Book Reviews

Book Under Review (February 2021)

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I was certainly not expecting (or wanting) any other books to review before the end of this first month, but I have received another one from Library Journal to review, due towards the end of February.

Image from Princeton UP webpage (accessed 26 January 2021)

Christopher A. Bail’s new book, Breaking the Social Media Prism: How to Make Our Platforms Less Polarizing, to be published by Princeton University Press in April 2021, is a short work and looks at political polarization, echo chambers, and what social science research of a few types has taught him about a possible, hopeful (perhaps, idealized), future for social media. Review to be published by Library Journal.

Books Under Review (January 2021)

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Reviewing books is a mainstay of engaged writing, and has, I think, a number of uses to the world. These reviews reflect current cultural memes in some way by guiding how a book is approached, the books themselves, of course, are shedding illumination on some of their historical contexts, and definitely reflect language itself over time. Book reviews, I would say, can really be examples of meaningful societal consideration and can truly have some literary merit (not that I am saying mine have much merit). 🙂

I have been reviewing books for Library Journal for, I think, almost 8 years now, and plan to continue for a time. I get to read new books and I learn a lot. I mean, I get to read books that might not ever ‘come across my desk’ normally but that from which I get to learn a lot of new things about society, technology, history, literature, and sociology. Back in 2015, I even wrote reviews of books as part of a single long article about new books on privacy and surveillance. It was fun and, like I said, I learned a lot and contributed to the discussion of an important (its still important) subject. But, to look at the books being examined in this post, one of the books currently in-progress in the review procedure is for Library Journal and one is for another periodical.

Currently, I am reviewing the two titles below:

1. For Beautiful Black Boys Who Believe In A Better World by Michael W Waters and Keisha Morris (illustrator). This picture book is about gun violence and hope for peace to stop said violence.

2. Genius Makers: The Mavericks Who Brought AI To Google, Facebook, And The World by Cade Metz. This book is about the major personalities behind the building and development of, neural networks, machine learning, and, what we would call now, artificial intelligence.

The two reviews I have underway are due to two different editors for two different publishers – one of which is Library Journal. The subjects of each book are not directly related – but this is part of the fun. Like I mentioned above, I get to read widely and learn from a variety of perspectives and situations. This post is just a snapshot of those perspectives being looked at this month.

From the #Library Stacks: Room to Dream (#Lynch) / TM built on a lie, #Christ is the Truth

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From the Library Stacks: Room to Dream...

I am still taking stock of my bookshelves and items from my collection, Room to Dream, by David Lynch and Kristine McKenna is the book being examined in this post.

Room to Dream by David Lynch and Kristine McKenna

Caveat: Below, I list and analyze some Hindu beliefs. We need to be aware that Hinduism is sometimes called a family of religions, not a discrete religion of one belief – thus some statements way below in the listing and the analysis must be read with that in mind.

All folks who talk to me at length will find that I am a fan of David Lynch. I like this man’s art! His paintings, photography, films, television projects, even the few of his commercials that I have seen (unfortunately, I have seen very few of his commercials I must admit). If you knew his website back when it was being run on Flash and fundamentally was designed and run by him, will know that David Lynch has ‘preached’ Transcendental Meditation (TM) for quite some years now. Most of us will know that he added his name to a foundation (The David Lynch Foundation) built on the premise to teach and advocate for world peace through TM. Room to Dream also layers TM throughout its narrative as well as a myriad of other things.

I must make one comment about the book before I draw light to its content. The style of the book has only one precedent in my mind – though there are surely others – which would be Chronicles, Volume 1, by Bob Dylan in the way that the book is full of memories, and memories as a form of art – not just memories as containers of truth from the past. Room to Dream operates in a similar, albeit, not identical fashion by laying out a ‘standard’ chapter in which a 3rd person omniscient view on history with no ‘I(s)’ or ‘You(s)’ and is then followed by the looser ruminations collected by persons who were part of that previous chapter: Lynch himself, directors, family friends, etc. These chapters jump from anecdote to anecdote and from person to person. It makes for an enjoyable matrix in which to consider the life of one, David Lynch.

I had not really considered there would be an ‘autobiography’ by David Lynch during his lifetime. There will be more biographies written about David Lynch in the future as different people assess his work from different perspectives. I want to quickly draw attention to some of the funnest moments from the book, moments that show why people like him and like working with him so much.

To begin, I will just reiterate that folks who work with David Lynch say over and over again what a pleasure it is to work with him on either the production or the acting side. Room to Dream is full of such comments that simply repeat what Peter Deming said of Lynch in the film, Pretty as a Picture: The Art of David Lynch (1997) – a kind of ‘making of’ Lost Highway (1997). Deming says, ‘What distinguishes David from other directors is that his imagination runs wild and he creates a mood on screen, and he creates a mood on the set, that people work in. I’ve never seen a crew so happy to work for a director before.’ Deming, who himself has a full set of projects under his belt in the business, has worked for David Lynch for many projects over the years, is fundamentally repeated by actor or production person after another with his words. Nearly identical sentences are said by Naomi Watts, Kyle MacLachlan, Isabela Rossellini, and Deepak Nayar. It just seems that he is somebody who really shows respect to people, no matter their contributions to the film, and during the entirety of shooting. I get the impression that this is not the case on many sets in Hollywood. That mood Deming describes also permeates the friendliness of the anecdotes from the many players who show in the book’s pages. It feels very nice (which is the kind of word that Lynch himself would use I think).

I don’t want to retell the story in the book, but there were so many items from the early days and the almost present days that lay out what kind of artist David Lynch is – he works all the time and has multiple projects on his plate simultaneously. One such example takes place in London while David Lynch is taking a ‘rest’ from the filming of The Elephant Man (1980). David’s wife of the time had just had a miscarriage, and the film was in the editing phase, so there was time and emotions at play at that point in Lynch’s life.

This selection from the book summarizes this point about the multiple projects very well: “Lynch’s idea of relaxing is to make something, and when Fisk returned to America for additional medical care following her miscarriage, he came up with a project for himself. The day she left London, he went to a fish counter and purchased a mackerel, took it home, dissected it, laid out the parts, labeled them for ease in reassembly, then photographed the display” (page 152).

David Lynch shows what a productive human being with certain gifts can accomplish. Now, these gifts were given to Lynch by God himself, but Lynch does not give him honor. He is someone who shows what a person can do if they use their time well, knowing it is limited. I really appreciate this aspect of Lynch’s life, or what we might call the ‘art life.’ Criterion in fact distributes a documentary about David Lynch called, David Lynch: The Art Life (2016). The book details the development of his three-house compound in the hills around Los Angeles in which he houses his painting studio, his music/recording studio, and rumor has it that he even builds his own furniture. I very much appreciate these aspects of David Lynch’s life and this book, Room to Dream, relates much of this creativity, the process, and the people involved.

At this point, I must turn a corner to look at Lynch’s embrace of Transcendental Meditation. The book’s included index allows me to go back through the pages that reference TM [25, 50, 104-5, 130, 270, 274, 379, 421, 422, 467-68, 470, 500, 504] (575). As one can see, Lynch has held onto his belief in TM for a long time, and in the book, he gives it much credit, as to others who saw changes in David Lynch’s life. They talk about his reduction of anger and in his book, Catching The Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity, he focuses on TM and its relationship to his own creative beliefs.

I am happy that Lynch has found happiness and he is less angry with other people. These are good things. But there are all kinds of things that can cause a person to feel happier, some of which are just regular things that happen in peoples’ lives. But just because David Lynch enjoys TM, and finds value in it does not mean that TM is inherently right or true. TM is not only philosophically empty, it is fundamentally, and this is the important point, a lie. It is not based on truth.

I will dig into some of these aspects of TM in a bit. Right off of the bat, however, let me just state that as a practice it has removed itself from its religious context and even declares one need not have religious beliefs to practice it. Yet, the very nature that there is some ‘truth’ or truth-value to be found in TN praxis, one must realize that it presupposes that it is truly valuable and can truly help a person to realize something about themselves. This is presupposed – and yet un-examined. Nobody is neutral, and TM is certainly not. What justification do the practitioners have for their beliefs in its practice? Do they trust their feelings? Well. why should we trust one person’s feelings about what is true? In Room to Dream, David Lynch talks about allegiance to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and being saddened when he died. But in this narrative is no reliance upon TM’s Hindu background. This suggests to me that it is cherry picked for something it offers as useful, aka, ‘pragmatic,’ and does not necessarily encompass anything like a worldview or even trying to form a worldview in seriousness.

In addition, and this is huge, TM as a practice, attempts to deny any necessary relationship to worldview, it has nothing to say on why or how there is even a world at all. TM has nothing to say about this very world we live on, spinning through space, exists. TM has nothing to say about what people are as creatures nor why it is even valuable to be ‘enlightened.’ The issue of worldview and the issue that there is even a world are not disconnected notions. Rather they are fundamentally related and must be examined by those who are serious about the lives they live and why the live those lives. The Bible has something very simple to say about this world we live and breathe on. In Genesis chapter 1, verse 1, we find this simple statement:

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

The very first words of the Bible tell us that we can know how the heavens and the earth came into existence. All was created by God himself. TM has no such claim. Rather, as already mentioned, attempts to remove itself from any significant matrix of ‘world’ at all. I want to take this further, right past all the prophets who told of the coming of the King, the Son, the Messiah, to words about that very King, Jesus, found in Paul’s letter to the church at Collosae, Colossians, chapter 1, verses 15-17,

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.”

The question then is, do we trust the words in the Bible? If not, why not? We could go further, but in just the inclusion of these four verses, the one from Genesis, and the three of Colossians, we see two important simple statements: 1. God created the world (the heavens and the earth), aka, we have a statement that the ‘what’ was created and is not just tacitly taken for granted as existing, and; 2, we are told who created the what – it was God the Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus created everything and holds everything together. What an important statement that God, the God who became a man in Jesus, walked on the planet Earth for a time, is the creator of all things that have been made. Wow! Do we believe these words? I do. But what a difference this statement is from the Bible than anything like TM because, if the God of the Bible is the creator of everything that has been made, seen and unseen, this should radically change our lives and our understandings of who we are as humans. We must have a true anthropology before we can even dream of knowing who we are or what we are capable of doing. The Biblical view of creation is a great starting point for a true anthropology.

According to the Transcendental Meditation site, tm.org, “The Transcendental Meditation technique is taught in the U.S. by Maharishi Foundation USA.” From the book, we know that David Lynch fell in love with TM in the 1970s and developed a fondness for TM’s founder, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a Hindu leader, who brought TM to America, and who died in 2008. TM is defined in this way, according to the site, “The TM technique allows your active mind to easily settle inward, through quieter levels of thought, until you experience the most silent and peaceful level of your own awareness — pure consciousness.”

Hinduism is a large religion. The History Channel web-page for Hinduism says this, “Today, with about 900 million followers (Wikipedia states the number of followers is about 1.25 billion as of December 2020), Hinduism is the third-largest religion behind Christianity and Islam.” That is a large group. I will delve a bit into Hinduism because TM was taught by someone whose original religion was Hinduism. David Lynch has no stated relationship to Hinduism. The book does not even list “Hinduism” in the index. The TM site referenced above suggests that one does not need any specific beliefs in God or religion to practice it. That might technically be true as David Lynch makes no statements for one religion or another. But the source for TM is Hinduism in a similar way that Yoga has its origin in India and the Vedas. One can not separate the religious practice from either.

That same History page referenced above lists some of these basic Hindu beliefs (remember: Hinduism is sometimes called a family of religions, not a discrete religion of one belief) What follows is a list of some of these beliefs with some response from a biblical perspective:

Hindu Belief: Most forms of Hinduism are henotheistic, which means they worship a single deity, known as “Brahman,” but still recognize other gods and goddesses. Followers believe there are multiple paths to reaching their god.

Biblical Response: The Bible refutes this statement and declares there is one God. We know this from the ancient statement known as the ‘shema,’ “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4) / “You are My witnesses,” declares the LORD, “And My servant whom I have chosen, So that you may know and believe Me And understand that I am He. Before Me there was no God formed, And there will be none after Me” (Isaiah 43:10) / In the book of Mark, when a scribe asks Jesus what the most important commandment is, replies, quoting the verse above from Deuteronomy 6:4, “One of the scribes came and heard them arguing, and recognizing that He had answered them well, asked Him, ‘What commandment is the foremost of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The foremost is, ‘HEAR, O ISRAEL! THE LORD OUR GOD IS ONE LORD; AND YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND, AND WITH ALL YOUR STRENGTH.’ ‘The second is this, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.’ The scribe said to Him, ‘Right, Teacher; You have truly stated that HE IS ONE, AND THERE IS NO ONE ELSE BESIDES HIM” (Mark 12: 28-32).

Clearly, the Bible declares that there is one God (and we know from the previous comments about creation, that this one God created the heavens and the earth).

Hindu Belief: Hindus believe in the doctrines of samsara (the continuous cycle of life, death, and reincarnation) and karma (the universal law of cause and effect)

Biblical Response: No place is anything like reincarnation stated or supported in the Bible, but rather, in a straight forward manner says what we would call the opposite truth, “And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).

Clearly, the Bible says that each human lives and dies the one time and then, this one God who created the heavens and the earth will judge each human.

Hindu Belief: One fundamental principle of the religion is the idea that people’s actions and thoughts directly determine their current life and future lives

Biblical Response: I won’t suggest that people’s decisions, actions, and thoughts don’t have consequences, but they do not cause consequences in the ultimate sense. Humans are creatures, as we know from Genesis, they are created by God alone. The Bible says that God is sovereign in these (a selected number) verses: There is verse after verse in which this phrase is used – a phrase that reiterates that God’s purposes and plans will be fulfilled, “The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this” (2 Kings 19:31, Isaiah 9:7, Isaiah 27:32) / “The plans of the heart belong to man, But the answer of the tongue is from the LORD” (Proverbs 16:1) / “The mind of man plans his way, But the LORD directs his steps” (Proverbs 16:9) / Referring to those who love God, Paul writes to the Roman church these words, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8: 28) / “All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, But He does according to His will in the host of heaven And among the inhabitants of earth; And no one can ward off His hand Or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’ (Daniel 4:35) / and a real clincher from Psalms, “But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases” (Psalm 115: 3). Wow, God resigns over all.

These verses work together to declare that not only is God sovereign over all things, but He will not be mocked. His word stands firm and will not be broken. God himself determines people’s lives, not us. Plus, and this is a key factor in an analysis of TM, its Hindu roots, compared to Christian beliefs, not only do we not have ‘future lives,’ as determined by those verses already mentioned above about once to die and then the judgment, but that mention of ‘future lives’ refers to reincarnation and the human ‘works’ that determine how one is continuing in their reincarnation…God himself is a savior by showing grace. There is clearly a ‘works’ orientation for ‘improvement or ‘salvation’ (which I don’t think is a word that would be used by Hindus, though I could be wrong). But the Bible tells is that no one is saved by works, but by grace. Paul, states this so clearly in his letter to the church in Ephesus, when he writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). so, with that one statement from the list of Hindu beliefs, we can find two points being made that are refuted by the Bible. God is in charge of every life and and God saves by grace. One is not saved by one’s own actions or ‘works.’

Hindu Belief: Hindus strive to achieve dharma, which is a code of living that emphasizes good conduct and morality

[I feel we need to make sure we understand how ‘dharma’ is defined so we can properly add a response.]

ref: ‘Dharma‘ is defined by the OED as, “In India, social or caste custom; right behaviour; law; esp. in Buddhism and Hinduism: moral law, truth.”

ref: ‘Dharma‘ is defined by Britannica as, “Dharma, Sanskrit dharma, Pali dhamma, key concept with multiple meanings in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism…In Hinduism, dharma is the religious and moral law governing individual conduct and is one of the four ends of life.”

Biblical Response: All points are connected of course, and by that I mean, that the Biblical response I offer below will and must embrace each point already offered. The is One God, He is sovereign over all things, and after each person’s single death, they will be judged. This above definition of ‘dharma’ from the History site, above the two other referenced definitions, infers a statement that there is moral right and moral wrong (called: ‘dharma’). But from what source or origin could we justify or validation calling a moral or moral-action ‘right’ or ‘wrong?’ The God of the Bible, the Holy Creator of the universe, has nobody higher in authority than Himself by whom to declare or swear or promise anything because besides Him, there is no God (Isaiah 44:6) / Jesus said he came not to abolish the law (that is the moral law), but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17) / Jesus, when asked by John the Baptist why he would be baptized (because John the Baptist knew that Jesus was in need of no repentance because He had no sin), Jesus says let be so to fulfill all righteousness (Matthew 3:15) / Hmm, Paul writes in Galatians, chapter 4, verse 4, “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law” – and Jesus us telling us that he came to fulfill the law, in fact, to fulfill all righteousness / When Jesus is approached by the ‘rich young ruler’ in Matthew chapter 9, Jesus tells this man, “There is only One who is good” (Matthew 9:17) / And after the resurrection, the powerful action of which Jesus said, “No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father” (John 10:18), Jesus shows himself to some disciples and Thomas, bowing down to Him in worship, says, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). These verses, plus so many more, militate for the idea that not only is Jesus God, the Creator, but that He is the standard Himself of which all standards of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ have their origin. God himself is our source of morals and moral actions. There is no place in the biblical worldview for vague and idolatrous ‘dharma.’

Conclusion: Clearly, there is a vast chasm between the beliefs of Hinduism, the religion on which TM has its origins, and Christianity as it is explained and defined in the Bible. Christ reigns as Lord of lords and King of kings! I pray that you will consider this post in light of comments made. I hope you will follow the references from the Bible and explore them to see if they do not declare that Jesus is, in truth, the perfect and all-sufficient savior! David Lynch might have found something that makes him happy, or that adds some happiness to his life and to his creative process, but according to the Bible, TM is not based or practiced from a position of truth.

The whole truth, and nothing but the truth, no TM can intuit this statement with which I conclude: Each human is a sinner before the Holy Creator of the universe. In Isaiah chapter 6, verse 5,

“Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts.”

We see Isaiah, who was a prophet, coming to this realization about himself and all those with whom he associated. Paul, the apostle writes a mirror of this statement in his letter to the Roman church when he writes in chapter 3, verse 23,

“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”

Each of us stands condemned before a Holy God. We have each broken the law of God. We have created and worshiped an idol, have stolen, have disrespected our parents, or have lied, or something else God has spoken on in His law / We have broken that law, each, every one of us, and we know it. And once a person breaks one law, it is the same as if they have broken all of it (James 2:10). Paul tackles this issue that we know this fact clearly, in Romans 1, verses 18-20,

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse”

But, what did God do? Did he leave us humans in our sin, to die in our sin, and all to go to hell?

No, He sent His Only Begotten Son, Jesus the Christ!

This is the beauty of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16). “Jesus said…, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6). “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). This is the mercy of God revealed in his Son, this is the grace of God in action. And Jesus came into the world, in the flesh, in history, Approximately two thousand years ago. If we repent of that sin we know we have committed before our Holy Creator, and turn in faith to the Lord Jesus, we will be saved. That is my prayer for every person who reads this post, that you will turn from your sin, in faith to Jesus Christ and follow Him.

References:

dharma, n.”. OED Online. December 2020. Oxford University Press. (accessed 25 December 2020).

dharma“. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/dharma-religious-concept (Accessed 25 December 2020)

Lynch, David and Kristine McKenna. 2018. Room to Dream. New York: Random House.

All Bible verses are from the New American Standard Bible: Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995, by The Lockman Foundation.

Book Club on the Radio, v. 3

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Our #Radiobookclub group is doing another Book-Chat on the Radio.

The event is January 20, 2015 at 8 pm on Fairfax Public Access Radio.

We’re reading Dana Shavin’s The Body Tourist.

bodytourist

(cover courtesy of the author’s website, accessed 11 Jan 2015)

You can order the book directly from the publisher, Little Feather Books.

I won’t be there this time, not even as a long-distance call-in. But Jenn Lawrence of @Indiethursday and Jenn’s Bookshelves, Ellen Clair Lamb and Jill of One More Page Books will all be there to do a live-close reading, review the work as a piece of writing, and surely talk about the book’s observations on anorexia.

Listeners can call in (please do): (703)-560-8255 and maybe watch a few Tweets with the #radiobookclub hashtag.

Thank you for reading.

Jesse L.

Review at Harvard University Press

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University of Virginia’s humanities/digital humanities scholar, Jerome McGann, produced a great book in his recently released

A New Republic Of Letters: Memory and Scholarship in the Age of Digital Reproduction

9780674728691-lg

(image courtesy of Harvard University Press (accessed 18 June 2014))

Harvard University Press released this title in March, 2014 and my review of the title was published in Library Journal in April 2014. I just found out today my review is currently (as of 18 June 2014) at the top of Harvard University Press’ list of reviews promoting the book.

Click here to see the review and the title at Harvard Uni Press.

 

Thank you for reading.

Jesse L.

 

Book Club on the Radio, v. 2

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‘Tis official, were organizing the second edition of #radiobookclub – set for June 10, 2014 @ 8 PM EST.

Sponsored by the 21st Century Librarians at Metamedia Management (yours truly), the good folks at One More Page Books. Ellen Clair Lamb and Jenn Lawrence of #INDIETHURSDAY, we’re doing another book club on the radio. We spun the wheel and have chosen another good title. This one is very different from the Elmore Leonard we read before.

This time, we’re reading THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS by John Connolly.

 

Book of Lost Things

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’ll be going live on The Radio Hotline With Dennis Price at Radio Fairfax at 8 PM (EST) on June 10.

Please call in and talk to the panel about the book, or any other John Connolly title you like.

The number to call is (703)-560-8255 and the radio show can be streamed from the web here.

We look forward to hearing from you on the radio.

 

Thank you for reading.

Jesse L.

 

My Featured SHORT Review

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I learned recently that the blog connected with the Best American Poetry series, an anthology and promotional series that has been running for about 30 years, spotlighted my Library Journal review of Alan Ziegler’s SHORT, a collection of writing from all genres just recently published.

SHORT

(click on the image to see the spotlight, thanks)

Thank you Best American Poetry. It takes a collaborative effort to run the empire of literature. 🙂

BEstpoetry

(Click on the Best American Poetry image to be taken to information on the current incarnation of their anthology, thanks)

Thank you for reading.

Jesse L.

The Almost-Book Whole-Review of Mad as Hell

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“The Almost Book – A Review of Dave Itzkoff’s Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies”*

Dave Itzkoff. Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies.

Times Books.  NY, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 2014. ISBN: 9780805095692

Dave Itzkoff of the New York Times, writes for their Arts Beat Blog and contributes as a culture reporter, pulls together the topics he usually writes about and delivers an extremely pleasurable item in his new, Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies. He is not at all unfamiliar with popular formats such as film and television. The star, rather the protagonist of Itzkoff’s book, is the screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote the screenplay for Network (1976) and previously wrote for popular television programs in his day. Itzkoff uses this background to base his book as he starts in the past, sections the book from about 2 years before Network and ends it not too long afterwards…sort of…

madasHellCover9780805095692

If I could imagine a container or a shape I felt while reading for the text in this book, it would be a flat road. For example, it took a long while to gather actors to play some of the major roles. There were tensions and expectations around each one. Faye Dunaway, the talent that she is, was not without her troubled baggage before and after the film. Specifically, the character of Howard Beale, the “prophet” of the film who does all the screaming in the role and then eventually gets co-opted into the very system he wanted to undermine was played by Peter Finch who died the year after the film’s release at the young age of sixty. This character is polarizing in his anger and in his profanity.

But if this character is as important to the critical position in the film, and stands-in for the frustration felt by the screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky, why should there not be a better direction of the narrative in the book surrounding him? I think there should be. Instead, the book moves along in sections not obviously arranged for dramatic purposes. The stress Chayefsky and the producer closest to him, Howard Gottfried, felt as they sent the script around the globe and did not find anyone for a while should somehow be represented better in the book itself as a form. Yes it’s history. But history is writing and that should show. Instead, Itzkoff’s choice, or maybe the publisher, is to include a slew of sections with bolded text that transition from one to another with no regard to dramatic structure created via chapter breaks. If editing in film is used to create and manipulate drama, breaking a book into better chapter sections can be thought of as an analog.

Instead, while Chayefsky and Gottfried close in on their best picks to play important characters such as Howard Beale, Itzkoff engages in constant sublimation, for example, by opening that last section when Finch is picked to play Beale by simply opening with the words, “Since the Spring…” a full double-space away from the previous section which opened with the words, “On September 24, 1975…” on the picking of William Holden for another major part. The style of these “chapters” reads like a personal diary by someone with little stake in the outcome. The meaningful actor/director choices put together for a film that would go on to win several academy awards are all locked up in a vague title section called, “A Great Deal of Bullshit.” I assume these were words Chayefsky expressed about and through the process of finding each player for the film. But the words themselves do not have much meaning. It is a hard choice though – book titling. It might be interesting to do research into the trends and changes in book and chapter titles for which this little review could be a footnote. I only suggest that a book on such a dramatic persona as Chayefsky make his life’s central work of art find a style and structure that better represents that persona.

According to the book’s narrative, after Network won its awards, Peter Finch died and every other player in the film went onward to other dreams. Chayefsky set to work on a screenplay for another film I like called Altered States (1980). He wanted Sidney Lumet to direct this film, but Lumet had already made other commitments. As a result, Ken Russell, the artist (slightly avant-garde) director of such works as The Devils (1971) and the cult music-crossover film, Tommy (1975) starring Pete Townsend from the English band, The Who, took over the reins and experienced what everyone has who worked with Chayefsky on a film, the locking of bullhorns over control of what happens with a film after a screenwriter has agreed to sign his or her writing over to a crew making a film from it. Chayefsky disagreed with Russell on a number of points. He did not appreciate the set structure and the approach Russell used at all. But it was not in Russell’s contract to be directed by the screenwriter. Russell did not back down. Eventually Chayefsky left the set and never set foot on it again.

In fact, Altered States was the last film he wrote before he died in August 1981. But it is with this section that alters the state for Chayefsky in film that the direction and purpose for Itzkoff’s book truly comes together. During the work for Altered States, which Chayefsky was “selling” as a Jekyll and Hyde novel first, one man, Chayesfsky, gets a lucrative film deal for what would become Altered States, the other man, Chayefsky (note the very subtle difference in the two), gets kicked of the set of that same film and returns to his office in NYC and does not produce another thing for the rest of his life – a life that was to end before the next year was over. It is not clear which was the angry monster and which was the man who created the monster. Even though Itzkoff’s anecdotes are fun to read and historically accurate, they do not themselves direct one toward an emotional catharsis one should expect from a book that revolves around heavy expression, an “angry” driven writer and the film that would make him the most famous.

The section just after the ending of Paddy Chayefsky’s death, however, marks the real catharsis for the book. It is here where Itzkoff collects a series of stinging anecdotes about the state of media today and what it’s like to work in the movie business. He quotes director/actor Ben Affleck who says anyone can still get his or her movie made as long as one if committed enough to it all the way through. He references contemporary stars such as Kieth Olbermann and their statements that Network can be read as a vision for the future (now) in that drama and increasingly niche programming has trumped “hard news.” We won’t bring up the other aspect of this debate, that one between televised news programming and newspapers. The issue has become central to programming on cable, satellite and what is left of the networks – news was considered a public service surrounded by lighter advertisement-filled content such as shows and other dramatic works. These times have changed according to the book. Everything must conform to the bottom line. It is with this examination of the sell-out method of contemporary media that Paddy Chayefsky’s rage can still be directed. As a result, it is precisely here that Dave Itzkoff’’s book comes together as a whole object, a whole history.

Dave Itzkoff’s Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies, finds itself mostly unified at the end. It brings together the person Paddy Chayefsky and his most famous character into a more defined purpose.

Thank you for reading.

Jesse L.

*A variant of this review has also been published at LibraryThing as part of Early Reviewers.

Library Journal Review of Time, History, and Literature: Selected Essays

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My newest review has been published by Library Journal.

This one is on the writings of Erich Auerbach, romance philologist, literary critic and historian. The text was edited by James I. Porter with translations from the German by Jane O. Newman.

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(click on the image to see the 06 Dec 2013 review list please)

From the review: “Auerbach (1892–1957), German critic, literary historian, and romance philologist, promoted the idea of the national spirit in literature and ruffled some feathers by stating that all scholars in the arts and humanities are only writing history in their respective fields…”

Thank you for reading.

Jesse L.

I welcome comments on the book or the review here or at Twitter.

Paul Auster’s New Memory – a Review of REPORT FROM THE INTERIOR

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Review of Paul Auster’s REPORT FROM THE INTERIOR (ARC)

NY, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 2013. ISBN: 9780805098570

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Thank you to Henry Holt and Company for the advance copy.

I am adding to my #library of book reviews.

May contain a few spoilers…oops…sorry. 🙂

If one grants Paul Auster the grace of living under the shadow of Umberto Eco – an older writer who has tackled the notion of producing an album of objects from the past – and the late W.G. Sebald – the died-too-young author of gold standards for performing archaeology on memory in fiction – then we can allow ourselves to truly enjoy Auster’s newest non-fiction, REPORT FROM THE INTERIOR. This book comes on the heels of another biographical text, WINTER JOURNAL, also published by Henry Holt and Company in 2012. I make this point, not because Auster’s book is a negative experience, but because the style he employs plays in the same PoMo (post-modern) sandbox Eco and Sebald played so well.i

Auster structures his book into four sections, REPORT FROM THE INTERIOR, TWO BLOWS TO THE HEAD, TIME CAPSULE and ALBUM – each designed to represent the past as it produced Auster’s writing habits and his overall ideology of the world. And even though this book, like the last one masquerades as a memoir, it is much more creative than that. Not that I am against biographical works of any kind, but Auster’s style has never allowed him to follow simple conventions. He is an artist and is really trying to get to something more obscure about the writing of one’s past. DISCLAIMER, when Auster writes of his past, one must understand he does not mean simply to “tell the truth” about his life over the years, though there is certainly much of that. He means to show that his past comes into being at the moment of its writing.

We know this because in the first section of the book, the one entitled, REPORT FROM THE INTERIOR, he speaks to himself then, in the past, in the second person, you, – he addresses himself. Yet, under normal conventions in writing, when authors use that address in their sentences, they are often addressing the reader. In this we come to understand that even though he is probably referring to himself as a 6-year old boy, the style works in the present tense. Rather, even as he is talking to “himself” with that address, the convention of you brings out the readerliness of his book. Yes, Auster is writing the words in his office on Brooklyn, but is also showing the reader that there is no story without the reader – even if it’s only him. Auster gets to have a slew of readers who have picked up the book from their local bookstore (hopefully) and he gets to objectify himself as a character in the book for them and himself because he is the one writing it. The REPORT…must have a reader to whom to deliver.

I mean, with that being so, the actual facts of the REPORT are beside the point even though they are arranged in a pleasurable and creative way for the reader. So when Auster constructs this section of the book, the most conventional “memoir/auto-biographical” section of the entire book, he writes of getting into trouble once because he hacked a tree in his yard with inspiration found in the mythology of George Washington’s “I do not mean to tell a lie” tale about chopping a cherry tree down. The actual reference to this tiny tale from America’s national mythology is meaningless as a tool to get to the truth because that story has become almost a cliché of youth and supposed honesty. But what is does accomplish, something that falls right in line with Auster’s genre play over the years, his play with writing and influence, is that childish point of contact between one form of art – that of national mythology and George Washington – and his writing of his own life – that of the REPORT…

The second section, TWO BLOWS TO THE HEAD, besides revealing Auster’s claims for having developed a social conscience because of cinema (two films to be examined below as they relate to Auster’s reading of them), also acts as an illusion (another post-modern trick) to that most Truffautian of all French New Wave films, François Truffaut’s, The 400 Blows (1959), in a way that can only refer to influence, though productive on his way of thinking and art, is also a trauma. If you see the film, you will understand the reason I use the word trauma. I have come to believe the word, trauma, has been used too simply. It is often used with negative connotations – as if trauma is something which stops development or growth in a person’s mind and body. Even The Oxford English Dictionary defines, “trauma, n” as, “a wound or external bodily injury“ (as it relates to physical pathology) and “a psychic injury…caused by emotional shock” (as it relates to psychoanalysis and psychiatry). But what we fail to understand with this simplistic definition is one’s life is made of one event or another – each of which influences how that person decides to interact with every next moment in their lives. The result is of course said person’s whole life. Yet somehow, we believe we can pick apart one set of experiences as wholly negative while others are categorized as positive. One is called trauma while the other is called influence. It is too simple to subdivide one part of one’s life from another.

For example, Auster talks about his having developed a social conscience because of two films: The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) and I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). The first film is about a man who starts shrinking due to exposure to radiation. Oh, and may I emphasize the fact that this non-fiction “memoir” has an entire section dedicated to analyzing two films? But this is creative because he finds yet another mode to subvert the genre of the “autobiography.” What makes this film account interesting is Auster has essentially translated the film back into prose and narrates the film from his point of view – the watcher. He discusses the high-drama of the film, its slight horror-effect, and its science-fictional content – all things that come back to his writing later. But this is a film. The use of science-sounding technical terms in the film adds to his suspension of disbelief while watching the film. Plus, he realizes, sort of after the fact, but also while watching it as a young kid, that the film is a form of dramatic manipulation. The story is made of the elements in it – something Auster has followed closely through his books. He knows the act of writing a book, of collecting information for it, of making decisions for its production is as important as a the “final” product. It is almost as if there is no final product.

The film is a culmination of words and images layered in celluloid, but the telling of the film is what makes the film real. Auster must either tell himself about the viewing experience or someone else. In this case, again, with the use of the second-person direct, he is directing his telling of the film to both parties. Auster also wants to perform for his readers the act of thinking through art – an act which of course invites his readers to think through his own writing. He might also be enacting a form of transparent writing style where is goes into the second film, “Fugitive…” so we might understand the more emotional human elements in his style. He hopes to tie a sense of justice to his own history of writing. He accomplishes this by exploring the routine of oppression and violence inflicted upon the main character, James Allen. He hopes to draw attention to imbalances of fairness in the world brought to light in art. There should be no doubt why Auster is called a “meta-writer.” His books are as much about writing and reading as they are “new” stories – an observation I make precisely because in the first sentence of this review, I mentioned Eco and Sebald – two authors who might also be considered “meta-writers.”

The third section of REPORT FROM THE INTERIOR is called TIME CAPSULE and features an examination of personal papers, letters sent to his first wife, the author and translator Lydia Davis. I know who is current wife is, Siri Hustvedt, who by the way has a new book coming out in March 2014 called, The Blazing World. But I did not know his ex-wife was/is the talented experimental author Lydia Davis. This section accomplishes its goals – that of opening a “case” of objects from the past to see how one you relate to them way later. In this case, there are letters that Lydia Davis has about which she inquires if Auster is interested. The context for being asked about these letters is the creation of another archive – Lydia Davis has decided to donate her letters and papers to a research university library. Auster himself will probably do the same thing himself later. This is a TIME CAPSULE within a TIME CAPSULE within a TIME CAPSULE – three layers of objects of human expression. And, again, sneaky Auster, by writing that many authors give their papers to research libraries, he is again telling us that authors and their works are to be discussed, taken apart, filed, re-read and written about. Very meta indeed.

The fourth and final section of REPORT FROM THE INTERIOR is called ALBUM and contains stills, images, promotional pictures and other works of art Auster mentions through his book. I can’t show any of them here, but he includes images from each of the two films, pictures of Edgar Allen Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson and photographs of news events and places he mentions travelling through in France. This section doubles as a personal archive put together for his readers to see. Eco already used a collection of images from the past in his book, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2004). In that book, however, Eco uses the images from the main character’s past (probably in part Eco’s own past) to force a recovery from amnesia upon the protagonist. Isn’t it interesting that Auster is also playing with images as representations in a post-modern “memory” book? Auster’s book is not a copy, but there is a precedent in international literature for Auster’s approach.

This book strikes this author as very much a Paul Auster book. It is not boring at all. I did not feel, however, I was reading “just another Paul Auster” book. But one does come to see he can uses some tricks over time – even if they are used in new ways relative to the “memoir/auto-biography” genre.

Other books mentioned or alluded to in this review:

blazingworld-199x300QueenLoana                                          vertigo.sebald

A version of this review is also viewable at LibraryThing.

Thank you for reading.

Jesse L.

@jlibraryist