Monday, 30 November 2009

Cannonball Read 8: Innocent When You Dream: Tom Waits: The Collected Interviews Edited by Mac Montandon

I couldn't have been more than twelve years old when I first heard Tom Waits. I was watching MTV late one night when, from under a table in a dingy diner, a man appeared with a tiny guitar in his hands and belted out a song. I had no idea who this person was, or where he'd come from, but I was transfixed. Months passed and I sat up waiting, hoping to see the video again, a blank VHS ready in the machine. Finally, one night, the song came back on. I lunged towards the VCR and hit record. Immediately after the song ended I plugged the RCA chords that lead from the VCR into the tape deck and transferred the song onto an audio cassette.

The song was "I Don't Want To Grow Up", and it was unlike anything else I'd ever heard. I wanted to know more. I scoured the local record outlet for more of the man's work. The album that I wanted, Bone Machine, was too expensive. I searched through tens of modestly priced albums from the 70's and 80's with no idea where to start. Eventually, I settled on Rain Dogs, and, upon listening, was left confused and a little frightened at this eclectic mix of noise, beauty and brilliance. My musical tastes had been limited to the likes of Nirvana and Sonic Youth on the one hand, and Ice Cube and Wu Tang on the other. Already, these two genres were socially incompatible in my school. It was rock or Hip Hop. That was it. Angry, depressed and suffering the onset of puberty, I knew not which to chose, and rather resented the notion that a choice was necessary. Now I had Waits to contend with as well.

No one I knew had heard of this man. I kept him to myself and accumulated more of his albums as the years passed. I began noticing his songs increasingly being featured in cinema, popping up at the end credits of strange films I would come across on cable stations late at night. As the years drew on a few people I met started recognizing his name, though he was usually only referred to as the "guy with the gravelly voice". No one else got it. My mother even declared "Anybody that sings like that would just get laughed off stage" as I played "Dirt In The Ground" solemnly in my room. I did not care, the lyrics were as good as lyrics got.

Innocent When You Dream: Tom Waits: The Collected Interviews is certainly not a book that will appeal to non-Waits fans. In fact, while it is an enjoyable insight into the man, it's hardly required reading for his fans either. The most interesting thing about Waits has always been his music. I still got a kick out of a lot of it. It's interesting to see the perceptions of journalists change over the years as Waits' grows from scruffy outcast to cult icon. The change in Waits' approach to interviews is even more drastic, as he evolves from a young artist spinning wild yarns about his past, to a husband and father with a decidedly more direct and, increasingly, political outlook. Nonetheless, he still insists on meeting journalists miles away from the secret location of his home, often in greasy spoon diners, or unfashionable Chinese restaurants.

This started as a mistake. I recently traveled down to London and, on Sunday, found myself alone in a friend's flat. I picked this book off of the shelf, flicked through the first few pages and, about 4 hours later, put it down and fell asleep. I had no plans on reviewing it but, in the end, could not resist writing a few paragraphs about this man whose music has been such a huge part of my life for the last sixteen years.

EDIT*************** Just deal with it.


Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Cannonball Read 7: Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is the classic story of an amateur scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who succeeds in bringing life to a monster. Horrified by his creation, he abandons it. The monster, aware of nothing more than its own existence, searches for acceptance in a world repulsed and terrified by his appearance.

The story's genesis traces back to the volcanic summer of 1816 when an eighteen year old Shelley developed the idea after sharing ghost stories on a visit to Switzerland. Expanded from a short story, the novel was initially published anonymously and received a mostly negative critical reaction. Today, it will be greeted in much the same way. Dated by both style and pace, the book is often ponderous and repetitive. It hardly stands out as a great literary work on its own merit. Nonetheless, it's fascinating to delve into the source material of the now iconic creature, the monster of Frankenstein.

The story has changed drastically. Only a short few years after the novel's publication, playwrights struggled to translate the inner-monologue driven narrative to a visual medium. Subsequently, the story became increasingly sensationalized. For example, instead of the ambiguous chemical process Frankenstein employed to bring the monster to life in the novel, stage versions had electricity bolting into the creature, animating the grim collection of body parts. The character of Frankenstein, originally well-meaning, became increasingly corrupt, eventually morphing into the original Mad Scientist, along with his hunchbacked assistant Igor, a character also noticeably absent from the original story. But it is the monster that has changed the most drastically through the story's countless adaptations following the advent of cinema. Originally an eloquent creature of considerable intelligence, our modern monster has devolved into a lumbering zombie, inherently violent and mischievous.

It is the themes of the novel that resonate the most deeply to this day, however, as Shelley explores man's quest for knowledge, the harnessing of the elements, and our attempts at playing God. It taps into our unease over the ethical implications of genetic engineering and, most recently, the cloning of livestock. Yet it is ultimately the story of an even more universal theme: that of a man's obsession leading to his downfall.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Cannonball Read 6: Shibboleth: My Revolting Life by Penny Rimbaud a.k.a J.J. Ratter

"Whatever we do, we have to accept that our hopes and fears will be mercilessly exploited by those that have nothing better to offer than money."
Penny Rimbaud

Shibboleth: My Revolting Life is the autobiography of Crass founder, lyricist and drummer, Penny Rimbaud. Crass, perhaps one of the most influential rock groups in history, were a British punk band active throughout the late 70's and early 80's. Popularizing the anarcho-punk movement, Crass had an unquestionably significant impact on the punk scene philosophically, politically and aesthetically. As advocates of direct action, animal rights and environmentalism, the group became a minor thorn in the side of the Thatcher regime. This fact would lead to several encounters with authorities, and ultimately to Crass' members being tried under the Obscene Publications Act. While the book details Rimbaud's life from his childhood in London during the Second World War, through to his time as an art student and, later, teacher, the bulk of the book centres around the commune where Rimbaud spent decades of his life. Living with a variety of activists, artists and drifters, Rimbaud was involved in numerous creative and political endeavours throughout the years, though Crass remains the most notable.

Rimbaud is an intriguing figure who has lead a unique and fascinating life. A man of great intelligence and passion, his book nonetheless suffers as the result of his disjointed approach to storytelling. His non-sequential narrative, as well as his proclivity to flip from life event, political diatribe to philosophical musing, make for a frustrating read. Is this a memoir? A rant about the potential and/or limitations of revolutionary politics? A philosophical journey? It would appear to be a combination of all of the above. Thusly, it fails. This is compounded by a tendency to dryly list off the events of his life, rather than delving into any sort of detail that might engage the reader. Additionally, I often felt that Rimbaud's experiences were being listed to back up his ideology, rather than detailing how they organically led to his conclusions. My greatest criticism, however, is reserved for the almost comically pretentious descriptions that take over countless pages of this memoir. One particularly difficult section to stomach, detailing an early Crass gig, reads as follows:

"Sprays of alcohol burst in frothy trails from flying beer cans. Bodies surfed by on waves of grape and hop. Wild dancers dragged body to body, down onto the filthy floor in parodies of our fathers' violence. Touch on touch, in parodies of the awful coldness that had ripped us from our mothers' bodies. We heaved away at our adopted umbilical, sharing this moment of re-birth, ready to nurse each other's wounds, for, within this parody of violence, we realised that we loved each other."

The narrative deviates drastically as the book progresses. The central chapter, The Last of the Hippies, is the story of the death of Phillip Russell, a.k.a Wally Hope. Hope, a leading figure in the development of the Stonehenge Free Festival, was a close friend of Rimbaud's. Arrested on the commune where he sporadically resided, Hope was charged by local authorities for possession of a small amount of LSD and institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital. Cut off from contact with the outside world, he was administered a cocktail of experimental drugs, often by force, that ultimately destroyed him as a person. Ten weeks later he was unexpectedly discharged. He returned to the commune a broken human being. Shortly thereafter he died, asphyxiated by his own vomit. The death, ruled as suicide, had a profound effect on Rimbaud, who devoted a great deal of time and energy investigating the authorities alleged complicity in Hope's death.

Indeed, the tragedy of Hope's death is truly harrowing, and forms not just the core of Rimbaud's attitude towards authority and government, but also the emotional centre piece of the book. However, as effective as the inclusion of this devastating story may be, it also serves as another obstacle in identifying what the core of Rimbaud's book actually is.

I want to be more generous with this book than I have been. At times it was engrossing, intelligent and thought provoking. Nonetheless, it remained a frustrating and often pretentious mess. I certainly wouldn't recommend it to anybody that isn't specifically interested in the anarcho-punk movement and/or radical politics in general. The book comes to a very strong end, however, and the last section is particularly engaging, albeit deeply depressing. Crass dissolves, Rimbaud abandons his creative ventures to take care of his dying parents, and the world we all live in fails to improve. Rimbaud, much like the reader, is left without answers.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Cannonball Read 5: Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death by Kurt Vonnegut

Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time. He travels throughout his life experiencing its events out of sequence. He exists as an optometrist, a husband, a father and a mental patient. But it is Billy's time in Dresden during the Second World War, where he is held prisoner in a disused slaughterhouse, that form the core of the story. Based in large part on Vonnegut's own experience as a prisoner of war, this incredible book stands as a towering literary achievement.

In its opening chapter our narrator explains that this is an anti-war novel. The very notion of such a thing is mocked by one of the narrator's friends who quips, "Why don't you write an anti-glacier book instead?". Point taken. And so it is from here that Vonnegut begins exploring these notions of the inevitable, of free will, of fatalism and the illogical behaviour of man. The results are often very funny, very tragic and, usually, quite bizarre. We learn early on of a particularly absurd occurrence. Following the bombing of Dresden - an allied air raid which claimed the lives of 135,000 German civilians* - an American soldier is executed for stealing a tea pot. The anecdote is referenced frequently up to, and after, we meet the soldier in question. The absurdity of the event, initially bordering on comical to the reader, takes on a different tone as the soldier's story progresses. Ultimately, it is quite devastating, and one of the most effective dramatic tools that Vonnegut employs in his non-sequential approach.

There are aliens in the story as well. Our protagonist is abducted by the extra-terrestrial Tralfamadorians and held as a zoo attraction on their home planet. Despite being far more advanced beings than those on Earth, the Tralfamadorians have waged war and destruction throughout their history. They even destroy the universe, though quite by accident. This fact is known to them as they exist in a fourth dimension and possess the knowledge that there is no such thing as time. All events exist simultaneously. Anything that has ever, or will ever, happen is happening, now and always. Given this inevitability, the Tralfamadorians opt simply to ignore the unpleasant occurrences in their existence and, instead, focus on the good ones. It's a brilliant and hilarious mockery of the fatalistic attitudes adopted by so many of us back here on Earth.

I loved this book. It is one of the most original, intelligent and hilarious books I have ever read. I put off reading it for over a decade, figuring the subject matter and non-linear narrative would make for a rather inaccessible and depressing read. I could not have been more wrong. This is one of the most delightful and life-affirming books I have had the pleasure of coming across. I recommend this book to everyone that has ever, or will ever, exist.

*As I am reviewing a literary work, rather than a historical document, I felt it appropriate to include the same numbers employed by the author. For the sake of accuracy, however, it is worth noting that the number of civilian casualties has been the topic of much debate over the years. An independent investigation commissioned by the city of Dresden most recently identified 18,000 victims and the most current estimated number of fatalities is put at about 25,000.

Cannonball Read 4: Junky by William S. Burroughs

William S. Burroughs' Junky is a semi- autobiographical novel that details the author's years of heroin addiction. We follow the protagonist Bill, a young man from a middle class, suburban background who travels to New York. There he experiments with, and becomes addicted to, heroin.

Burroughs is an engaging writer. Through his dry and laconic style he grimly recounts his experience with the drug, as well as its addicts and pushers. It's bleak and, aside from the occasional amusing observation or remark, almost entirely devoid of humour. It is the last book anyone with experience of heroin addiction - or heroin addicts - needs to read.

I have been putting off writing this review for over a week. There is little for me to say about the book other than I did not enjoy it much. Nonetheless it has me interested enough in Burroughs as a writer to check out more of his work in the future. Probably not the immediate future, however.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Cannonball Read 3: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Esther Greenwood arrives in New York City to work as an intern for a prominent magazine. Despite this dream opportunity she finds herself increasingly disinterested in the world around her. Alienated from her friends, repelled by her once seemingly perfect lover, she returns to her native Boston where she spirals further into depression. It is there that she is encouraged to seek medical help. Electroshock therapy, attempts at suicide and institutionalization follow.

Originally published under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas, this semi-autobiographical novel was published a month before Sylvia Plath committed suicide. This was the first of her work that I had read. I was initially struck by how humorous I found the opening chapters. Plath possessed a delightful wit and a searing cynicism. Moreover, she was a brilliant writer. I came across this title quite by accident. I picked it off of a friend's book shelf and was immediately drawn in by its opening pages.

I have read many accounts of both mental illness and the experience of such institutions. I have been impressed by few. Having experienced both firsthand, I usually derive little enjoyment from such work. Nonetheless The Bell Jar stands high and above the rest. It is an uncompromising novel that never falls victim to either sentimentality or self-importance.

Many details stood out for me. I found myself uncomfortably relating to many of the experiences and characters that the protagonist comes across. From the interest in texts of abnormal psychology, the weight gain caused through insulin injections, and the heartbreaking guilt of parents convinced they are to blame for the unfortunate outcome of their child's circumstance. I recognized myself in Esther's many seemingly irrational actions; her habit of lying to strangers for no particular purpose, her long walks to random destinations, and even her flirtation with the Catholic faith. But it was her obsession with methods of suicide that stood out for me the most.

This is difficult for me. I am not sure what or how much to write. This book resonated with me deeply. It has not given me any sort of comfort or resolution. But it has given me something.

The neighbourhood is always loud. People are shouting outside. Windows are smashed and the broken glass rains onto the pavement. Up stairs, they scream and shout. I sunk into this book, far from it all. As I read to the last page I heard a sound from upstairs. It was The Beatles song Across the Universe. The soothing melodies played out as my eyes fell upon the last words of this beautiful novel. The song ended. And the world sat in silence.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Cannonball Read 2: I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

For a review of I Am Legend from last year's Cannonball Read click here

Robert Neville is the sole survivor of a pandemic that has destroyed civilization. A disease has turned all other human beings into vampires. Neville survives on his own in a barricaded house. By day he scours the streets of Los Angeles experimenting on comatose vampires in an attempt to find a cure. By night he sits alone, listening to the vampires gathered outside of his home, as he retreats into a world of drunkenness and depression.

Matheson's book is an engaging, intelligent and terrifying read. A total of three Hollywood films based on Matheson's novel have been made over the years.* 1964's The Last Man on Earth, 1971's The Omega Man and 2007's I Am Legend have all attempted to translate the story from page to screen, with decidedly mixed results. Like many people I have spoken to in the last few days, I was unaware that the 2007 film was based on a novel. I saw the film prior to reading the book and found myself scratching my head, trying to determine what version of the book the film makers had actually read. The similarities between the two are few and superficial. The Omega Man offers a promising start, but ultimately falls short of translating Matheson's story. I have yet to see The Last Man on Earth but, from what I have gathered reading online reviews, it is a more faithful adaptation that suffers greatly due to the restraints of a limited budget.

Matheson has enjoyed a long relationship with the cinematic world. He went on to pen several screenplays, and his novel What Dreams May Come was also turned into a cinematic abomination, starring Robin Williams. I was initially drawn to this novel having read that it had been a primary inspiration for George A. Romero's classic Night of the Living Dead. It is striking that, in many ways, Romero's film feels a more faithful adaptation than its official counterparts.

It was my intention to review this book solely on its own merits. That proved impossible, however, as I found myself obsessed with it's various failed cinematic adaptations, as well as its influence in pioneering the modern zombie genre. Nonetheless, I was utterly engrossed the whole time I was reading the book. I recommend it to anybody that is a fan of the vampire or zombie genre, whether or not they've had the unfortunate experience of viewing any of the films that the novel was based on.

*In 2007 a film titled I Am Omega was released straight to DVD in hopes of cashing in on the Will Smith starring I Am Legend. As it was only loosely based on the film, rather than Matheson's original novel, this writer does not feel its inclusion necessary.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Cannonball Read 1: The Life & Death of St. Kilda by Tom Steel

"The family prayers were said for the last time and, as was custom among Gaelic people, a bible was left open in each house, along with a small heap of oats. In one house the exposed text was Exodus."

"In each of the eleven inhabited cottages the fire was built up with fresh coal and turf. When they were burnt out some hours later, it was probably the first time there had not been a fire on St. Kilda for a thousand years."

St Kilda is an isolated group of islands located on the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. The main island, Hirta, was until 1930 inhabited by a small community whose population fluctuated between roughly one hundred and two hundred over the centuries. They had lived on the 6.285 square kilometres of island for perhaps 2000 years. Tom Steel's The Life & Death of St. Kilda provides an exhaustive account of these people.

The St. Kildans existed in an isolated world of incredibly harsh weather. Sudden and vicious storms attacked the inhabitants, often blowing sheep over cliffs and into the sea. It is believed St. Kilda was probably Christian before Scotland, as monks travelling from Ireland to Iceland likely settled briefly to convert the inhabitants. Nonetheless religion was not a focal point of the islanders lives initially, though this would change drastically in years to come. The islanders never saw a pig, a bee, rabbit or rat. Their only animals were sheep, cows, dogs and cats. They had no idea about trees, as there were none on the island. It wasn't until 1875 that any of them saw an apple, when freelance journalist John Sands brought three over from the mainland.

The harsh seasons resulted in the inhabitants putting little reliance on the islands limited crops. Their main source of food were the various sea birds that the men spent the bulk of their time catching. These birds would remain the staple diet of the St. Kildans until the beginning of the 20th century when fish - which they had previously avoided as it was not oleaginous enough for their liking - became a more central part of their diet.

In 1822 a profound cultural change occurred when Reverend John MacDonald lay the foundations for a highly organized, puritan and harsh religion. Upon visiting from the mainland he was shocked and appalled that he couldn't find a "decidedly religious person" on the island. He set about his work. Education arrived around the same time as this new form of religion. Various teachers were sent over from the mainland to St. Kilda, decreasing the islanders isolation. The teaching of the English language proved to be particularly useful in dealing with a growing tourist population. The tourists introduced a new concept into the lives of the islanders: money, a concept they struggled with. Furthermore, they found it impossible to understand the mainlands class distinctions.

A far more damaging import arrived from the tourists and occasional stranded ships, however. Disease came to the island and several outbreaks repeatedly decimated the population, as tetanus robbed the community of generations. In 1928 a flu that killed four members of the community struck a particularly devastating blow to morale on the island. And so in 1930 a Nurse Williamina Barclay, who'd been stationed on the island, helped the 36 remaining inhabitants to petition the government to evacuate.

Tom Steel's book is vivid and engrossing, if a little heavy on detail at times, particularly in his descriptions of the islands variety of sea birds. The book successfully recounts the history of this fascinating community up to, and after, their evacuation. The story of their arrival on the mainland is as frustrating as it is heartbreaking. Today the island is home to no more than military personnel and the occasional travelling geologist. The St. Kildans are no more.