Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Postcards and Corduroy

My favorite simile of the day, this one from Junot Diaz' new novel, THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO:

"For Oscar, high school was the equivalent of a medieval spectacle, like being put in the stocks and forced to endure the peltings and outrages of a mob of deranged half-wits..."

Since the tone (so far that I've read) of Diaz' novel is comic, I figured I'd post a couple of reviews of books I found particularly amusing, even outright fall-on-my-face funny. Both reviews are from books I read in 2004 and painstakingly re-created here for your own amusement.


Another terrific slew of non-fiction essays by Mr. NPR himself, David Sedaris. Unlike his last book, "Me Talk Pretty One Day" -- which only spent half the book on his family (the other half on Paris and his boyfriend Hugh) -- this one is almost all about the Sedaris family, from Mom & Pop to Paul, Amy, Lisa, Gretchen and Tiffany. Culled from his contributions to Esquire, GQ, The New Yorker and "This American Life," the collection of 22 essays is a quick, satisfying read.

The first two pieces, "Us & Them" & "Let It Snow" get the raucous laughter flowing immediately. "Full House" is pervy but fun, reminding me a bit of A.M. Homes's style of writing and subject matter. "Slumus Lordicus" & "The Girl Next Door" are both serious departures for the writer, and they both strike a somber, unforgettable note. "The End of the Affair" is a sweet little morsel of a tale about Hugh & David seeing the Neil Jordan film in Paris.

A few of the siblings get starring roles in a few of the stories, all of which are very fun and tell us a lot about why Sedaris possesses that particular temperament and twisted sense of humor -- Lisa in "Repeat After Me"; Paul in 2 stories, "Rooster at the Hitchin' Post" & "Baby Einstein"; and his completely wacked out younger sister Tiffany in "Put a Lid On It."

A definite recommend and a summer fave.


Carrie Fisher's first novel is a fun, quick read, full of the actress's trademark wit, charm and bluster. The story of Suzanne Vale, a thinly "veiled" (Valed?) version of Fisher herself, starts in a rehab facility, shortly after she's had her stomach pumped. Journal entries tell her tale, then share space with Alex's "running monologue in his head" -- a TV writer with a bad cocaine habit who finally goes over the edge one night doing coke, ecstasy AND heroin. His portion of the book is manic, frantic and fall-down funny. Once Vale gets out of the center, the narrative shifts to a strictly dialogue section, as Suzanne gets involved with a Hollywood producer and sex-addict who can't find time for commitment, only sex and movies.

The last shift in narration comes as Suzanne starts fiming a "B" action/comedy flick, and the story of her life is told in third-person. Here the dialogue starts to feel too "clever" and "glib," but the emotional resonancy climbs up a notch and the book sails through to a satisfying ending. Not as brilliant as her second book, "Surrender The Pink" (one of my favorite books), but well worth the time.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Lush Trains on the Mystic River

I’d like to start this one off with my favorite simile of the day, from Richard Price’s new novel, LUSH LIFE:

Directly inside, one of the Yemeni brothers, Nazir, tall and bony with an Adam’s apple like a tomahawk, was playing cashier-doorman…

Now, two more book reviews -- one you've probably heard of and seen the movie version, the other probably not so much. Both books I read back in 2003 and 2004, respectively, but they seem to fit in with Price and his street-savvy, crisply written style. Dennis Lehane's MYSTIC RIVER is up first, followed by Pete Dexter's TRAIN. Both reviews are fairly short and painless.


A pretty involving book, from beginning to end. Lehane's writing is lean, crisp and very readable. The three main characters are very distinct, even though Sean does lose a bit of his "voice" going from boy (in the prologue) to man (as a cop in the mystery). I figured out the two main "mysteries" solutions earlier than I would have liked, which gave the last third of the book a bit of a predictable nature, but overall I enjoyed the book. A lot darker than I expected, more raw and gritty than I would have been led to believe, based on the overwhelmingly positive reactions I got from (mostly) older women who had read it and saw me with the book throughout the week.

SPOLIER ALERT! If you haven't read the book or seen the movie yet, you may not want to go on with this review.

I love that Jimmy starts off a brutal, wicked guy and, try as he might, never quite becomes redeemable or even that particularly likeable. Even with the compassion built-in with the death of his daughter (a great device that Lehane uses to all kinds of wonderful effect, both story-wise and character-wise), Jimmy still can't escape his own evil nature and he slinks back to join the slime he came from by the end.

Dave is a terrific character, although the whole "Boy" thing isn't explored as much as I thought it could have, but his demise is played out very nicely. For a few pages, there's the idea that he may not get whacked, but then the brutal nature of the antagonist comes shining through and Dave feeds Mystic River with his body and soul.

Depressing stuff, but the best scene in the book has to be the tense, violence-in-the-air conversation between Jimmy and father-in-law Savage at his daughter's wake. Great stuff there. The wrap-up scene at the parade is also nicely played, leaving all kinds of doors open for another book.


One of the most terrific opening hundred or so pages of a book I've read in a while. The main characters, Packard and Train, are more real and true than any literary creations I've come across in some time. The prose and tone reminded me of James Ellroy mixed with Elmore Leonard, but with more heft, more grounded reality to the characters and the situations.

Unfortunately, about halfway through the novel, things start to fall apart. The situations that were set up early already begin to pay off, with nothing majorly interesting set up in their place. Then the whole thing meanders. Packard is never explored enough for empathy to build or interest to last about him, so whenever he's around, I wished to be in Train's world instead. The writing, no doubt, is fantastic, and I would definitely read another of Dexter's book, most likely "Paris Trout" but I thought this would be the best book I'd read in a while -- instead, it turned out to be only half a great book. Which, by all accounts, ain't half bad.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Gonzo & Howl

Making up for lost time here on The Spot. Two reviews, one on Hunter S. Thompson's obscure book, SCREWJACK, and the other on Allen Ginsberg's classic beat poem, HOWL. The first is short and sweet. The second, like the long poem, is a bit more, shall we say...involved.

Hope you dig 'em.


The gonzo journalist himself, also known as Raoul Duke, Thompson sees his 1991 collector copy pressing of three short pieces released into the mainstream by Simon & Schuster for 2000. Made up of one whacked-out introduction, followed by the journalistic, stream-of-consciousness-heavy "Mescalito" from 1969, and two 90s-era short fiction stories -- "Death of A Poet" & "Screwjack" -- this slim volume is packed full of outrageous lunacy and demented wordplay.

The first selection is by far the best, capturing the rat-a-tat approach that Thompson made famous in his "Fear and Loathing" books and in magazine pieces like "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved." Checked into an eleventh-floor room at the Continental Hotel on the Sunset Strip, Thompson strolls out onto the balcony to chit-chat with hippies, witness police brutality and listen to the cacophonous street sounds of L.A. in the late 60s. And then things get interesting, when he runs out of time, money and dexedrine and decides to reject the Ritalin in favor of mescaline mixed with speed. The wild drug trip that follows, faithfully recorded by the madman himself on a stolen typewriter, is mesmerizing, terrifying and exhilarating. A moment in time, an experience seen firsthand in a stream-of-consciousness, second-by-second blow that has much of the same power of prose that Tom Wolfe displayed in "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test" and that Ken Kesey channeled for The Chief's opening narrative rant in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest."

The other two pieces are both fictional and lack the immediacy and brazen truth that his journalistic work overflows with. "Screwjack" is particularly disturbing, but for all the wrong reasons. The whole book is a fun ride, though, despite the clunky second half. "Hell's Angels" or "The Rum Diary" will probably be my next foray into Thompson territory.


"Seeking Jazz or Sex or Soup"

While Allen Ginsberg’s three-part, long poem "Howl" is borne of a particular moment in American history -- the Joseph McCarthy congressional witch hunts; the cold war with Russia (which includes, to a degree, the Korean War); social and racial unrest -- it is still possible to read and appreciate the work without the context of the time. The staccato beats of the stanzas, the raw and potent language, as well as the cross-country travels in the poem are all worth exploring in detail outside of the realm of Ginsberg’s cultural experience. With powerful imagery, specific American locales, and references to John Milton, William Blake, Neal Cassady and The Bible, the 1956 poem ushered in not only the age of Beat poetry, but a lasting piece of fury, compassion and madness.

The opening line, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness” sets in motion a seemingly endless list of unnamed, but mostly male, people whom the narrator apparently knew who lost their sanity in the streets, subways, back alleys and bars of America. Written as a single, run-on sentence, the rhythm scheme is structured as mini-tales, each passage of a new, mind-blowing experience beginning simply with “who,” connecting back to that first line of the poem. The sense of dislocation within familiar terrain is the theme repeated throughout, with places in the heartland like Laredo, Texas and Arkansas as sinister and terrifying as Chicago and New York City. The people of the narrator’s generation come from and travel to all points on the U.S. map, but share the common states of sorrow and confusion, unable to feel grounded within landscapes that no longer hold the same security and dependency that they once did. When the “angelheaded hipsters […] / […] bare their brains to Heaven under the El” and “[drink] turpentine in Paradise Alley,” while others “whore through Colorado in myriad stolen night-cars,” the America that once made sense is transformed into a jumble of seedy and depressed places where screaming at God, poisoning oneself, and having meaningless sex for an almighty, capitalistic dollar is the current norm.

Time, space, eternity, the universe and Plato are invoked throughout the narrator’s journey across America, allowing Ginsberg to delve into the big questions asked by man, albeit without attempting to directly answer any of them. He is ambitious in his reachings, detailing the concerns and experiences of an entire generation, his only judgments coming in the form of labeling the various acts performed as the actions of an insane group of people. He then follows the list of his generation’s misdeeds with a section devoted to Moloch, invoking the biblical Canaanite who also shows himself in poems by Coleridge and Milton.

The third and final section addresses Carl Solomon, a real-life friend to Ginsberg, to whom the poem is dedicated. It continues the societal course of madness to its logical conclusion, with Solomon in a Rockland, N.Y. mental hospital receiving treatment for the destruction of his, the best, mind.

First Blog (finally!)

Hi All --

Well, let's hope the future of my stint here on Blogspot is more positive than its beginning. I actually created this site on March 20th, but was quickly shut down for "potentially being a spammer." The request to get my blog open and operable took OVER 3 WEEKS. Frustrating is the nicest euphemism I can use to express my feelings about it.

Anyway, wipe the slate clean. Here's my intro:

I'm a writer and undergraduate student at UCLA, with a current blog going at MySpace (www.myspace.com/justinmcfarr) that details my family life, school life and writing life. Here at Controlled Chaos, I plan to focus on books and writing. Reviews of books I've read, pieces of my own raw, experimental work, and an occasional rant or rave. Essentially, a sophisticated dumping ground for my thoughts, feelings, ideas, and current preoccupations.

Here's hoping you check in periodically. I'll do my best to keep it fresh and worth your eyeballs' time.

First off, a review of Viken Berberian's DAS KAPITAL: A NOVEL OF LOVE AND MONEY MARKETS, which I read in January:

The title of the novel is a direct play on the Marx/Engels non-fiction analysis on capitalism and its critical applications in society and on the laboring man. Berberian, who has written for the NY & LA Times, as well as for The Financial Times, knows his way around global markets and hedge fund traders, which he exploits to the fullest here.

The action takes place from Manhattan's Wall Street to Marseille's mean streets, revolving around three main players: trader Wayne, architecture student Alix, and the mysterious Corsican. Global economies, terrorism and e-mail connect the three players, cocooned in a literary style that is at once cold and calculating while managing to also be very lyrical and haunting.

It reminded me of a book from the capitalistic 80s that was never written (something that McInerney or Easton Ellis would have written if they weren't so solipsistic) and had tones of narrative structure and tenseness that Alex Garland achieved in the wonderful "The Tesseract."

Ultimately, all of the pieces don't quite come together in the way the author intends, and I was left a little hollower when I finished than when I began... but the writing is tremendous, the juxtaposition between poetic language and stock-trading terminology a near-to-masterful feat. I was never really invested in the characters, yet I followed the author's lead regardless, and let the stellar writing carry me through to the story's conclusion.