Sunday, July 16, 2006

Summer Books.

I experienced some of my usual difficulties in gaining entry to the blog today. I was unable to change my image in the profile, until now. Hackers continue to alter these texts. Otherwise, it is a normal 97 degree day in Manhattan, in July, after the onset of global warming. The end is near ...


For a long time I have made it a practice, whatever else I'm doing, to read at least two books at nearly the same time, alternating chapters, in addition to whatever research I'm pursuing concerning a scholarly or legal issue. I always like to read a novel along with a so-called "serious" non-fiction work. I find that many of the serious non-fiction books are unintentionally hillarious and fictional.

I allow myself some total "fun reading" in the summer, which reminds me of my childhood literary experiences, when I absorbed books between baseball games and tree climbing, while pretending to be Errol Flynn on a pirate ship. Things have changed drastically with the arrival of those distinguished gray locks that now adorn my temples. These days, I pretend to be Johnny Depp on a pirate ship.

Being a person of the male persuasion, I like guy's "action novels." I also peruse the occasional heartbreaker romance and cry into my avocado salad, since I must watch my figure. We all know that men are more spiritual, while women are entirely physical in their sexual curiosity and romantic interests. I urge caution to all unescorted men walking past a hair salon crowded with rowdy women. Never wear shorts when doing so. I have learned this lesson the "hard" way.

Sometimes I dig up forgotten men's action novels from a previous century: Karl May's stories of adventure in the desert, leading to the discovery of treasure and a "nubile" (always blond) damsel in distress, for instance, make for good fun. Percival Christopher Wren's (what a name!) classic Beau Geste is highly recommended, both the film and book. Also, Saki's stories, Conan-Doyle's Sherlock Holmes is always terrific, as is Sir Walter Scott. I love the hysterical novels of ideas of Thomas Love Peacock, adventures by Wilkie Collins, tough guy detective stories -- Donald E. Westlake is great, but Richard Stark is just as good.

I recently discovered the action-packed "Flashman" books. Robert Louis Stevenson was "awesome" when I was twelve. He still is. Until I learned that teachers thought I should read Stevenson's books, which nearly spoiled the experience. Ian Fleming, of course, must be shaken and not stirred. J.K. Rowling will fly you to Hogwarts on her Sirius 2007 broom. And yes, Shakespeare makes this list, along with every other list of literary honors. Try "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

Young people -- especially minority men -- often do not have this sense that books are fun. They should. You will find your life enriched by a safe, legal, literary habit. Get yourself a library card or go to Strand Books, or to any other second-hand bookstore, explore, get dusty, and find forgotten books, preferably with grotesque and lurid covers. Robert Howard's stories about barbarians and "nubile" brunettes are also great.

I love Edgar Best (the mystery writer) and Katherine Everard, though Gore Vidal has been harsh in his criticisms of their works. Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett are better than Agatha Christie. So are Elmore Leonard and Scott Turow. I've read all of them, including Ms. Christie. The most flattering description of me that I have heard is: "Chili Palmer with a Ph.D." No, I don't have a Ph.D. I have no idea why I would be so described. I'm more like Woody Allen with a state college degree.

Gore Vidal's essays are "laugh out loud funny," also smart as hell and instructive. Mailer's Tough Guys Don't Dance is a good summer read. Among women whose books I love to read in the summer, Jane Austen and Fran Leibowitz are high on the list, so is J.K. Rowling, whose imagination can only be compared to Vonegut's advanced dementia. Nancy Mitford (yes, she's a snob and not, horrors, "politically correct") is another good choice. Have you read Mitford's letters to Evelyn Waugh? You should. They're great.

I am now going to recommend three and only three (count 'em!) summer novels -- o.k., four novels -- for young and old. These are masterpieces of literary fun, also qualifying as genuine "serious" literature. So you can get caught by your friends reading them and it's o.k. All of these writers are underappreciated, none have received their due (yet!) from professors teaching "Comp Lit" at Princeton, who insist that you read Icelandic medieval sagas in the original language and pretend to enjoy the experience. There are some things that I will not do for a good grade, none of which are sexual, happily.

These books that I will now recommend are certain to delight and entertain you. They are intellectually nutritious, and yet zero calory literary banquets: Richard Matheson's Seven Steps to Midnight; Steven King's The Dark Half or Salem's Lot; Anne Rice's Interview With a Vampire (this Rice novel should be required reading for all phenomenologists and existentialists because of its subtle parsing of perceptions and impressions in rich descriptions of a ubiquitous "vampiresque" subjectivity); Gore Vidal's Visit to a Small Planet (and other plays, "novelistic plays") or Myra Breckingridge (a true masterpiece of a novel, also a sheer joy to read). Other candidates include Vonegut's Slaughterhouse Five, Fowles's Mantissa, Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, even Buckley's Saving the Queen. Also, G.K. Chesterton's "Father Brown" stories, especially The Man Who Was Thursday. Blackford Oakes refuses to save the Queen of England (no, not Boy George) without me, though he was interviewed once on Firing Line by William F. Buckley, Jr.

Every one of these authors and books will still be read a generation from now by ordinary people, strictly for fun. You just have to hope that the professors will not get to them before you do. I cannot review these four works here, since each of them merits a full essay. So I will say something about each book that is intended only to "pique" (I always wanted to write that word!) your interest.

Seven Steps to Midnight is the perfect guy's action novel. It is impossible to put down that book until you finish it. The story includes one awesome, mega-babe:

"... into the eyes of the most exquisite female he had ever seen in his life -- in personal experience, in films, in magazines, in paintings, anywhere. This was a face beyond belief. He actually felt his mouth falling open and quickly embarassedly, shut it, turning to the front again. ..."

Get this:

"She wasn't a Hitchcock blonde. Her hair was a dark chestnut, her eyes green, her skin the shade of alabaster and her red lips -- Jesus God. Now my story was complete; the mysterious beauty had arrived." (pp. 136-137.)

Notice the postmodernist irony and winking at the reader in the last line. There are any number of serious philosophical issues raised in Matheson's "text," many of which, I am sure, were not consciously intended by the author as philosophical conundrums. Among them are questions about "reality" in literature, the nature of reading and truth, ambiguity and the juggling of options in life and literature, together with many more. There are even some puzzles relevant to the philosophy of mathematics in this novel. You can apply Baudrillard, Jung, Sartre, and lots of other elite thinkers (Eco, Barthes) to the analysis of this book, including the dynamic duo, Foucault and Derrida. Matheson will let you interpret the novel any way you like, after he gets your $7.50.

King's playful re-working of two nineteenth century classics, transferred to the American context, amounts to a bravura display by the (at the time) young author: The Dark Half is a tribute to Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"; whereas Salem's Lot is a tipping of the hat to Bram Stoker's "Dracula." Steven King was anouncing to the world that a new master of the horror/Gothic genre had arrived and was about to kick ass, which he did and does, and will continue to do for the foreseeable future. These books are King's version of a transition from a "Cassius Clay" to a "Muhammad Ali" phase of his career and life. King is saying in these books: "I am the greatest!" In his neighborhood and genre, he is.

Rice's Interview is a powerful example of perceptually aware narration, filled with eros and a blurring of the boundaries between perceiver and perceived, questioning realities, ironic about our media-saturated world that still craves magic, coping with loss and regret, yet exploding with imagination, despite its somber mood. Mezzotints and dark lighting characterize this novel, whose author peers at you from behind the stage curtain of her prose and smiles, wickedly. Get your crucifix and some garlic. If you have no garlic, Aqua Velva will do. (I'm saving up for a bottle of "Antonio" -- a cologne "created by" Antonio Banderas -- which is supposed to be lethal on the ladies!)

Vidal's Myra anticipates the postmodern turn, explores the plasticity of identity in a media age, explodes gender conventions (Butler, Jung), takes on the French critics, plays with Lacan -- before Lacan mattered -- and cinema-literary vocabulary, chuckles at outdated notions of sexuality, conjures epistemological and metaphysical mysteries, even as you laugh out loud. It is also an erotic (yet never pornographic) book, far better than anything by Nin, Miller, or any other so-called "frank" writer of erotic fiction. This is a happy-time book, which is certainly a literary masterpiece, comparable to Swift, Sterne, or Vidal's much admired predecessors George Meredith and Peter De Vries. Without a doubt, it is one of the great books of the twentieth century made into one of the worst movies ever.

Get these books and take them to the beach. You won't regret it. Don't forget your sun screen and shades, try not to get another tattoo this year. Don't go in the water unless the lifeguard is out. Be safe. Enjoy.

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