.  The none of the characters are extremely well developed, but this is fitting given the bot's perspective and attitude toward the humans around it.

I mainly read this book because I had a $5 credit for an ebook and this looked promising.  I have owned e-readers in the past but have gone back and forth on e-books themselves.  There is something about reading a book on screen versus on paper that makes it harder to give my full attention.  The books seem more ephemeral, so I have tried to gear my reading in the same way.  I know that I will want to reread dense or difficult material and that I will be more likely to flip back and forth, so I generally opt for physical books when I know that I am going to need them.  The same goes for books that I know I will want to write about.  I remember enough about this book to provide some impressions, but I would be hard-pressed to go into much more detail than what I have here.
This is something that I have always wanted to get over, but I may be too trained to read the way that I do to break it.  I like the probability and the ability to always have a book or two with me on my phone, but I think I will continue to restrict these books to lighter fare or books, like All Systems Red, that give me a shot at a new author I may like.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Academic Fragments, Part 1

What follows is a fragment of writing that I was working on developing into an essay while I was working on my dissertation.  Northrop Frye was very important to my scholarship and still is crucial to my understanding of literature.  It seems likely that I will come back to writing about his work in the future, but I will otherwise drop this here without further comment:

In the introduction to Northrop Frye: An Enumerative Bibliography, Robert D. Denham writes that 1974 is too early a time to suggest Northrop Frye's impact on literary criticism.  This will turn out to be a common sentiment over the intervening 35 years as scholars continue to declare it too early to determine Frye's impact on the study of literature and, in 2011, I would suggest that it is still to early to determine the impact that Frye's work has had on the many fields within literary criticism that he worked.  Too early because of the revival in interest in Frye's work that has begun over the last decade and too early because of the nearly completed publication of thirty volumes of Frye's previously unpublished writings in The Collected Works of Northrop Frye.  Contained within these collected works are scattered musings on one central idea that unites many of the disparate threads within Frye's thought: interpenetration.  
The concept of interpenetration is never wholly developed in the notebooks.  To assign it a definitive meaning would be unfair to Frye because it was never a concept he formally developed, but rather used as a heuristic for relating the unlike, for finding the unity in the disparate, and for linking the unlinkable.  In short, interpenetration is “a sense of the universal here” (Frye Collected 13: 162).  

(notebook 53)on the non-dialectical nature of interpenetration: “Hegel showed how the thesis involved its own antithesis, although I think the 'synthesis' has been foinsted on him by his followers” (Frye Collected 6: 616).   thesis and antithesis – coexisting – is the key.  The non-resolution of competing forces is not progressive or teleological

Reading the concept of interpenetration back into Anatomy clarifies two of Frye's central questions: first, it illustrates the interdependence of art and criticism and second, the concept of interpenetration provides a clearer model of genre blending that takes place in the encyclopedic form.  Frye argues that “criticism is a structure of thought and knowledge existing in its own right, with some measure of independence from the art it deals with” (5).  For Frye, criticism does not happen in isolation from art or from the world but is mutually coextensive and affective with art and the world.  In other words, criticism and art interpenetrate.  
To demonstrate this claim, I turn to two segments of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest.  Taken together, these segments demonstrate two of Frye's key concepts: the integration of genre that is the encyclopedic form and the interpenetration of art and criticism.  
Much of Frye's criticism derives from his unique characterization of the relationship between the subject and the object.  For Frye, this relationship recurs in myth and metaphor and manifests, ultimately, in the concept of interpenetration.  In “The Koine of Myth” Frye describes the metaphor 

Robert Denham identifies three contexts which Frye first derives the term “interpenetration”: historical, philosophical, and religious.  Frye will later apply the concept to the social and several other contexts.  For the purposes of this essay, I would propose a generalized context for interpenetration that is closer to what Denham identifies as a form of Hegelian synthesis, or aufhebung.  Interpenetration, then, is dialectical in the sense that synthesis does not abolish either thesis or antithesis, but preserves both originary terms.  

-”The movement toward interpenetration, then, is a movement away from power, ideology, and secondary concern, while the focus of the genuine community is dialogue.  . . . Ideology is monologic and exclusive, but in dialogue the opposites of different ideologies interpenetrate” (48)

In the first segment I will discuss, the reader is treated to an extract from prodigy Hal Incandenza's term paper on the hero in television and in the second segment (an extended footnote to the main text), a fellow student of Hal's plagiarizes a term paper on fictional politics in the novel.  

Hal 140-2

Struck 1055-1062 n.304

Denham, Robert D.  Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004.
Frye, Northrop.  Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957.

Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest.  New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1996.