Book Roundup

Might get back to some music writing next week, so in the meantime I thought I’d pen a few thoughts about books and such.

I’m reading four right now, two of which I’ve been slogging through for a while and haven’t picked up in at least a week or so. That includes Mary Shelley’s The Last Man and Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, & Utopia. The former is just incredibly long, much longer than her famously known Frankenstein—as an example, I’ve only recently started the second volume of three, and I’m well over a hundred pages in, and the plague has just been mentioned for the first time. I’ll do a proper write-up of the book once I’m finished, which will be sometime this summer. Same with Nozick’s philosophical performance. The other two books I’m reading—which I’ll also properly review—are Maupassant’s A Day in the Country & Other Stories and Conversations With David Foster Wallace, edited by Stephen Burn. Others I finished sometime this year were Mark Richard’s The Ice at the Bottom of the World, Rudolph Rocker’s Anarcho-Syndicalism, and B. Traven’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I’ll go back and edit this if I remember later, but I can’t remember a few others I’m sure I read.

ice at bottomAnyway, Richard’s collection was a gift from a friend (a teacher, writer, and musician whose music I keep telling myself I’ll feature here), and I started it within my first weeks of living in Istanbul. However, I was completely put off by the time I read the second story; his writing style was so heavily inundated with a first person vernacular that not only did I find it difficult to understand, but couldn’t wrap my head around what kind of people talked this way. Same goes with the opener, “Strays,” which I thought was far too cynical the first time I read it a couple years ago in grad school. But I came back to it earlier this year after feeling the need to read contemporary short stories. Richard’s style is still a bit much to take—normally first-person stories whose characters have voices sometimes not matching their narrators (particularly those narrated by children; “Strays,” “This is Us, Excellent”)—though he can be incredibly funny. My real gripe with this complaint is Richard’s miffing of endings. My favorite, where the narrator and his friend do maintenance work on a farm in exchange for a place to squat, involves an unbelievably hilarious account of two hapless farmhands trying to deal with the death of their employer’s beloved horse. However entertaining the story might be, it ties up its ridiculous climax with a simple act of forgiveness completely out of the narrator’s control. Same goes with “This is Us, Excellent,” about a young boy and his brother whose obsession with violent thrill rides, pizza, and an action-packed TV program are built up by being rewarded with these every time their abusive father beats their passive mother. The narrator, seemingly disconnected from reality, is terribly excited when the rickety ride at the state fair launches his father off to his likely death. This also marks the end of the story, where the passive narrator does nothing to bring about the ending. In short, I can’t help but feel cheated that I follow characters whose actions are rectified or mitigated by actions or forces largely absent or nonexistant from the action. Either way, if you want an enjoyable display of humorous voices vividly detailed and rather raucous, it’s worth reading.

anarcho syndicalismRudolph Rocker’s Anarcho-Syndicalism was written at the behest of Emma Goldberg. It’s a brief history of the rise of anarchic thought, particularly those with syndicate tendencies, from the beginning of the industrial revolution to the date of the writing right before World War II. What should be taken away from it is similar to one of the things we should take away from movement like Occupy; a variety of means of protests is needed in order to beat back encroaching capitalist control, as repeating the same actions brings diminishing returns. For example, Rocker cites spontaneous union strikes in history as a way of workers wresting control from their owners and protesting unfair treatment and wages, but this repeated process eventually brought confusion, disorganization, and a loss of sympathy from the general public as time wore on. Same might be said for those in Zuccotti Park—an effective message at first, but as the clock ticks its productiveness for outsiders is harder to understand and its repeated attempts more easily prevented and penetrated by the state. Anarcho-syndicalism, if it can be put simply, is the idea that communities in the industrial and postindustrial world are better situated in being organized by trade unions, each industry—from coalminers to steelworkers to teachers to construction equipment salespeople—would work with other trade unions to provide each other with necessities. There are no specific details as to how such a society would operate; Rocker gives several examples from history as different possibilities, ending with an account of the anarchist colonies attempting at that time to repel Franco’s fascist forces in Spain. As Kropotkin once wrote, the question of how an anarchist society might be organized sits funny in the ear of an anarchist, as it won’t be anarchists who decide how you and your community will be organized; you will decide how to organize.

Sierra_Madre_CoverI picked up my copy of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre at a little open side shop near a tea house in Ortakoy on the recommendation of the guy who worked there. I knew the book briefly—better yet, I knew the film and its very famous and oft-misquoted “We don’t need no stinking badges!” line. The story is about Dobbs, a born under a bad sign American hanging around in Mexico looking for work and begging for change. He meets the like-minded Curtin and dusted oldie Howard, an experienced gold miner who spends his night at the hostel-of-sorts regaling anyone who’ll listen with tales of the terror the greed for gold wreaks upon men. You begin hoping for $20,000 worth, and when enough time goes on and you’ve found nothing, you settle for $10,000 worth, and then $5,000 worth, and finally you tell yourself you’d be happy with just $1,000 worth. Then you find what you came for, and that original $20,000 you vowed was enough isn’t nearly what you want. Dobbs and Curtin, certain in their humility, ask Howard to come out with them on the search. As far as summaries go, I’ll stop there. The promise of greed and gold and death await the trio in their high-stakes adventure into the depths of a revolution-recovering and bandit-ridden Mexican countryside. But after reading the book and being enamored as well as surprised (I didn’t expect such blatant anti-capitalist critiques), I watched the famous Humphrey Bogart film. Very good, certainly dated, and faithful enough that only a few things stuck in my craw. In particular was changing the enigmatic Lacaud into Cody, a bigmouthed cowboy with a sweetheart back home who gets offed by the Mestizos. The mystery shrouding Lacuad’s dress, speech patterns, and attitudes is unsettling and almost hallucinatory. And the film largely sheds those anti-capitalist tendencies. And really, in retrospect, to call it anti-capitalist is a bit of a misnomer. Dobbs and Curtin (and even Barclay, who is absent from the film version) appear completely similar at the beginning; it’s only when the opportunities for betrayal arise does their nature begin to reveal itself. In the book, the trio work together and become rather good friends, whereas the film depicts a gradually unwinding Dobbs paranoid, greedy, and suspicious from the start. So the book does more to imply that greed and willingness to turn on others is prevalent in every man, and it happens to come out in Dobbs under the circumstances. No doubt that he has a paranoid and unstable character in the book, but not quite to the degree of Bogart’s portrayal. This implication is pretty dark, that the degradation and exploitation of man by man rests dormant within us, ready to spring if the opportunity presents itself. A tale weaved with wonderfully long-winded parables and perfectly-fluent and accent-less Mestizos, B. Traven’s adventure into the fragile and sinister heart of man is one I highly recommend. I throw my hands up as to why this particular book isn’t held up alongside the best of those like Jack London.


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