Sunday, August 28, 2016

Summer Books

I tend to get a lot of reading done over my August vacations and this year was no different.  Between two cross-Pacific flights and a week with my Dad in the internet-less environs near the Canadian border, I was in a more eclectic and musical mood than usual (I usually just read novels).

So let's get to it:

1) The Vegetarian, Han Kang

This is kind of a "big deal" among ex-pats in Korea, as it's the first Korean novel to win the International Man Booker Award.  The story behind the English translation is also interesting, as it involves a relative newcomer to the Korean language.

As for the book itself, my feelings are mixed.  It was originally published as three separate novellas, and while the first and third are interesting the second really drags.  At only 190 pages I'd recommend it to anyone interested in contemporary Korean literature since it's not that big of a commitment.  However, it's incredibly dark and involves scenes of casual rape and violence against the main character, a woman going through what seems to be multiple psychotic breaks.  If I had only one sentence to describe it, call it the Korean version of "The Yellow Wallpaper."  There are some haunting moments though, and I liked the ending which was surprisingly uplifting in a certain strange way.

The memoir of one of my musical heroes, Bob is not one for pulling punches whether it involves his family, his former band members, former boyfriends, or even the professional musicians he's hired for solo tours that he found musically wanting.  But, it's Bob Mould right?  How could you expect less than total, brutal honesty?  Obviously, I'm a huge fan, and most of the fun of reading this is getting the dirt on what was really going on in Husker Du (lots of drugs and alcohol and an indifferent bass player!) and the relationships with other bands like The Replacements.  (According to Mould, Husker Du were true punks all the way and Paul Westerberg was angling for a big, huge record deal all along.)  Also surprising how kind-sorta conceited he is about it all.  I mean sure, Husker Du were  a seminal D.I.Y. act that deserve huge props from any rock band today that has found success on a small label.  But, to paraphrase, "Nirvana would never have happened without me"?  Hmm.  I don't really see it.

3) Porcelain, Moby

Full disclaimer: I don't really like Moby's music or dance music in general, but I'm a sucker for stories about scary, actually dangerous, pre-Giuliani New York City.  This memoir delivers in full, and if Bob Mould's book made me like him just a little less if only because of his complete honesty, I came out of this one thinking I should probably give Moby's music another chance.  He actually acts like a terrible person for much of the middle of the book, as he relapses into full blown alcoholism, but his personal commitments to Veganism and a highly idiosyncratic form of Christianity (mostly the "help the needy" part) comes across as genuine and far from insincere.  The framing is also excellent.  We get the "high" of Everything Is Wrong, then the almost inevitable low of the punk fuck-you of Animal Rights, and the book finishes right before the release of the bajillion-seller Play.  This is such a canny move in an autobiography, because most people (including Moby) thought his career was basically over at this point.  Surprisingly fun and enlightening, and his mother's defiance of a cancer that would kill her is heart-breaking.

4) Slice Harvester, Colin Atrophy Hagendorf

Another memoir, this one also largely about music and New York City but also pizza.  Hagendorf decides his life's mission is to eat a single plain cheese slice at every pizzeria in Manhattan and documents it in cheesy, oregano-laced detail.  It doesn't take long to realize this is your basic coming-of-age tale set in the big city, but with punk rock shows and various alcohol and drug addictions and self-destructive relationships thrown in.  And of course, a pretty happy ending involving the realization that a decent slice of pie with friends is about all we can expect to achieve in this life, and that's not really such a bad thing.

5) Lovecraft Country, Matt Ruff

An amazing novel, this is where I'll suggest you run, don't walk out, and buy this now.  It's an unabashed piece of weird fiction, but its basis is the unrelenting racism of 1950's America.  Touch points include "Colored Persons" travel guides that indicated which gas stations and restaurants wouldn't get you, a black person and your children, spat on or even lynched and the "redlining" of Chicago apartments to create intentional ghettos that remain to this day.  It's got its feet planted firmly in both the supernatural and the historical, and it's at turns hilarious and unnerving.  Because really, if you're a black person who lived through Reconstruction and Jim Crow and saw many of your family, friends, and neighbors murdered in race riots, just what is some ten thousand year old eldritch horror going to manage to do to you?  You've already seen it all.

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