Thursday, May 27, 2010

Recent Acquisitions

RECEIVING, MAY 27 - Recent Acquisitions:

1. PIGWORLD (Klamath Falls Goodwill, 25¢)

Charles W. Runyon's 1971 non-classic springs from that strange sliver of American history when it must've seemed like this country was actually slipping into science fiction. This is sci-fi of the radical sixties; mind control, panther gun battles, political fights, racist vigilantes, personal rocketships, FBI detention camps. Some of the "demographic warfare" concepts seem preemptively lifted from The Turner Diaries, a book whose own nuclear civil war shenanigans pale in comparison to the massive shitstorm crafted by Runyon.

Pigworld's civil war - more of a civil disintegration, really - takes place in a fictional 1980's. It's always fun when people in the past invent visions of the more recent past, like hearing Brits imitate American accents. But large parts of the book only barely make sense, and the prefeminist Sexy Time stuff gums up the works something fierce. I lost track of how many times the phrase "pubic bush" popped up in the writing. Runyon has every female character strip for his virile revolutionary protagonist. At one point, a dinner roll "opens up under his thumbs like a woman's buttocks." Creepy Hippie Dude Vibe permeates the text (and the binding; my copy came saturated with patchouli oil, so that several times my cats would jump up into my lap, give the book one horrified sniff and bolt off in disgust).

2. THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD (Claremont library, $1)

If I understand right, the big deal with this novel was its portrayal of black southern life on its own terms, relegating white supremacism to background noise. Hurston wrote from the mid-1930's - meaning, almost the same distance from civil rights struggles & second wave feminism as our time - and the slips of sensibility are a little harsh on modern eyes. There's some casual wife beating, and a lot of hazily written FDR-era sex scenes. All the uses of "dem", "dey" and "dis" in the dialogue makes the whole thing read like a Pogo Possum novelization.

And the book's foreword sets the bar high, with its tale of Alice Walker finding Zora Neale Hurston's unmarked, weed-choked grave. It seems awfully sad that nothing in the author's most famous work can match - in poignant theatrical punch - the discovery of the author's own body decades later, a setup that has to rank high in the annals of UPOMOBO (Unintentionally Postmodern Bum Out).

3. THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA (KF Goodwill, 25¢)

This book was also kind of a bummer in that I wanted to hate Ernest Hemingway for the rest of my life, and now I cannot. Of the two novels I've ever read in one day, this was by far the best. And am I the only one to notice that the trailer for this December's "Tron Legacy" cribbed Old Man's shark-leaping-up-from-the-depths scene at 1:08?

4. OUR BAND COULD BE YOUR LIFE (La Jolla public library, $3)

Music journalist Michael Azerrad pulls off two impressive stunts with this 2001 indie music history; 1) he gets all the original players to talk, and 2) he makes even Black Flag sound boring. After page 28 referenced the "7A" club - a password for anyone interested in Reagan-era NYC, good music, or accuracy - I was able to relax. If the writer doesn't care about his own research, then the reader probably shouldn't care either.

But the excruciatingly linear approach for every band was a hard trudge. After the tenth reading of whose parents did what for a living, and which New England / Upper midwest / Texas town was the formative milieu for which budding genius / wildman / provocateur, it got pretty easy to spot the template. On page 107 came the tantalizing detail that a struggling Mission Of Burma toured the country by airplane (Eastern Airlines had a $300 see-the-country special in 1980). Would it have been that hard to make this the framing device for the entire book?

Also, I'd never heard Beat Happening before reading Azerrad's chapter. Their YouTube videos left me open mouthed in horror and shock. How was this real??

5. MEDITATIONS (Claremont Public Library, 25¢)

Marcus Aurelius is generally considered the "good" Roman emperor, counterpoint to Caligula, who ruled a century earlier. Aurelius led an austere, thoughtful, weird life for an emperor, and Meditations gathers his thoughts into one slim manuscript. The movie "Silence Of The Lambs" name drops Aurelius to the same degree that "The English Patient" references Herodutus' The Histories. But where the latter book is an impenetrable thicket (I never made it through the introduction), Meditations is a breezy read.

Sometimes a little too breezy. I put the content at 35% get-along hippie jive, and 40% decorative-wall-hanging-at-grandma's-house proverbs. There's but a slim wedge for the red meat (or green meat, according to the chart below). Here's my breakdown;

That leaves a fifth of the book to long-winded broodings about the futility of human existence. "The man whose heart is palpitating for fame after death," he writes, "does not reflect that out of all those who remember him every one will himself soon be dead also, and in the course of time the next generation after that, until in the end, after flaring and sinking by turns, the final spark of memory is quenched." That seems a tad hypocritical coming from an author whose books sell just fine 18 centuries after death.

Meditations reminded me of L.A.'s Watts Tower sculpture gardens - both singular artistic outputs meant to sum the full life of one man. But there's a slinky coyness to Aurelius's surviving output. Allegedly written for himself, several passages slip into the first person plural, as if he knew full well how history would treat the diary of an emperor. At the very least, many of the passages read like advice from father to son - a small irony of history, as his own son, the future emperor Commodus, blossomed into one of the great douche bags of the old, old timey world (at least as portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix in 2000's "Gladiator").

6. ATLAS SHRUGGED (Thoreau Bookstore, Claremont, $1)

I invested a buck in this copy - well-thumbed, waterlogged, looking like it spent some serious time on the top of someone's toilet tank - to see what all the fuss is about. Then again, "seeing what all the fuss is about" is the same thing I've said, for years now, about pot, and sports, and getting out of the house, so I guess psycho-jerky Eisenhower-era science fiction is going to have to take a number and wait its turn.