Book Review: Recessional by David Mamet

The Death of Free Speech and the Cost of a Free Lunch

David Mamet is a good writer. That is not to say that he is a brilliant writer. I think not. Although, his plays might be considered so. Who can doubt the brilliance of Glengarry Glen Ross or The Verdict or Wag the Dog. However, these little essays of three or four pages each fall flat. And they are loaded with misinformation, lies, and incorrect conclusions. He sometimes gets his facts right but draws the wrong conclusions. I could disagree with him more on some of these points but I don’t see how. Mr. Mamet seems to have lost his way if not his mind.

There are a few things in the book that do I agree with, and one or two things that I actually identify with. But for the most part it is poppycock.

Here is what I like and agree with:

He says, and I quote: “…works that I have found helpful writing drama: Aristotle’s Poetics. Campbell’s, Hero with a Thousand Faces.”

I have both of these books in my library and have always wanted to read them. I will now be putting them on my TBR list.

“Each characterization of the hero…that does not jibe with our self image takes us out of the story. An invaluable understanding for the story teller.”

And an invaluable lesson for the writer as well.

“The script exists to describe to the cameraman what to shoot and to tell the actors what to say. Everything else is besides the point…The nature of a script is a recipe.”

Very sensible.

“We human beings are a bad lot. Unchecked, we divide into predators and food.”

“Great paintings and music can inspire, suggest, soothe, thrill, but they cannot teach, Neither can literature. The arts exit, as does religion, to touch those portions of the human soul beyond the corruption of consciousness.”

OK, you had me all the way up to that last sentence. What exactly is the “corruption of consciousness?”
“Most plays are no damned good. The only way to write a play is to write a lot of plays…To write a good play requires talent. There is not a lot of it around.”

“…The journey of the writer and that of the hero are one and the same. Both are forced to make difficult choices.”

“I was raised in the horror of the Chicago public schools…I didn’t learn a goddamn thing. It might have helped my grades if not my education if I ever opened a school book, but I was bored to catatonia…but outside of school hours, I read voraciously and was certainly better read than the teachers.”
Now, this I can relate to. I had the same experience going to public schools. But I went to 14 schools in 12 years. My father was a Navy man and I transferred schools quite frequently as we moved around the country whenever my dad got new orders. I did however manage to get a pretty good education, even thought I was bored out of my mind much of the time.

“Samuel Beckett was the greatest dramatist since Shakespeare.”

No argument here. I would add perhaps Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee.

“What is art for? It has no use. No more than a sunset…Art has no purpose, but it has a use (direct contradiction, but I know what he means). The oyster cannot use the pearl (cue Steinbeck). Observers may admire its beauty, but that does not allow them to understand the pearl, beauty, or the oyster.”

Now, for what I don’t like:

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war. The offer of Freedom (American constitutional democracy) is at issue, and the tyranny of the left displays the carrot and the stick to a legitimately disturbed populace.”
I think the tyranny is on the right and not on the left. And there is ample evidence to support this contention. But I won’t use up valuable space here to refute it. Suffice it to say, I beg to differ. Domestic terror attacks emanate from the right far more than they do from the left.

There is another place in the book at the beginning where Mr. Mamet makes the argument that the left tried to steal the election. This is patently untrue and is rather the other way around. Has he forgotten about the January 6th insurrection when the members of the right-wing stormed the capitol in a failed to overthrow the government? Bill Maher called him out on this on his show and Mamet just shrugged his shoulders and said, “Skip that page.” Unfortunately, he makes similar statements and arguments throughout the book. We should perhaps skip the entire book.

Book Review – Nelson Algren’s

Somebody in Boots

Image courtesy of Goodreads

The miners came in ‘49
The whores in ‘51
They jungled up in Texas
And begot the native son

-Old Song

Somebody in Boots was originally titled Native Son, but Nelson Algren gave this title away to Richard Wright who used it to his great advantage.

Boots were a symbol of power, status, and authority. When someone in boots was approaching, you knew you were in trouble: “Someone was coming. Someone in boots. Cass heard his boots moving faster and faster. Such boots were two despisers of small things. They were high heeled sharp pointed, embedded deeply with sharp pointed spikes, shining with sun or bright with rain wet.”

This was Nelson Algren’s first novel and it has all the raw power and awkwardness of unrefined prose. Algren, himself, did not much care for the novel and would rework some of the material into a much better book, A Walk on the Wild Side. He wrote Somebody in Boots in 1936 and didn’t write another novel until 1940. By the time he got to The Man with the Golden Arm he was writing masterful prose and he made his words sing. But, he never lost his edge.

And this is an edgy novel to say the least. Personally, I loved this book and was in its thrall all the way through to the end. It has unforgettable characters and vivid situations and opens a window onto the events occurring in this country almost 100 years ago during the great depression, or the “great trouble” as it was described by one of the characters. The novel ends in Chicago during the 1933-34 World’s Fair. It is a novel of casual racism, police brutality, sexism, and misogyny. It might also be considered an anti-capitalist screed. It details he lives of hobos, homeless, and the haunted.


Cass McKay was a poor young man from the hills of West Texas. He lived in a one room shack with a dirt floor with his brother, sister and a brute of a father. He left home after a savage fight broke out between his brother and father and started riding the rails at the tender age of seventeen. First he went to New Orleans where he got his throat cut by a pimp in whore house. He then went back to Texas for couple of years the hit the road again drifting back and forth between Chicago and Texas, and all points south. He had a lot of adventures along the way.


“Wherever he walked that winter, whether in New Orleans along icy docks or on Railroad Street in Baton Rouge, he saw the vast army of America’s homeless ones; the boys and old women, the old men and young girls, a ragged parade of dull gray faces, begging, thieving, hawking, selling and whoring. Faces haggard and hungry, and cold, and afraid; as they passed, booted men followed and watched.”
In Chicago “He walked up and down West Madison Street every day one ragged bum among ten thousand ragged bums.” He met a girl there by the name of Norah who was down on her luck. She had been working as a seamstress in a sweat shop and lost that job for mouthing off to the boss. She then started working a strip club called Little Rialto after seeing an ad in the Chicago Tribune: “WANTED: DANCER. EXP. PREF. APPLY HAUSER’S RIALTO.-S. STATE”


Cass got involved with her and they started knocking off drugstores together. One night they got caught and Cass end up doing 10 months in the joint. Norah got away.


Racism and police brutality quite often make an appearance on the page and sometimes they intersect as they do in the following passage illustrating once again that the more things change the more they stay the same. Black lives mattered then about as much as they do now.


“One Sam Phillips, black as ink and Alabama born, was in Chicago only two days when he got picked up on South Prairie Avenue by Sergeant M___ of the South Park Police. Sure the boy looked suspicious-he was in rags, and he had no place to sleep and he was a nigger. So what ? So M___ says, “Run eight-ball, or I’ll put you in for vag.” Sam Phillips didn’t know very much, he’d only been in town two days, but Sam did know that he didn’t like jails, and that he could run pretty fast all right. Two hundred yards I’ll give you,” the sergeant offered-and black Sammy Phillips just took it on the lam. He ran 20 feet; M___ dropped to one knee in the proper manner and let her flicker, one through the legs and five to the belly- but he got his promotion so, I guess it’s all right.”


I think it is interesting to go back and read the earlier works of authors you love, like I love Algren. That way you can see their development over the years as an artist. I wouldn’t recommend Somebody in Boots to the newbie Algren fan, but if you have read all his other work, this is a fascinating read. I would recommend, rather, The Man with the Golden Arm, or Never Come Morning. Both excellent.

The Weight of Ink

A Novel by Rachel Kadish

Photo courtesy of Goodreads

The Weight of Ink is a historical novel superbly crafted by writer Rachel Kadish. It is not the sort of book I would normally have picked out for myself, but it was gifted to me by someone special and is so well written that I honestly couldn’t put it down.

It is a story of historical sleuthing based on papers found hidden away in an old home in Richmond, Surrey. Ms. Kadish creates a handful of compelling characters to tell her tale as she weaves her story back and forth between plague-ravaged London of the mid-1600s and present-day London.  

The Weight of Ink is the tale of two women of remarkable intellect: Ester Velasquez, an emigrant from Amsterdam, who through chance and circumstance becomes a scribe for a blind rabbi, and Helen Watt, an ailing historian with a love of Jewish history. It is Ester’s story Helen strives to uncover and what a story it is. Ester documents the Jewish diaspora, the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition, and the rich trade of the City of Amsterdam, all the while scribing for the rabbi in his London home. And she also lives through the Great Plague. Ester manages to communicate with some of the great philosophers of the day and express her own ideas.

There is also an appearance made by a certain bard who shall be nameless here but was named in the book. I kept waiting for him to appear as there were hints dropped along the way and I was not disappointed.

It is truly a remarkable feat to behold and a fabulous read!

Highly Recommend

Aftershock

The first thriller in a new series

Courtesy of Goodreads

Andrew Vachss writes like an avenging angel who has just been through hell.

I have long been a fan of Vachss and have read all the Burke series. He is sort of a guilty pleasure for me, not exactly literature, but a compelling read nonetheless. The man can write!

I ran across this volume in my favorite bookstore in Philadelphia, Molly Bloom’s, and I just couldn’t resist. Apparently, it is the first book in a new series featuring Dell and Dolly. Dell is an ex-legionnaire who was orphaned at a young age and has no idea where he came from. Dolly was a nurse with Doctors without Borders and their paths crossed when Dell was wounded in action on a mission somewhere in Africa. They fell in love, left their pasts behind, and moved to a small coastal town in Oregon. That is where the story begins.

The star softball player at the local high school walks into school on the last day of class and shoots to death a boy for no apparent reason. She also wounds two others. Why did she do it? Was it justified? That is largely what the book is about. But along the way, we meet some pretty onery characters inhabiting the dark underbelly of the town. We also meet some of the good guys. A small-town lawyer who rises to the occasion and puts on a masterful defense and a colorful expert witness from Kentucky.

The book culminates in a riveting courtroom scene that produces a satisfying denouement.

All in all, a good read. If you like thrillers, this is the book for you. Highly recommend!

Norwegian Wood

A Novel by Haruki Murakami

Norwegian Wood is the second Murakami book that I have read. The first one was Kafka on the Shore. I was looking for a second book to get into when I landed on Norwegian Wood. I understand that it is a bit of a departure from his other books, but that is ok because I really loved Norwegian Wood.  It was not what I was expecting, but it was perhaps better than what my expectations were. It is essentially a love story of a young man coming of age in Japan in the late 60s.

In Chapter one, Toru Watanabe hears the strains of the Beatles song, Norwegian Wood, as he lands at an airport in Hamburg, Germany. This song recalls to his mind the loves story of his youth in Tokyo when he was attending college. The rest of the novel tells that story.

In the telling, Murakami evokes the sights and sounds of the turbulent 60s, the songs of the period, the student unrest, and the pangs of falling in love. He has created some unforgettable characters, who by the end of the novel, we feel emotionally bonded to and care deeply about.

Spoiler alert!

There are five deaths in the novel, four suicides, and one illness. But the way Murakami tells it, they are played “off stage” and are referred to rather than happening on the page. This gives a little emotional distance from the deaths but never the less has a powerful impact. When Toru got word of Naoko’s suicide in the last chapter it was like a punch to the gut. I literally let out an, “Oh no!” and went on reading. I don’t usually cry at novels but this was an exceptionally gut-wrenching moment.

I started off by saying this was a love story, and so it was, but I think it was more a book about loneliness, mental illness, and suicide. But Murakami is such a beautiful writer the way he presents his story is not depressing, but quite beautiful and poignant.  I truly loved this novel.

August Strindberg

Sunday. 2/6/2022. 2:58 pm Riot Café. Reading August Strindberg – Miss Julie and Other Plays. Notes to follow.

Riot Café. Photo by the author

The Red Room, A satirical novel written by Strindberg in 1879. It is not a far cry to go from Red Room to Redrum to Murder. Just saying.

“Strindberg’s naturalism is not a slice of life, but rather the intense, immediate drama associated with what he called, ‘the battle of the brains.’ This is fought, not with theatrical swords or daggers, but with the equally lethal mental cut and thrust of two implacably hostile minds, bound to each other by desire and hatred. It is a battle in which one of them ultimately destroys the other’s will and commits ‘soul murder.’” One is immediately put in mind of Edward Albee’s, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Indeed, Translator Michael Robinson makes the very same observation writing about, The Dance of Death, a play written by August Strindberg in 1900, as a depiction of a marital inferno. He cites the numerous critics who regard it as the forerunner to Eugene O’Neill’s, Long Day’s Journe into Night and Edward Albee’s, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?

Why read Strindberg today? Because he is as relevant today as he was in 1887.

Strindberg was one of the most extreme theatrical innovators of the late 19th century and ultimately the most influential. The five plays presented here mark his transition from naturalism to modernism.

In The Father, Strindberg shifts away from social and political questions towards more psychological writing. Strindberg was more concerned with the discussion going on in Scandinavia at the time about the “woman question,” sexual morality, marriage, and the shifting psychological states of his characters (Robinson).

The Father is a three-act play with eight characters. The two principal characters are the Captain and his wife, Laura. It is a naturalistic tragedy about the struggle between parents over the future of their child.

The Captain is a scientist and freethinker whose marriage has gone south. He is engaged in a power struggle with his wife, Laura, over their daughter who wants to keep the girl home under her own influence whereas he wants to send the girl away to school. In an attempt to dominate her husband and get her way, Laura decides to drive her husband insane by first insinuating that he is not the girl’s father. The mother (Laura), uses her cunning to subdue and finally destroy the father (The Captain).

Strindberg is a great purveyor of naturalism, but in The Father, he is reaching for “greater naturalism” which is intense, immediate, and associated with a battle of the brains. (Battle of the sexes, battle of wills). The two main characters can be seen as representing the male and female principles.             

Strindberg believed that life is a series of struggles between weaker and stronger wills.

What initially brought me to revisit Strindberg were the films of Ingmar Bergman. Always a big fan of Bergman I began to realize what an influence Strindberg had on the filmmaker. I began to do a little research and it turns out in his lifetime Bergman directed eleven Strindberg plays for the stage, eight for radio and two for television. He was responsible for altogether twenty-eight Strindberg productions. He often returned to the same plays, producing A Dream Play and The Ghost Sonata four times, The Pelican three times and Miss Julie, Playing with Fire and Stormy Weather twice.

My favorite Bergman movie is The Seventh Seal. It has many similarities to the play, The Saga of the Folkungs. They are both set in the 14th century, the plague is present and religion is a major component.

Sources:

  1. Michael Robinson, Translator, Introduction and Notes to Miss Julie and Plays by August Strindberg.
  2. Strindberg and Bergman, Egil Tornquist, November 2012

My Life as a Man

A Well-Known Seducer of College Girls

Image courtesy of Goodreads

My Life as a Man, a novel written by Philip Roth, comes from Roth’s middle period, after Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint, but before American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain.  Roth has written some 30 odd books, not all of them odd but some pretty strange, and he is possibly America’s best writer, if not one of the most prolific. Beats me why he never won the Nobel, for he was surely deserving. 

I’ve read most of his later works and all of his earlier works and I am slowly catching up on his middle period. I don’t profess to be an expert on Roth, but I certainly like his writing I and return to him over and over again.

This book, My Life as a Man, is a story within a story, or two stories within a story, then Peter Tarnopol’s (narrator) true story. It concerns his marriage to Maureen Tarnopol who tricked him into marrying him and has become his arch-enemy. Maureen, in their divorce proceedings, described him as, “…a well-known seducer of college girls.”

Peter Tarnopol is a promising young writer who is also a college professor who teaches creative writing. He occasionally gets involved with his young students who become grist for his mill. He teaches literature and creative writing at The University of Wisconsin and Hofstra College on Long Island. He was a patient of Dr. Otto Spielvogel, a Manhattan psychoanalyst, from 1962-1967. Spielvogel considered Peter Tarnopol to be among the nation’s top young narcissists in the arts.

As usual, Roth draws from his own life and previous fiction and writes about what he knows best.

It is a rollicking satire teetering on the edge of tragedy as Roth brilliantly tells the tale of his marriage and his many peccadillos.

Roth writes in an attempt to make art out of his calamitous life and to spin gold out of straw. Is it him or his characters, or is it Memorex? You be the judge. For him, (Tarnopol), “…writing is a vain attempt to get myself to feel like something other than a foreigner being held against his will in a hostile and alien country.”

For Philip Roth, life is a Kafkaesque nightmare whereupon the dreamer ruminates on the possibility of being transformed into a gigantic cockroach. Upon awakening, he heeds the advice of Gustave Flaubert who suggests leading a regular and orderly life and being violent and original in his writing. This is a lesson Philip Roth seems to have taken to heart.

Dr. Seuss: “And to Think I saw it on Mulberry Street.”

OK, I guess I’ll weigh in on this. My two cents are worth about the same as anyone else’s, I reckon.

What we have here is an intersectionality. Where cancel culture meets book burning and freedom of speech meets banned books. Now, for the record I am against burning books and it seems like everyone has a match these days. And I have always enjoyed Dr. Seuss and even read these books to my kids when they were growing up….

But! There is no book burning going on here, no cancelling of Dr. Seuss, just a recalibration. His own estate has made the decision to not publish six books that contained overtly racist images. Six out of hundreds. And these books are still available. As a matter of fact, they are flying off the shelves!

We are living in strange times. The culture has evolved in many good ways in some bad ways. There is no question we come from a white supremacist patriarchal past. But that is not what we look like today. We are a multicultural, multiracial society and everyone deserves a seat at the table and everyone deserves to be included. It is important what books are put in front of children as they are the most impressionable among us. Reinforcement of white stereotypes and racial tropes is inappropriate. White children don’t need the reinforcing of white supremacy and children of color don’t need to be exposed to the hurtful images that remind them of their second-class citizenship.

This is a publishing decision, just like any other, but this one reflects the willingness of the estate of Dr. Seuss to learn and try to do better. It is not part of the so-called cancel culture, which I question really exists anyhow.

Zuckerman Unbound

Book Blurb

Not the best Philip Roth book but pretty good. It always amazes me how Roth can take the ordinary and turn it into literature or a simple idea like what happened to him after he became famous after publishing Portnoy’s Complaint and spin gold out of it. Pure genius! And quite funny too, I might add. I had several laugh out loud moments as I was reading this book. Highly recommend!

Top 10 Books 2020

I read 28 books in 2020. Here are my top 10 favorites:

  1. 2666 – Robert Bolano
  2. The Follies of God – James Grissom
  3. War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
  4. The Adventures of Auggie March
  5. The Odyssey – Homer
  6. All Quiet in the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque
  7. Notes from the Underground – Fyodor Dostoevsky
  8. The Weight of Ink – Rachel Kadish
  9. Tropic of Cancer – Henry Miller
  10.  The Last Carousel – Nelson Algren