2014年2月28日 星期五

"Naked Lunch" by William S. Burroughs (1959)

"He turns into Rock and Roll hoodlum.  'I screw the old gash - like a crossword puzzle, what relation to me is the outcome if it outcome?  My father already or not yet?  I can't screw you, Jack, you is about to become my father, and better 'twere to cut your throat and screw my mother playing it straight than fuck my father vice versa mutatis mutandis as the case may be, and cut my mother's throat, that sainted gash..."

"Naked Lunch" is William S. Burroughs' third novel, and marks the beginning of his more experimental period.  It is also the most famous of his books, and has exerted a strong influence over Western culture.  David Cronenberg attempted to make a movie of it, many rock bands have named themselves after phrases in the book, and many other authors cite it as an influence.

Having read this book, I can't say that I was that impressed.  I think it's good, but I found the "transgressive" elements a bit repetitious, and it's hard to view Burroughs' fixation on homosexual acts as anything other than a shock tactic.  After the fourth or fifth chapter the motif started to wear out its welcome, and I found myself wishing that he would just change the subject.  It's not as bad as de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom, but it's pretty close.

But the real question is: Is Naked Lunch really a novel?  It is certainly a bold experiment in wordcraft, but one is hard pressed to find characters in this book, to find identifiable situations, or to find any sense of chronology.  Naked Lunch is more like a long series of hallucinations, with the likenesses of other people passing in and out of the "narrative."  There is no line drawn between reality and illusion, between others and oneself, and it is debatable as to whether the events described in Naked Lunch are really happening at all.  They might just be parts of the same heroin-induced nightmare.

I read the "Restored Text" of Naked Lunch.  I'm not sure how this differs from older versions.  I imagine that some of the more violent homosexual parts were excised from earlier editions.  Perhaps these unwanted excisions did the novel a service, and made the whole thing more palatable to audiences at the time.

Naked Lunch is a good book, but I wouldn't count it among my favorites.  The author had a way with words, but I suppose I like a bit more realism mixed in with my fantasy.  I didn't find this novel nearly as laborious as Finnegan's Wake or Gravity's Rainbow, but I can't see myself reading other books by William S. Burroughs.  At least not any time soon.

2014年2月24日 星期一

"The State of Africa" by Martin Meredith (2011)

"But for the most part, Africa has suffered grievously at the hands of its Big Men and its ruling elites.  Their preoccupation, above all, has been to hold power for the purpose of self-enrichment.  The patrimonial systems they have used to sustain themselves in power have drained away a huge proportion of state resources.  They have commandeered further riches by acting as 'gatekeepers' for foreign companies.  Much of the wealth they have acquired has been squandered on luxury living or stashed away in foreign bank accounts and foreign investments.  The World Bank has estimated that 40 percent of Africa's private wealth is held offshore.  Their scramble for wealth has spawned a culture of corruption permeating every level of society.  A report prepared for the African Union in 2002 estimated that corruption cost Africa $148 billion annually - more than a quarter of the continent's entire gross domestic product.  Research results published in 2010 estimated that at least $850 million has been siphoned off from Africa since 1970."

The subtitle of this book is "A History of the Continent Since Independence."  "Independence" in the African context refers to the independence gained by African states following the gradual departure of colonial powers from the 1950s on.  The book begins with the British departure from the Gold Coast (now Ghana), and ends with the failure of the South African ANC administration in the early 2010s.

Between Independence and the recent failures of South African government, "The State of Africa" tells the long, depressing story of a continent that has never even approached its true potential.  There are moments of triumph in this book, when the peoples' voices are heard, but these moments are in all cases fleeting.  

Democracy is established, or market reforms are implemented, or dictators are ousted, but these euphoric changes are only ever preludes to larger tragedies, and to more offensive acts of predation by whatever despot waits in the wings.  If one were to judge the recent history of Africa by this book, then one is forced to the conclusion that Africa is no fit place for anyone to live.  I am not altogether sure that this is so, but "The State of Africa" proffers no other conclusion.

I found parts of this book very interesting, even if the whole was both historically and necessarily repetitious.  I enjoyed the chapters on Liberia, Ethiopia, and South Africa, though the cruelties experienced in those countries differ only in degree, if not in kind.  The history of Africa since Independence is a history of heartbreak, offering few reasons for hope.  Examples of real progress are few and far between.

I can't help but wonder if it might be better to end all aid to Africa altogether.  Perhaps leave the continent to its own devices for a few decades, and hope that everything there sorts itself out.  I realize that this isn't the most pragmatic point of view, but at this moment, in 2014, what other options have been tried?  As is often said, "The road to hell is paved with the best intentions," and many Africans have learned this lesson at the hands of dictators, at the hands of Western powers, and at the hands of their own machete-wielding countrymen.

I'm sure there are some good places in Africa.  I'm sure there are some kind, loving people.  But for all the good places and kind people there is the insanity of neighboring states, the greed of politicians, and the tribal distrust that have marked so many African nations as failed states.  It's hard to find a strong enough reason to believe in Africa.  It's hard to imagine a place from which true progress might begin.  This place has to exist.  It must exist.  But in reading "The State of Africa" one wonders if cruelty doesn't just beget more cruelty, and if the failures of the past haven't just about crushed the possibilities inherent in the future.

2014年2月18日 星期二

In Praise of Rush

Spent a couple hours watching the Rush documentary, "Beyond the Lighted Stage" on YouTube.  You can watch it here:

Not sure how you feel about Rush.  Maybe you love them.  Maybe you hate them.  Maybe you've never even heard of them.  If you love them I can understand why.  If you hate them I can sympathize.  If you've never heard of them, you really ought to check them out.

Rush is indisputably the most famous band from Canada.  They released their first album in 1974, and they are (according to the RIAA) the 79th best selling artists in the States.  Even now, after more than 40 years, they are still touring and making great music.

Rush's third album, "Power Windows" was the first album I ever purchased, way back in 1985, when I was ten years old.  Shortly thereafter I purchased their third album, "Caress of Steel," and I have been a fan ever since.

But I can understand people who don't like Rush.  Geddy Lee's voice can be annoying, and Neil Peart's "literary" lyrics can rub me the wrong way.  I often miss the hard rock kind of singing that Lee used on the earliest Rush albums, and there are times when I grow tired of songs with earnest, heartfelt messages.  Sometimes I just get tired of Rush.

This said, I think they are a great band.  I favor the period from 1974-1978, when they more closely resembled other progressive rock bands of the day.  "Caress of Steel" is probably my favorite Rush album, perhaps followed by "Hemispheres" or their debut album.  Their 70s output was very much in the vein of other 70s power trios, though of course their sound was always distinctive.  There is no mistaking any other band for Rush.

I've never been a huge fan of their 80s albums, though "Power Windows" and "Moving Pictures" have some great songs.  I'm not overly fond of synthesizers in anyone's music.  "Tom Sawyer" is of course an epic song, and I like tracks from every album up until "Roll the Bones."  But for every great song on those albums there are at least three or four that make me cringe.

My interest in hearing new Rush albums probably ended with 1993's "Counterparts," which was an album much closer in both spirit and execution to their 70s efforts.  After "Counterparts" I really lost interest in Rush, and I moved on to louder, less fussy music.  1993 was also the year I graduated from high school, so I was ripe for exposure to Seattle's grunge scene.  The grunge bands were/are about as far from Rush as you can get.

Just the same, I have an abiding love for Rush.  They are one of the first bands I ever liked, and they have been with me for many important moments in my existence.  I can remember listening to them on an old boombox in my grandmother's house, on a walkman on the way to junior high school, and on a CD player in my parents' house.  They were always around, somewhere, for most of my childhood.

I've yet to see them live.  With all the concerts I've been to, I've never been to a Rush show.  It was usually the ticket price that scared me off, but I have also been put off by certain albums, and these albums seemed to be the ones that Rush was touring behind when they passed through town.  I had no desire to see the "Roll the Bones" tour, or the "Presto" tour, or the "Vapor Trails" tour.  I'm sure that seeing them play some of their classic songs would be great, but then again there are the not-so-classic songs, and (sigh) the synthesizers.  I'm really not a fan of overly orchestrated rock music.

Still, I think some people need to give Rush another listen.  If you think you hate them, you might have only heard the wrong song or album.  They've made some unquestionably great music, though they are in some ways less accessible than bands like Zeppelin, the Beatles, or the Stones.

Rush is a great band.  Definitely one of the greatest ever.

2014年2月9日 星期日

Movies I Watched During the 2014 Winter Break, Organized into Almost Completely Arbitrary Categories

I. Movies About Elderly People Looking for Something

1. August: Osage County (2013)

Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts star in this film about The Most Dysfunctional Family in the World.  By turns depressing and funny, it's certainly one of the best films listed here.  It's not nearly as flashy as many other 2013 films, but the story is rock solid and the acting is amazing.  Streep has received her share of accolades, but she deserves even more for her performance in this movie.

2. Nebraska (2013)

Bruce Dern plays a senile father of two sons, desperate to secure a fortune in Nebraska.  This was another movie that was by turns depressing and funny, but it's a lot lighter than "August: Osage County."  The actress that plays Dern's wife has all the best lines.

3. Philomena (2013)

Judi Dench plays an Irish mother searching for her lost son, and Steve Coogan plays the reporter trying to help her.  This is a BBC film, and it probably received a lot less press than either "August" or "Nebraska."  It is more of a meditation on religion, and the lengths to which people go to cover up past indiscretions.

II. Movies About Racial Inequality

1. 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Also one of the best movies on this list, and based on the true story of Solomon Northrup's time as a slave in the South.  The acting is great, the direction is inspired, and Michael Fassbender turns in one of his best performances as the violent, lecherous master of Northrup's plantation.

2. The Butler (2013)

Forrest Whitaker stars as a butler in the White House.  During his time in the White House, his son goes to the south and takes part in the struggle for civil rights.  The film opens in the 1920s and concludes with the election of President Obama in 2008.  A good movie, but less than subtle.

3. Machete Kills (2013)

Yes, when you think about it, Machete does say a lot about racial inequality (or the lack thereof) in the US.  Even so, "Machete Kills" is a terrible movie.  I liked the first "Machete," but this one seemed lazily done.

III. Movies About Scams or Heists

1. American Hustle (2013)

I didn't like this movie nearly as much as I thought I would.  The director and many of the cast members from "Silver Linings Playbook" were in this film, but this movie lacked the sense of humor that made "Silver Linings" so good.  It's worth seeing, but it seemed a bit labored to me.

2. Dallas Buyers' Club (2013)

A rodeo rider stricken with AIDS develops a scheme to sell medicine to AIDS patients.  It sounds really depressing - and sometimes it is - but it's also a great movie.  Made me think about how often bureaucracy stands in the way of people helping other people.

3. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

I've seen "The Departed" about one million times, so I knew I'd like this one the minute I saw the poster.  Leonardo Dicaprio stars as a stock broker out to conquer the world.  It's full of memorable dialogue, and is also really funny.  One of the best movies here.

IV. Movies That are Stories of Survival

1. Captain Philips (2013)

Tom Hanks stars as the title character, the captain of a freighter captured by Somali pirates.  Hanks delivers another great performance, and the story is unusual enough to be interesting.  My only problem with Tom Hanks is that he's in too many damn movies.

2. Gravity (2013)

Two astronauts survive a space disaster, and must find their way back to safety.  I thought I would love this movie, but for whatever reason it just wasn't working for me.  It was good, but a little too simplistic.

V. Movies About Being a Raging Homosexual

1. Behind the Candelabra (2013)

Michael Douglas stars as Liberace, and Matt Damon stars as his lover.  I'm not sure if this movie was ever released in theaters.  Michael Douglas all but vanishes into his character, and there are some delightfully absurd moments in this film.

VI. Movies That are Difficult to Categorize

1. Her (2013)

A man falls in love with his operating system.  A lot of friends RAVED about this movie, but I thought it was just OK.  It's definitely good, definitely very contemporary, but it dragged on a bit.  The part where they have "sex" for the first time made me squirm.

2. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

The latest movie from the Cohen Brothers.  A folk singer struggles to survive in New York.  It's a great movie, and the soundtrack is excellent.  John Goodman's cameo as an aging jazz musician almost steals the movie.

3. Only God Forgives (2013)

Ryan Gosling stars as an American living in Thailand.  His brother kills a 16 year-old prostitute, and it's all downhill from there.  Very dark, very arty, and it doesn't paint a flattering portrait of Thailand.  I liked it, but I can understand why a lot of people lost their patience.

4. Stoker (2013)

This movie bored me to tears.  A young girl's father dies, and her uncle moves in to take his place.  It's by turns creepy and erotic.  I felt like the screenplay might have worked better as a novel.

5. Don Jon (2013)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt's first directorial effort, in which he also stars as a ladies' man who receives his comeuppance.  I couldn't quite figure out what the message of this movie was, and Julianne Moore was wasted on this movie.  So what if he watches porn?  Is it the end of the world?

VIII. Movies That are Based on Real People and Actual Events

1. Jobs (2013)

My first thought was: "Corporate bullshit," but to my surprise I really enjoyed this movie.  Steve Jobs goes from being a dirty hippy to being The Man (in both the positive and negative senses of that term).  One of my favorite movies here.

2. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

Wow this movie was tedious.  I'm sure it's very realistic and very well researched, but realism and authenticity don't necessarily make for compelling drama.  The protagonist could have been fleshed out a bit better, and the plot was too convoluted for my liking.  I found myself rooting for bin Laden by the end.

IX. Movies Adapted from Comic Books That Were Written After the Screenplay

1. Kick-Ass 2 (2013)

Nothing great, but it wasn't all that bad either.  I wasn't a huge fan of the first one, though I am a huge fan of Mark Millar.  It was funny, but it could have been a lot funnier.

X. Movies That Gave Me Nightmares

1. Martyrs (2008)

A French horror film with a philosophical side.  This is one of the best horror films I've seen in a long, long time - so good that I watched it without subtitles.  Not for the faint of heart or the weak of stomach.

XI. Movies So Hyperactive They Gave Me a Headache

1. The Lego Movie (2014)

Saw this last Saturday.  It has some funny bits, but watching it felt like being on the wrong kind of hallucinogen.  Without a doubt the most hyperactive movie I've ever seen.  I was very, very thankful that I didn't see it in 3D!