Column: Banned Books Week

September 30, 2009

Banned_Books_WeekWhile I have my various gripes with the way our government works, there is one part of our founding documents that I am behind with universal support: the First Amendment:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Or something along those lines. It’s a principle that, while it does allow some bloated idiots to gab off at the top of their lungs on news networks, ensures that the development of ideas can continue without intervention and that these ideas can flow out and be discussed to the benefit of all. Plus, as a writer myself, I enjoy that it allows me to say things that would get me kicked out of some other countries or pushed into a tiny little room below the dictator’s palace.

As such, Banned Books Week (September 27-October 3 this year) is an event that has a special place in my heart. Sponsored by the American Library Association, the week-long celebration “highlights the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted banning of books across the United States.” In addition to reminding us of prior censorship efforts going back to the 1920s, it also reminds us of the continuing efforts to remove books from libraries on various grounds.

And those efforts are still going on, sadly not dying out with the obscenity trials that allowed “Tropic of Cancer” and “Naked Lunch” to be disseminated in this country free of persecution. The ALA makes such a thing perfectly clear in its graph of reported instances, which reminds me of a road trip gone horribly wrong – cities marked with books that parents and community organizations have tried to pull from the shelves, many of which are award-winners that have been present on the shelves for years.

Out of curiosity this week I scouted out the ALA website to see what has fallen on the roster of banned titles. While the site has a variety of bans relating to contemporary authors I was more interested in the classics, being as that’s the majority of my shelf’s population – I wanted to know what I own that some fire-breathing morality group would consider unfit to have in the same county as a small child.

And the results were pretty impressive. At some point over the last few decades, all of these books which I own and have enjoyed have come up against battles to either take out of schools or even be banned from the country in older times: “The Great Gatsby,” “1984,” “A Brave New World,” “The Sun Also Rises,” “As I Lay Dying,” “A Farewell to Arms,” “Naked Lunch,” “Slaughterhouse-Five,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “In Cold Blood,” “Heart of Darkness,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “The Lord of the Rings” and “Tropic of Cancer” are just the ones at first glance that fell on the challenge list.

A few thoughts flitted through my mind thinking about this: do censors just hate my bookshelf? Is it a prerequisite of a book being a classic for it to be attacked? Should I be investing in a nice locked glass door to cover the shelf? In any case, it offends my sensibilities to the nth degree to see that books like these – which have had a variety of dramatic effects on me over the years – could have come close to being taken out of my hands.

In my life, there hasn’t been a single book that I’d claim has had a negative effect on me – in many cases, it’s expanded my school of thought in very constructive ways by getting them early. If I found “Slaughterhouse-Five” when I was 10 instead of 20, I’m willing to bet its effect would have been positive and allowed for a little more creative thought in my English classes. Then again, I’d also say the same thing about “Naked Lunch” so perhaps they shouldn’t put me on the library board anytime soon.

What I’m saying is that my attitude towards literature tends to be libertarian in nature – I’m all for keeping overdoses of sex and violence to a more mature group, but I believe that there shouldn’t be any restrictions on what books are available in a library. Literature is something that’s made to be explored and hunted down without blockades, something that we go into blind and deserve to have our eyes opened in response. And if a child has questions, they can be dealt with in a reasoned manner – not by mothers who screech up a hissy fit every time a word pops up they fear their beloved’s little virgin ears can’t handle.

So, to honor/celebrate Banned Books Week, I’m going out to rent or buy copies of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22” and J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.” These are books that have been on my reading list for ages but for some reason I’ve never gotten around to, and now seems as good a time as any to indulge. People have put in a lot of effort to give me the right to postpone reading these classics.

And your homework assignment, due on Monday, is to do the same – check out the ALA websites and lists, and get your hands on one or two challenged books. No one’s going take your books away from you any time soon, but a lot of people have fought battles to make sure they can’t. Take a couple hours out of your day and pay them back.

Update: Boing Boing has provided a list of the most challenged titles of 2008, along with a little background on each.

Les Chappell may disagree with what you say, but he will defend to the death your right to print and publish it and have it read by anyone who feels so inclined. Feel free to agree or disagree with him at


Links of Literacy: Books as Art

September 25, 2009

I’m one of the first defenders of books from an aesthetic standpoint – not in terms of their content, but in terms of their appearance. A well-stocked bookshelf goes a long way toward making an apartment presentable, especially if it’s fortunate enough to be full of leather-bound first editions trimmed in gold (mahogany smell is optional but strongly encouraged). Even if the titles haven’t been cracked, the image alone speaks to the attention that one spends on their collection, both in terms of caring for the books and the investment you’re willing to make.

But for some people, leaving the books on a shelf to admire isn’t enough – the physical form of a book has a potential the publishers likely never even imagined. Whether it’s expanding on the general symbolism of what the book represents, a visual twist on the titles or simply using it as a base for incredibly detailed origami, there are a lot of artists working today who are doing wonderful things with the medium. A twinge does come up at the fact that a book had to go under the knife and have its readability destroyed, but I think most authors would be pleasantly surprised to see their works rendered in this new light.

Having amassed a collection of links from various literary sites, Twitter feeds and randomly posted links, I decided to gather a few of my favorite examples of using books as the raw materials for art. Links and pictures are provided below, and I strongly encourage you to take a look and appreciate just how clever some people get with the contents of their shelf.

  • The work of Robert The is a fantastic reshaping of books, chopping them up in elaborate shapes to create guns and crustaceans and even a hangman’s noose. There’s a lot of symbolism tied up in each of these (the noose is made up of a dictionary, Bibles are turned into the links of chains, an encyclopedia heads up a broom) and it’s art that really makes you think when you look at it. And of course, the fact that he’s a graduate of my alma mater the University of Wisconsin doesn’t hurt.  There’s also a great essay/interview here that discusses his work from a critical perspective, with two other interesting artists below.

McLuhan braque01

  • Nicholas Galanin is another artist who works in the same sort of style – cutting and reshaping books to form sculpture – but his What Have We Become? set puts a whole new face on the subject. The cutting of heads and profiles shows a great deal of care on the artist’s part, and creates some rather unsettling reliefs that look worlds better than any bust or African mask.

what-have-we-become what-have-we-become2

  • Brian Dettmer’s art cuts a little bit deeper – literally – as he chops into the books to construct his series of “Book Autopsies,” odd works that evoke a mix of M.C. Escher and window boxes I saw in the Chicago Art Institute’s modern art wing one year. Visually complex and inventive, many of these are books begging to be leafed through to see how the effect carries out – thought I’d never dare to do so.

briandettmer2 briandettmer5

  • For a prime example of visual storytelling, look no further than these pieces by Su Blackwell, marvelously fragile dioramas that construct scenes from “Alice in Wonderland” and “Peter Pan” among others. She says in her artist’s statement that she creates works that “reflect on the precariousness of the world we inhabit and the fragility of our life, dreams and ambitions,” and the almost etheral nature of the scenes she has chosen only adds to the effect.

Through_the_Looking_Glass The_Lake_and_The_Boat

  • Lastly, while not exactly art in the sense as the previous creations, this line of Don’t Judge Me “book safes” by Busted Typewriter ranks highly as one of the most creative uses for old books I’ve ever seen. You can also purchase them straight off of Etsy if you feel so inclined.


Anyone else know of an artist working in the field that I’ve missed? Post the link below so everyone else can bask in their splendor.

Book Review: Dear Everybody (or: When a Poet Writes a Novel)

September 24, 2009

Dear Everybody

Dear_EverybodyBy Micheal Kimball

Published September 1, 2008

Alma Books

288 pp.

ISBN 1-846-88055-6

Reviewed September 24, 2009

Unlike actors who become politicians or Disney’s tween actors with platinum-iced singing dreams, I like authors who figuratively cut off the hands that made them famous and go at it with a new pair.

What writers seem to maintain when they pack up and skip out on their genre, that these other annoying public figures don’t, is sincerity. Readers tend to see such attempts by authors as the cultivation of  some new basement brew of ingenuity. The writer seems to be holding the values of literature, which consistently hail curiosity and imagination, closer to them so as to examine more shrewdly from a different angle.

In the case of Micheal Kimball, the writer of the novel “Dear Everybody,” we have a writer trading in the high-speed, downtown feel of  poems for the stretching,  interstate highways of a novel.

“Dear Everybody” is a collection of letters, conversations, diary entries, and encyclopedia articles that makes Jonathan Bender’s life finally come together just when it has completely dissolved. Jonathan’s suicide forces his brother, Robert, who insists that he never understood or was close to Jonathan, to create a self-portrait that Jonathan himself – crippled by depression and memories of childhood abuse at the hands of overweight, adulterous father – was only capable of seeing in blurry bits and pieces.

In the beginning of the novel, Robert remarks snidely, in brackets drawn on the bottom of the page, that he wishes Jonathan had just written one letter to “everybody.” It’s a statement that is absolutely heartbreaking in it’s dismissive tone. However, for the reader it starts off the first echo of a demand that haunted Jonathan his whole, stunted life.  “Why can’t you just make things easier for all of us?”

Despite Jonathan’s mental bruises and moth-eaten social skills, it’s clear he cares deeply for those he tries to connect with. He gets painfully close to getting it right with his wife, Sara. Seeing the glass shards of those few relationships clustered together exposes the inevitable patterns of Jonathon’s behavior. Depression and dark memories were the only thing Jonathan could consistently keep around. Though the ending is, of course, defined from the beginning, the clever addition of skeptical Robert does allow the reader to hope that someone from his Jonathan’s life has finally heard him.

Kimball’s background as a poet is apparent in his ability to isolate and frame small moments of a particular character’s experience. Fine attention to detail is exercised both as an art and as a special effect, heightening and diversifying the book’s emotions at a clipped pace. You will finish this book in a day or two. It has a surprisingly strong dark humor for being about such a serious topic, his observations are keen and quirky, and he knows how to let imagery make a scene swell. It all keeps the book far away from being saccharine and sentimental.

Plus, there’s something about letters, right? Kimball’s letters seem like purgatory to me. The letter writer reaches out for the people  he wants to feel close  to, but only after it’s too late.  He damns himself, and the reader, over and over again with each letter. He  purges honest feeling and pent up regrets, but it’s an illusion of resolution. He wants nothing to do with responses and at the end of each letter: no matter how alive the prose feels, he is still dead. This writing spree has all the highs and lows of a drug binge.

I think it’s telling as well that the novel wouldn’t even make sense if the letters made up the novel by themselves.  Gaps must be filled in by several other one-sided conversations. Jonathon’s mother’s diary fills in many gaps, as does Sara’s eulogy and Robert’s commentary. No one manages to speak to anyone else in this book, and the book ends up being a sad consequence of that. All of this seems like a  sly jib from Kimball towards a piece of writing or an individual that fail to do anything but listen to itself speak.

Jonathan’s beautiful letters are a collection of broken wires – every one is unfinished and loss seems to be the only thing that pushed Jonathan to keep writing towards the end. Every time the reader imagines the physical presence of Jonathan, you’re supposed to see a man with his mouth clamped shut, a man who has lost control of the conversation.

Column: Summer Reading List 2009: The Fall

September 23, 2009


Well, the autumn equinox has passed us by, and the last time frame that we can consider the summer of 2009 has drawn to a close. And with the end of summer comes the end of summer reading lists, mine among them. Does anyone care how well I did? Does anyone wonder what I thought of them? Does anyone still read this site considering how long it’s been since my last update? (P.S.: New reviews, Back Shelf and Text-to-Screen are coming soon.)

Since that piece wound up being the most read article on my site (piggy-backing onto searches for summer reading lists) I assume people care, so I’ve decided to take a look back and see how I managed to do. I didn’t do as well as I would have hoped, chiefly because I discovered P.G. Wodehouse at the start of June and spent the majority of the summer reading and rereading the adventures of Wooster, Psmith and Ukridge among others. I’m going to be writing a piece on that shortly, but in the meantime here’s a piece the A.V. Club did that has a fairly good introduction to the canon.

Please do note that since I didn’t manage to read the entirety of the list, these entries vary in length – either me talking in detail about the book, or making excuses as to why I didn’t read. Others I did manage to read but wound up writing full reviews on, so I’ll save you from my repeats and just link you to the original articles. Much like my summer, this list will likely be chaotic and all over the place.

1. “2666”, by Roberto Bolaño

2666_CoverIn a manner that should be completely unsurprising to anyone who knows me, I seem to have wound up doing this list in reverse order, in that “2666” is the book on this list I wound up reading closest to the end of the summer. A big part of this is mostly that I tend to put off the largest books, and even though I practically opted for the three-volume paperback version of Bolano’s magnum opus it still wasn’t one I had the focus to tackle until recently.

And it’s probably a good thing I waited, because if I started with it everything else would pale in comparison. I’ve only gotten through the first of five sections (“The Part About the Critics”), and to be honest I would be completely satisfied if he had only presented that as a novella. It establishes four characters in their relation to the mysterious author Benno von Archimboldi, people from four different countries who enter the literary world through their ties to his work, and also enter into friendship and romance as they try to find more about him. It’s a maturation of a theme Bolano explored in “The Savage Detectives” – the absent writer – and here it’s presented in an even more gripping fashion.

This book radiates brilliance, from the depth of his characters to his uncanny gift for mastering words. It fits the cliched description of a book that makes you laugh and makes you think, with devices ranging from a sentence that goes on for close to five pages to scenes that reflect the reactions of all four characters to events and each other. By the end of the section I found myself becoming rather attached to each of the critics, because they all struck me as intelligent and tragic and confused – in a word, human.

Personally, it was worth waiting to start this one if only because now I can take my time with it. I have a suspicion that Bolano was only warming up and a lot of the plot points and details fo the first act are going to tie together by the end in a way that would make William Faulkner envious.

And speaking of Faulkner’s generation…

2. “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” by Ernest Hemingway

For_Whom_The_Bell_Tolls_CoverMaybe it’s a part of my obsessive nature, maybe it’s my feeling of satisfaction at looking upon my bookshelf, but for some reason I always feel both driven and obligated to finish titles that I purchase. However, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is one of the rare books that I just couldn’t gather up the interest to finish and gave up on within a hundred pages.

Now this isn’t anything to do with the author himself – I always take Hemingway’s side in the Faulkner vs. Hemingway debates, count “A Moveable Feast” as one of my favorite titles and think some of his short stories are possessed of a truly brilliant craft. The problem I have is I find he works best in shorter format, or dealing with his life as a writer – once he gets into the world of war it starts to drag. Honestly, I’ve found that his novels seem to go down in my estimation as they progress: loved “The Sun Also Rises,” was iffy on “A Farewell to Arms,” didn’t like “For Whom the Bell Tolls” at all.

My objection to the book isn’t the craft of the words, but just the fact that it’s utterly devoid of action to start and not in a good way. The main action of the first hundred pages is simply discussing war and bombing the bridge, but never moves on from that first scene – all the same characters and the singular setting. We get a lot of discussion on war and patriotism, but the characters tend to repeat themselves in that same Hemingway voice (and as William S. Burroughs observed, nobody talks like that except Hemingway characters).

And, while I know this isn’t Hemingway’s fault, I could never get around his main character being called Robert Jordan. It makes me wonder if his character will set his explosives muttering about how “ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend.”

Maybe Hemingway just works better in a shorter format, or maybe I just prefer his writing on Paris to his writing on war. Either way, that bell did not toll for me.

3. “The Year of Living Biblically,” by A.J. Jacobs


I actually wound up doing a formal review of this one some time ago, so I won’t go into too much detail here. Suffice it to say that this is a funny and meaningful book, and one of the only things to pique my own interest in reading the Bible – and considering how devout of an agnostic I am, that’s an achievement in and of itself.

4. “Infinite Jest,” by David Foster Wallace

infinite_jestYeah, what do you think happened? Despite friends telling me you can read it out of order and it really doesn’t matter as much as other books, despite the fact that I haven’t had any work save rattling off a few freelance features this summer, despite the fact I’ve been working out and can lift the volume above my head, I didn’t manage to read David Foster Wallace’s behemoth this year either. Thought about it but always managed to find an excuse – family coming into town, got to get a review done, can’t find my copy anywhere. (That last one’s actually still true.)

I think though that one of the main factors that kept me from really getting into the book was the discovery of the “Infinite Summer” group – though not for the reasons you may think. I wanted to join but the group was already into it, asking questions and discussing plot points I hadn’t heard of. I felt getting into it late would just muddle things up, and with a book like this focus is key. Were I to have discovered this group at the start of the summer, it would have given me something to shoot for and a sense of community, which I think is essential for a book of this scope and depth.

I find it entirely possible I won’t have gotten around to reading it by next summer either, and if so I intend to get into the group right away. Feel free to cite me on this nine months from now.

5. “Losing Mum and Pup,” by Christopher Buckley

losing_mum_and_pupAgain, this one turned into an actual review so I’ll point you there for my comments. The short version, Christopher Buckley is in top form here, with one of the rare books that manages to choke me up and make me laugh in alternating chapters.

6.“The Graveyard Book,” by Neil Gaiman

the-graveyard-book-WEBThis one is uninteresting to talk about sadly – I don’t own the book and am short on cash to purchase new ones, so therefore I have neglected to pick up my own version. For thematic reasons, I’m going to wait a few weeks to pick up a copy and read it around the end of October once the nights start getting cold and the leaves start changing.


7.“An Arsonist’s Guide to Writer’s Homes in New England,” by Brock Clarke

an_arsonists_guide_coverThis one I also didn’t get to, but to be honest it was more of a space issue than a scheduling one. Due to the fact that my apartment has about as much free space as a janitor’s closet I’ve had to economize, storing books in various piles and boxes around the apartment. “An Arsonist’s Guide” wound up inside an antique wooden chest that I use as an end table early on and I never managed to recover it, pulling it out only recently during an apartment reorganization. I’m adding it to the queue of general reading after I finish off a few titles I’ve got lined up to review.

8.“The Road,” by Cormac McCarthy

road-cormac-mccarthy-hardcover-coverI have not read or purchased the book yet, and therefore this one is also uninteresting to talk about. Rest assured that I do intend to have it read by the time the film comes out in order to do a proper Text-to-Screen. I have seen a trailer for the film – which was accompanied by trailers for “9” and “2012.” What is up with the apocalyptic fixation of Hollywood these days?

9.“The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” by Michael Chabon

the-amazing-adventures-of-kavalier-and-clayHo ho, what’s this? A book I actually got around to reading.

I said in my original list that this was one I wanted to read on the grounds that I hadn’t gotten into Michael Chabon yet, and reading it proved my title that I really should have read it by now. This is a wonderfully constructed novel, telling the story of two cousins making their names as creators of superhero comics and working past their problematic childhoods.

What I love the most about this one is its atmosphere and the depth Chabon takes with each of his main characters, creating their back story and motivations to a surprising degree. Escapism is a major theme of the book and in many ways it feels like an escapist novel, showing a rags-to-riches story and fountains of creativity in its main characters. Fittingly for a novel about comic writing, it also takes the time to really flesh out the comic characters his main characters create, and expertly show how they were both influenced by real people and influence those people in turn.

The problem I have with this book is that it makes a very unfortunate turn a little more than halfway through, abandoning its earlier focus for a sojourn into the coldest, most isolated part of World War II. I’ll avoid giving away any spoilers, but it breaks what was a rip-roaring jaunt through comic book history and growing romance into often macabre melodrama. The section is certainly well-done, but it doesn’t feel right – like a separate novella Chabon hastily stitched in when the deadline was due. He recovers somewhat in the final section by picking up in New York, but this works chiefly because its plot points are from the first parts.

Final verdict? A good book overall and I’m glad I read it this summer, but it doesn’t earn a spot in my favorites as it has for a lot of other people.

10.“The Boys on the Bus”

the_boys_on_the_bus_coverIn another odd mixup, the last one on the list actually wound up being the first one I read this summer – mostly because the drive to reread has always been stronger in me than most people. And it’s another book that definitely benefits from a reread, especially post-2008 presidential campaign. It’s unsettling to see how many of the trends in reporting and candidates simply remain the same, ranging from pack journalism to the regurgitation of press releases in lieu of proper reporting.

It’s also worth taking a look at for his sections on the reporters as personalities, chiefly because it features R.W. “Johnny” Apple Jr. and Robert Novak, both of whom passed away between my reads of the book. Crouse does a great job phrasing and depicting the reporters, some as egomaniacs and some as strategists, some as frustrated with their editors and some as surprisingly content to churn out their content.

So that’s how my list turned out: four reads, four not started, one stopped early, one in progress. Yours?

    In a manner that should be completely unsurprising to anyone who knows me, I seem to have wound up doing this list in reverse order, in that “2666” is the book on this list I wound up reading closest to the end of the summer. A big part of this is mostly that I tend to put off the largest books, and even though I practically opted for the three-volume paperback version of Bolano’s magnum opus it still wasn’t one I had the focus to tackle until recently.

    And it’s probably a good thing I waited, because if I started with it everything else would pale in comparison. I’ve only gotten through the first of five sections (“The Part About the Critics”), and to be honest I would be completely satisfied if he had only presented that as a novella. It establishes four characters in their relation to the mysterious author Benno von Archimboldi, people from four different countries who enter the literary world through their ties to his work, and also enter into friendship and romance as they try to find more about him. It’s a maturation of a theme Bolano explored in “The Savage Detectives” – the absent writer – and here it’s presented in an even more gripping fashion.

    This book radiates brilliance, from the depth of his characters to his uncanny gift for mastering words. It fits the cliched description of a book that makes you laugh and makes you think, with devices ranging from a sentence that goes on for close to five pages to scenes that reflect the reactions of all four characters to events and each other. By the end of the section I found myself becoming rather attached to each of the critics, because they all struck me as intelligent and tragic and confused – in a word, human.

    Personally, it was worth waiting to start this one if only because now I can take my time with it. I have a suspicion that Bolano was only warming up and a lot of the plot points and details fo the first act are going to tie together by the end in a way that would make William Faulkner envious.

    And speaking of Faulkner’s generation…

Classical Anna: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

September 8, 2009

The_Prime_of_Miss_Jean_BrodieThe inspirational teacher is a stock character in literature and film, from Jane Eyre’s Miss Temple and Harry Potter’s Professor Dumbledore to John Keating in The Dead Poets Society.  These instructors light a spark in the hearts and minds of their students, often while fighting a traditional, conservative school system.  However, an inspirational teacher has great power over their students, and such power can be dangerous.  This is the case of Miss Jean Brodie, a teacher of both great inspiration and sinister influence.

Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie tells the story of the titular character, an unconventional teacher at a conventional girls’ school in Edinburgh, Scotland in the 1930’s, in her self-proclaimed “prime.” She gathers a group of students around her, known as the “Brodie Set,” and not only opens their minds to experiences outside the traditional curriculum, but involves them in her personal affairs, as well.  Miss Jean Brodie is an exquisitely complex character: she is a teacher who wants to enlighten her students but is also deeply narcissistic, self-centered, and self-righteous, frequently admonishing her students that “if only you small girls would listen to me I would make of you the crème de la crème.”  The “set” becomes a reflection of her own ego, and she wields them as pawns in her love affairs and ultimately encourages one of them down a deadly path.

Written in 1961, this “modern” classic combines the best of contemporary story-telling techniques with throwbacks to 19th century style.  The prose is traditional and lucid, without the verbosity of many earlier classics or the lyrical mumbo-jumbo of some contemporary books. On the first page, in a clear and satisfying style that characterizes the book, Spark tells the reader, “The girls could not take off their Panama hats because this was not far from the school gates and hatlessness was an offence.”

The sharp, brisk dialogue is reminiscent of Jane Austen, as it wittily exposes the absurdities of the characters.  Readers know Miss Brodie through her words; they hear her voice and understand her character instantly.  Take, for example, this exchange between Miss Brodie and one of her “small girls”:

“I must tell you about the Italian paintings I saw.  Who is the greatest Italian painter?”

“Leonardo da Vinci, Miss Brodie.”

“That is incorrect.  The answer is Giotto, he is my favourite.”

Or this:

“Attend to me, girls.  One’s prime is the moment one was born for.  Now that my prime has begun – Sandy, your attention is wandering.  What have I been talking about?”

“Your prime, Miss Brodie.”

Such dialogue is delicious, and perfectly conveys Miss Brodie’s essence.  It is vibrant and fresh, yet reminiscent of a comedy of manners.

Though rooted in classic prose and dialogue born of an earlier time, Sparks makes masterful use of experimental flash-forwards, seamlessly weaving the present action with haunting scenes of the future:  “Mary McGregor, lumpy, with merely two eyes, a nose and a mouth like a snowman, who was later famous for being stupid and always to blame, and at the age of twenty-three lost her life in a hotel fire, ventured, ‘Golden.’” Spark uses this technique to reveal that Miss Brodie will be “betrayed” by one of her own set, but does not reveal the culprit until the last pages, creating one of the book’s main points of intrigue.

The concept of this book remains unique to this day, taking the stock character of the inspirational teacher and showing its darker potential for abuse of power.  Miss Brodie is brilliant and magnetic yet dangerous as a cult-leader, surrounding herself with blind followers.  As she says, “Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life.” Spark’s characterization of the girls, following them from ages 10 to 17, captures the innocent loyalty and obsession with their dramatic and poetic teacher that makes them so easily manipulated.  The narration is from the girls’ perspective, particularly Sandy’s, and this allows the readers to see Miss Brodie from the girls’ awed point-of-view.

Rooted in classic prose, yet bursting with ingenious story-telling techniques and fascinating characters, this short book is compelling and engrossing.  Any modern day reader will find it to be “the crème de la crème.”

Back Shelf Review: William S. “Billy” Burroughs Jr.

September 1, 2009

William Burroughs Jr _p21William S. Burroughs, in looking back on his life, would often comment that the defining moment in his career was the tragic moment when he shot his wife Joan Vollmer in the head during a drunken game of William Tell. Being one of the rare times that his master aim failed him, as well as the impetus that sent him into Tangiers and to the realizations that led to “Naked Lunch” and the Nova Trilogy, saw it as a telepathic event. As he said in the introduction to “Queer,” “The death of Joan brought me into contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle, in which I had no choice except to write my way out.”

william_burroughs_372x495But if the death maneuvered him into a lifelong struggle, it also had vicious repercussions on the child he had with Joan, a son who bore his name. William S. Burroughs Jr. (known as Billy to friends and family) was four years old at the time, and the shooting not only drove him away from his father but also inflicted the same psychic aftershock of drug use and violent thoughts. He too sought to use writing as a way to escape the Ugly Spirit, with the autobiographical novels 1971’s “Speed” and 1973’s “Kentucky Ham” putting his addictions down on paper. Like his father, he too could write with uncommon skill – but unlike his father, he couldn’t write himself out of it.

David Ohle’s biography of Burroughs Jr. was titled “Cursed From Birth,” and looking at his roots it comes across as darkly appropriate. Joan used benzedrine constantly while pregnant and Billy was born addicted, and Burroughs was at the time going through a series of opium habits that would later fuel his book “Junky.” Shuttled from Texas to Mexico as a child he was eventually sent to live with his grandparents in St. Louis after his mother’s death, having little contact with his father and stifled in suburbia. Predictably, he acted out, skipping school and experimenting with drugs on random road trips.

Speed-book-coverBurroughs Jr.’s first novel “Speed” follows the most extensive of these trips with a look into the “speed freak” culture of 1960s New York City. Heading into the city with friends, Burroughs Jr. found himself exposed on a constant basis to methamphetamines and booze, seeking a fix and dodging the police cracking down on his friends. His devil-may-care nature leads him to try whatever he can get his hands on, but it also means he is constantly fighting off the vicious paranoia and physical breakdown of drug use to the point where his mind seems ready to break.

The original works of the Beat Generation seemed to portray their world as a sort of setting free of real danger, where there was always a bar willing to seat you or a way to scrape together drug money, but Burroughs Jr. isn’t going to have any of that. This isn’t the mad bar-hoppings of Jack Kerouac or Jan Kerouac’s free-flowing Southwest parties, these are flea-ridden flophouses and darkened streets at New York’s most dangerous hours. More than once he winds up in jail, and it’s regularly implied that without the generosity of his father’s friend Allen Ginsberg he would have been left there to rot.

Burroughs Jr.’s voice has a lot in common with his father’s, ranging from the sardonic off-the-cuff remarks (“He and Vinnie, another charmer, poured acid on the kid’s legs and he never walked again. But you can never tell, medical science is making great strides these days”) to the frightening visions that strike out in drug sickness (“The skyscrapers in the mist writhed like monster cobras, of course”). But unlike Burroughs the elder, whose autobiographical efforts come across as detached – owing to the anthropological view he took of his subject – Burroughs Jr. never stops being native, and his narrative reflects the rapid degenerating thought process that amphetamines wreak on the mind.

In many ways, “Speed” is reminiscent less of Burroughs the elder’s efforts and more of Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange,” and its young narrator Alex DeLarge. Like “Clockwork Orange” the sentences have a cynical lilt and rarely seem to pause, mired in more reaction than reflection, as if the mix of youth and stimulants won’t permit the narrator to take any more time. Burroughs Jr. seems aware of this but seems either afraid or unable to stop, observing at one point “I’d been running in overdrive for so long that I was leery of really stopping to take notice of myself.” It’s a struggle that seems much more real than the original Beats, free of mystique and overwhelming visions.

Kentucky-Ham-book-coverWhile “Speed” evokes comparisons to Burgess and “A Clockwork Orange,” Burroughs Jr.’s second novel is more reminiscent of Ken Kesey and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” In this installment, his lifestyle of drug abuse has finally caught up with him and he has been arrested, forced to a rehabilitation facility in Kentucky and the almost anarchic system for dealing with him and legions of addicts. After being forced to exist in the hospital setting, he sets out for Alaska as part of a work release program, a cold and unflinching wilderness on par with “Speed’s” slums in terms of comfort.

Cut off from the addicts and city life of his first work, Burroughs Jr. goes deeper into himself, and his work takes on more of a novelistic observatory quality. He presents the inmates of the asylum – many half-crazy or locked up for years – as a cast of characters, and paints their exploits as such: starting a newspaper, eying the female visitors, scheming for an early release. Later in the book when sent to Alaska, his work takes on a journal format, presenting events in order and often sliding into stream-of-consciousness as if it was lifted from the pages.

“Kentucky Ham” also brings in Burroughs Jr.’s father as a cast member – flying in from London to assist with the trial, nursing his own junk habit and seeing his son for the first time in years. Showing him in Florida and memories of visiting him in Tangier, Burroughs Sr. (usually referred to as “Bill” or “the Old Man”) comes across as distant, spending less time looking after his son and more staring at the sunset or an orgone box for hours before dashing back to the typewriter to “transcribe” his Word Hoard. Jan Kerouac’s novels were peppered with evidence of how she longed to connect with her father, but Burroughs Jr. has few of these feelings, seemingly assuming such a connection would never happen.

Where he does share more similarity with his father is in an openness of thought, which takes over in the final chapter as Burroughs Jr. goes into an impassioned plea for the legalization of drugs. Waxing on the harmless nature of most stoned addicts, the culture of distrust and the reality of how prevalent heroin was at the time, he has the veteran’s voice seen at the end of “Junky.” Our narrator has come through the storm of drug use and seen the reality of its treatment, and as such sees the world in a different light.

Burroughs Jr. did manage to make his way out of the street and drug world he chronicled, but unfortunately his addictive nature wouldn’t allow him to move to full-time professional writer status. Replacing drugs with alcohol he shredded his liver, surviving only due to a series of coincidences that put a gifted doctor and donor liver in his hospital. He worked on a third novel about the experience, “Prakriti Junction,” but never finished it as he kept drinking and stopped taking his anti-rejection meds. He eventually died in 1981 in Florida at the age of 33, passed out in a ditch and estranged from all his loved ones.

billyburroughsPerhaps Burroughs Jr. was never able to be saved, caught in the mood he had seen on his father’s face after Joan’s shooting: “Over the yearning and pain that he felt for me I felt something heavier. Like lead, but molten and smelling of gunpowder and burnt copper. The Burroughs Curse.” That curse may have claimed his life, but it gave him the drive to send back reports from the trenches – works that earned their place in the best of drug memoirs, and worthy heirs of the Beat energy.