Book Review: Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene

Before Austin Powers!  Before Boysie Oakes!  Before Inspector Clouseau!  There was . . . James Wormold.  In this satirical novel, Greene creates some wonderful comedy, real tension and beautiful characterizations.  The Cold War was never so funny.

James Wormold is an English vacuum cleaner salesman who is headquartered in Havana.  His wife has left him to raise Milly, their teenaged daughter, by himself.  Milly has found that she can push her father around though guilt.  After all, he can’t provide her with a mother figure, so he’s easily manipulated.  Millie shows little regard for her father’s meager budget and that is what gets the ball rolling . . . .

Because of his need for cash, Wormold accepts being recruited into the British Secret Service.  The pay, based on the amount of intelligence he returns, will supplement the vacuum cleaner business.  The only problem is that Wormold knows no state secrets nor does he have appropriate ‘moles’ within his circle of friends.  So, to keep the funds flowing, he invents agents, bombs, and the like.

Wormold’s bogus reporting leads to all sorts of hot water for anyone connected to him.  Perhaps the funniest chapter in the whole book deals with a late night visit to Professor Sanchez.  As Wormold goes to the man’s house to warn him that the police will be looking for the him,  he interrupts an affair between the professor and his mistress.  Wormold is mistaken by the mistress for a plant sent by Professor Sanchez’s angered wife.  Anyone whose ever sat at  a wedding reception with people you don’t know–or walked into an argument into which you’ve had no contribution will find this chapter skin-crawlingly embarassing and, as well as truly amusing.

Wormold is an interesting character and Greene shows us–with a very light touch–the growth of the man.  He starts out as a cypher–he suffers the winds of fate in a really passive fashion.  Geene demonstrates that he’s a man without religious belief, without country, without personality.  Wormold’s wife left him saying, “Why don’t you do something, act some way, any way at all?  You just stand there . . . ”  Interestingly, it is how Wormold evolves and grows out of his blankness, his ennui, that makes Wormold such a great character.  As he builds a life, and makes mistakes along the way, we see a cardboard cut-out grow into a moral figure.

I found this the most satisfying part of the novel.  Wormold’s world was shattered by his wife’s leaving.  And anyone who has ever had questions about personal identity will empathize with Wormold’s vacillations.  People can really fall apart after divorce, major surgery, or economic crisis.  But as Edwin Friedman wrote, “A self is better than no self.”  Wormold discovers what it means to grow into a self. . . . and I owe him a tip of the hat for it.

Music to listen to:  Robert Palmer’s Woke Up Laughing.  Especially Charanga.

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Book Review: “Rock and Roll Doctor–Lowell George: Guitarist, Songwriter and Founder of Little Feat” by Mark Brend

I’ve been a fan of Little Feat since the late 1980’s.  I’ve followed their career closely and, even though I was too young to witness their first go-round in the 1970’s, I’m pretty familiar with the all phases of the band’s make up.  There seem to be two categories of fans in regard to the band:  First, there are the fans who claim that the Feat really ceased to exist after founding member Lowell George’s death in 1979.  Second, there are those that emphasize that Little Feat is really a great rock group, and that Lowell’s death (though early and tragic) didn’t end the band, as evidenced by their  career since re-forming in 1987.  I am firmly in the second camp.  It’s hard to think of a rock group that has been so consistent, in terms of quality and band members, over a 40 (!) plus year rock history.  Little Feat never attempted to re-invent its sound–like so many bands with long and varied careers.  Little Feat knows that its bread and butter is the bluesy-southern fried rock –New Orleans sound and has regularly mined their  group chemistry to great effect.

It seems that Mark Brend, the author of Rock and Roll Doctor, takes the first view.  He tips his hat to the other members of the Feat but the book is a biography of George pure and simple.  He follows George’s influence through the Feat albums and deftly deals with Lowell’s reputation as a slide guitarist.

There are lots of photos in the book and it is attractively presented.  Brend is obviously familiar with music and in his track by track take on Lowell George’s compositions, he provides some really interesting professional insights.  The book is a quick read and uncomplicated.

However, that’s its main weakness as well.  The book seems like an abridged version of a much longer work.  For example, Brend opens the book with two really interesting quotes about Lowell George.  Jackson Browne called him ‘the Orson Welles of rock and roll.’  And Lowell’s wife, Elizabeth, is quoted as saying: ‘There was nothing normal about that guy.’  However, both quotes are never explained.  Why is Lowell like Orson Welles?  Both were choleric geniuses?  Both were over-acheivers with damaging addictions?  They peaked too early and burned out too soon?  What exactly does that mean?  The same for the Elizabeth George quote–the remainder of the book describes a man who, if quirky, certainly wasn’t abnormal.  Brend fails to bring us into that world.

There are some glaring omissions as well–which give the book a feeling of a rough draft rather than a completed project.  For example, Brend doesn’t delve very deeply into George’s fiery collaboration with the Grateful Dead on ‘Shakedown Street.’  The author describes their work together as difficult –but he never says why.  Other omissions include: scant discussion of his pre-music life (one could be forgiven for missing that Elizabeth was Lowell’s second wife.  His first isn’t even named!) and the cause of his premature death.

The biggest disappointment is when it comes to song lyrics.  Lowell George’s lyricism is second to none and his songs have a sort of John Lennon surrealism about them.  Songs like “Sailin’ Shoes”, “Trouble” and “Fat Man in the Bathtub” cry out for interpretation–ribald and funny as they are.  But the author doesn’t look closely at this aspect of George’s contribution to the band.

What to listen to while reading this book:  What else?  Dixie Chicken

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Book Review: Towelhead by Alicia Erian

First off a warning:  This book has a mess of issues for anyone who is easily offended.  The title is obviously problematic; so much so that the film based on the book was renamed “Nothing is Private.”  Second of all, if you are bothered by the explicit and frank discussion of sexuality, especially in regards to a 13 year old girl, then I’d advise you to skip this one. 

I began Towelhead with a gasp and a shudder.  I ended the novel with much the same reactions but for very different reasons.  Alicia Erian’s book begins like falling into a freezing pond–you keep on trying to warm up but you can’t  get comfortable.  The story is told in the first person by a thirteen year old girl named Jasira.  She is being sent to live with her father because of sexual complications between her mother and her mother’s live in boyfriend.  The set up and the context here are very well done–Erian has us looking at the mixed up mind of American sexuality.  None of the adults provide much guidance or any good sense of boundaries–Jasira’s mother is distant and has chosen the boyfriend over her child; the mother’s boyfriend shows a tremendous lack of judgment and is perhaps a predator; Jasira’s father is  out of his depth in counseling his maturing daughter–bound as he is by his maleness and his discomfort with the feminine .  I put the book down frequently during the opening pages asking myself, “Is this really what goes on today?”  If so, we have a lot of dysfunction to repent of.

The question that Erian seems to lay at the readers’ feet is this:  “Has America failed its girls?”  Someone has to be looking out for young girls.  One cannot ship them away like the mother, nor can one ignore their maturation, like the father.  What shall our response be?  In this regard, the novel is bleak.  As a parent, I wanted to lock the doors and shut all the windows to cocoon for a while–for if this is the world we’re handing on to our daughters . . . .

The story is further complicated by Jasira’s next door neighbor, Mr. Vuoso, and her boyfriend, Thomas.  Vuoso is clearly the villain of the piece.  And as for Thomas, you want to cheer for Jasira because she’s found a boyfriend who is a high school classmate of hers–but he’s as messed up regarding sexuality as the rest of the cast of characters! (Perhaps he gets a bit of a pass since he too is a minor and confused about sex but still . . . . )

Into the bleakness of this suburban nightmare come Melina and Gil.  They are neighbors of Jasira’s and are the primary light and moral compass of the novel.  Unfortunately, their dominance of the last third of the book is what veers off into a strange sort of parody.  Up until this point, we’re used to flawed characters and complex portrayals.  This has been a strength of Erian’s writing–we really sense the ambiguity in a character like Jasira’s father or her boyfriend–we like them and find them distasteful at the same time.  However, Melina and Gil provide all the stability and all the answers that Jasira could seek.  It seems like a cop out.  (I knew the book was in trouble when all the main characters gathered at Gil and Melina’s house–a la some sort of sitcom comedy of errors–a sort of Three’s Company or Full House but with gallows humor. Hence my recurrent gasp and shudder.)  Up to the last third, realism had been Erian’s strength–you wince and laugh.  It just seemed at the end that the author flinched–she needed a happy ending to convince us that, yes, it will be all right.  It also seemed that Gil and Melina function as the God in the Machine in the novel–robbing Jasira of her independence, including the freedom to make some very harmful mistakes.

It’s not a major quibble, though.  All in all this is a very good novel and deserves to be read.  It asks some hard questions about our relationships with the next generation–especially in regards to gender and sexuality.  In particular, if you have daughters, you might have to read this one.  It won’t be pleasant.  Erian’s prose can be searing and Jasira’s naivete can be frustrating.  However, the book is certainly worth the journey.  It might wake you up.  It probably will bother you (on a bunch of fronts).  But it is worth your time.  But you won’t thank me for having you read it.

What to listen to while reading this book:  Easy choice, going back to the 1990’s time machine: Tori Amos, Little Earthquakes.

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Book Review: Villages by John Updike

John Updike’s youthful ambition was to be a cartoonist.  He had an excellent eye for painting and the visual arts; his two books on art, Just Looking (1989) and Still Looking (2005), attest to his critical mastery of artistic interpretation.

As I understand it, Updike was also one of the few American authors who had ‘made it’ to the point that he could dictate to his publishers what art his book covers would display.  Often, his covers give a hint as to the themes that emerge within.

Villages, published in 2004, heralds one of its main themes right on the dust jacket: we’re being watched!  The cover image is of The Turkish Bath by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (right.  Image in the Public Domain).  Ingres pulls the viewer in as a voyeur; gazing on a private moment of buxom young women in the nude.  The women mostly seem unaware of our trespass–one has a guitar, most are lazily lounging.  No one seems disturbed.

The (anti?)-hero of Villages is Owen Mackenzie.  Updike begins with Owen’s half-asleep, half-awake memories of his childhood.  Present day Owen is now seventy, looking back at his life, as as an observer.  He remembers villages where he grew up, had sex, got married, got divorced.  Sight, eyes, watchfulness, observation, and voyeurism all play a huge, if ambiguous, part in the novel.  Owen was formed by the comfort of his childhood village of Willow in Central Pennsylvania.  Yet, behind the supposed idyll of small town Americana, Owen was also a youthful witness to sin, secrets and gossip–he’s intrigued by playground graffiti of a naked woman as well as peeping into the high school girls’ locker room, which Owen remembered as having a ‘whiff of scandal’ (as well as lending the image for the cover.)

The ambiguity of sight as a theme is front and center.  In a brilliant early passage, Updike identifies Owen’s happiest childhood moment: near Christmas, playing by a miniature Christmas village, hearing the delivery of the mail: “That mailmen walked and trolley cars clanged through the storm seemed to confirm the Hollywood, comic-strip version of American reality; we were as safe, and as lovingly regarded from on high, as the tiny, unaging figures in a shaken snow globe.”  [43]  That same feeling of providence, of being watched from the heavens, interrupts a youthful dalliance with a woman in a car.  And if the previous hints weren’t enough, Owen is a co-inventor of computer technology named DigitEyes.

As Owen ages, we learn about his family, his career.    The novel is structured somewhat like a fugue–with themes overlapping and recurring.  Time shifts back and forth between Owen’s villages and marriages.  Updike clearly is dealing with the idea of nostalgia here–his verdict seems to be that the past was never as perfect as we remember it.  One could be forgiven for calling this one of his more pessimistic books–for Updike uncovers much of the pain and secrets of life that we’d wished had remained hidden.  However, I would prefer to call it realistic.  Updike lovingly crafts his prose, even the images of pain, sin and loss–and that’s how we’re to live, isn’t it?  Lovingly.

What to listen to when reading this:  Bach, The Art of the Fugue.

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Book Review: “A Small Town in Germany” by John Le Carre

I’ve found my mind returning again and again to spies this December.  It seemed like a spy-full year–from the raid on the bin Laden compound over the summer, to the Arab spring, to CIA drones and the list goes on and on.  So, I picked up a lesser known Le Carre called “A Small Town in Germany.”

It’s hard to imagine that this book would be the favorite of any Le Carre fan; and that’s not because it’s bad but rather that Le Carre wrestles with these same themes  in other, more familiar books.  In this regard, “A Small Town in Germany” is the dress rehearsal for his George Smiley series.  But where the Smiley novels are epic, globe-trotting and sweeping, this book, as the title suggests, is more parochial and insular.

“A Small Town in Germany” takes place in and around the British Embassy in early 1960’s Bonn.  Bonn is the captial of West Germany and the British Embassy serves as an island of colonialism and diplomacy, surrounded by political unrest.  A shadowy, populist politician, whose allegiance to the West is unclear, called Karfeld, is holding political rallies, courting the Soviet Bloc.  The embassy sits uneasily in the diplomatic section of the city–like a seafaring vessel surrounded by the storms of change.

A German, named Leo Harting, has gone missing from the embassy staff.  Is he a defector?  Has he stolen anything?  What’s his motive?  Le Carre uses an interesting device here–Harting never really appears on the scene.  The reader only gets others’ impressions of the man, his flaws, his character, his emotions.  In this regard, the book reminded me of a classic English cottage mystery, where the victim dies on the first page and the rest of the novel is the detective trying to piece together what kind of enemies the dead man had.  Harting functions as the victim in this schema; though he’s very much alive.  Enter, then, the detective.  Alan Turner is the spy catcher, called in from London to investigate Harting’s disappearance.

The title “A Small Town in Germany” might make you think this is a book focused on Bonn; a kind of travelogue.  It’s not.  Le Carre has little interest in portraying the sights and sounds of Bonn.  The relatively few occasions where he does so, though, sparkle.  Rather than focus on Bonn, what Le Carre has done is to successfully portray the British Embassy as a lonely island in midst of the Cold War.   The sense of isolation and tension is portrayed masterfully.  The prose often describes  closets, basements, cramped offices–re-enforcing the feeling of tightness and suspense.

In short, if you like Le Carre and your spy fiction, this is a good one.  And this is realistic spy fiction.  Unlike some other espionage authors whose stories veer off into the fantastic, Le Carre’s feet are on the ground.  The reader can well imagine that this story may have happened–and that this story is an essential part of understanding the Cold War.

What to listen to while reading this book:  Since it takes place in the early 60’s and is very Anglo-centric, I’ve got to suggest listening to Live at the BBC by the Beatles. 

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‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

This book, as well as the author, are so iconic that it is perhaps overlooked what kind of risks King took with this, his second novel.  The premise in lesser hands could have been disastrous–“What would have happened if Dracula showed up in 20th Century America?”  It almost makes you want to giggle imaging Bela Lugosi traipsing around Manhattan trying not to bump into Woody Allen or Andy Warhol.

Yet, in King’s hands, it’s really a triumph.  King makes this novel work by not going the obvious horror route and trying too hard to scare us.  Instead, he works so hard on the familiar, the everyday, that you believe him when he gets to the terrifying.  His craftsmanship in creating the place Jerusalem’s Lot, a small town in Maine, is done very well–echoing Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio or Masters Spoon River Anthology. The book really could be called “Our Town: With Vampires.”

Characterization is also great, although I felt there were a few too many characters at times.  The reader does care about the characters, though, and the deaths, even though you know they are coming, are all unsettling.

I really enjoyed picking out the allusions to the Vampire myth that King sprinkled throughout the novel.  He really did his homework.

So, the next time you’re bored with Prairie Home Companion or your domestic life seems a little stifling, pick up Salem’s Lot and enter into a terror that bites at your comfy slippered heels long after you’ve put the book away.

Music to listen to while you are reading this:  None really.  It’s scarier that way.  But if you must, Bruce Springsteen’s Glory Days, would be my choice for reading the preface only.

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Book Review: Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara

At the local library, they had a copy of this book with a photograph of John O’Hara on the cover.  I hadn’t heard much about O’Hara except that he was from Pottsville, Pennsylvania–which is a place I have a passing familiarity with.  The photograph of O’Hara was in black and white–and I thought he looked a little like my grandfather.  So, I checked the book out and took it home.

Imagine my surprise as I delved deeper into the novel and could visualize in O’Hara’s prose the sepia toned pictures that used to sit on my grandparents’ end tables!  The reader can hear the engines of early model Cadillacs, smell the tobacco, taste the Country Club Cocktails.  The mannered society of pre-World War II America is portrayed very richly and with tragic beauty.

Appointment in Samarra was published in 1934 and the sense of time and place is striking.  He’s writing about a fictionalized Pottsville (called Gibbsville in the novel) over the course of a few days near Christmas.  The main character, Julian English, is a deeply flawed young man who sits uneasily at the fault-lines of Gibbsville society.  English  is a small town businessman who owns a Cadillac dealership.  He’s the classic stereotype of the successful Anglo-Saxon Protestant of early 20th Century America–the American dream fulfilled.  He’s not a Catholic, nor is he one of the one of the recent immigrant laborers, nor part of the local gangster community.  (You have to admire the layered irony of the Irish-American O’Hara naming his anti-hero ‘English.’)  Yet, Julian English is living a farce, largely through his own moral failings.  English drinks too much, he’s been bailed out from financial ruin by a local bigger businessman, he cheats on his wife. The tension of a man almost making it–or at his personal breaking point–permeates the novel.

O’Hara’s brilliance is his description, his plotting and his dialogue.  As if to showcase the stress within which English lives, the books is broadly broken up into three competing sections–the Country Club bookends the novel with a memorable roadhouse scene in the center.  You can hear genuineness in the dialogue all throughout the book, be it the technically mannered speech at the Club or the more ribald conversation at the bar.  The reader is transported to every Wedding Reception you’ve ever been to or every dive bar where one realizes that you’re out of your element.

Julian English fails in each one of these locales.  He fights and scrapes and violates all sorts of mannered conventions.  Perhaps that’s the point of English in O’Hara’s novel–that he’s gone from the heights of society to the depths and he’s a nowhere man.  This may be an existential novel about finding and losing oneself.  Whatever O’Hara’s motive, Appointment in Samarra is a terrific book.  One gets lost in its sense of place and lost in the life of one misguided soul.

To listen to while reading:  Not quite sure.  I think the Andrews Sisters might fit the bill!

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