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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Some Great Reading

I've been reading some absolutely brilliant books lately -- a refreshing relief too. The unfortunate part is none of them are particularly new. Lets look.

The Floating Opera by John Barth. I understand this was his first, and the editors/publishers asked him to change the ending. He did and got panned for the ending. So now this edition is back to his original version. The thing you notice right off the bat is the strong authority of the narrator's voice. (one wonders if JK Poole read this work before or while writing Confederacy of Dunces because there is a strong similarity to the voice and character.) The book is fresh from the get-go, and it doesn't stop running for a long time. A great scene in the book: when the main character gives a rich man $5,000 (we're talking mid-century money here) as a gift. It fits with the idea of bestowing indebtedness, it's a fun ride as the rich man attempts to weasel his way out of it.

I just finished Carlos Baker's Hemingway: The Writer as Artist, which I find much like Andrew Field's The Life and Art of VN. There are some insights and some great dissection of the work. I don't agree with it all, but who would. Still, the ideas are great for sparking the brain.

If you want to hear from the writer himself then pick up a copy of The Paris Review Interviews, Volume 1. I've made it through Dorothy Parker, Hemingway, and Capote. Tidbits: Capote only wrote while reclining on a sofa. Hemingway did two handwritten drafts and then a typewritten draft. Parker said there is a real difference between a wit and a wisecrack. I'm a sucker for this sort of stuff and I find these interviews really fascinating, and that's coming from someone who pretty much hates all celebrities. I don't idolize writers either -- but knowing their work is so damn difficult, I will empathize with their attempts to provide us a view into their lives.

Finally I picked up two thick volumes of writings by John Simon, one on theater and one on film. If you don't know John Simon, you're missing out on a real treat. He was theater critic in NYC for the New York Magazine before the spineless people there fired him. Word on the street was that they no longer liked his negativity. And armies of people in NYC were also happy he was gone because of his critical reviews. But this shows the idiocy and shallow mindedness of the public and the magazine. Those who are great critics do not hate art or life or theater. In fact, they love with a passion. What they cannot tolerate is half baked ideas and fools. Unfortunately for the arts, these two things (yes things) abound in most forms of art. And if the critic points out a problem, well they call him or her negative and call for the sack.
I recall a Pinter play where a woman was supposed to be single, but she wore a wedding ring the entire play. Whoops.

It's true Simon was opinionated, but who cares when he was so smart. He spoke five languages, held three consecutive degrees from Harvard. When it came to theater he was dead on. (I think his reviews of film are less convincing and witty -- and I think he was probably lured by the theatricality and sensaround quality of film. And I don't trust him as much there -- he liked ET while panning Fanny and Alexander. He was unable to get past the sappy sucker punch of the first to ponder on why audiences were shedding tears over a plastic puppet. But at his best he was a knife and he was a pedestal. If he hated a play he said it. If he liked it he said that too. He was in many ways like Harold Bloom, cut of the genius tree but without holding quite the narrow view of Bloom. Simon took on all comers and all forms.

The quips in the reviews are Dorothy Parker redux. About one play he wrote the result was what you get by a playwright who took a one-night course and who should have slept in. And, nobody else dared write a line like, "Barbara Streisand's nose towers like a ziggurat of meat." They're great things to read, little essays in themselves.