The Book Report


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Against the Day
Written by: Thomas Pynchon
Publisher: Penguin Press

Thomas Pynchon’s new offering might best be described as unrestrained proto-modern magical realism with a Western lilt. His verbal spewage results in a nearly 1,100 page novel, of biblically density, that will leave even the most serious of readers daunted. That being said, Against the Day is decidedly easier to wrap your head around than the trenchant genius and near-incomprehensibility that characterizes his earlier works.

At its heart is a relatively stable narrative surrounding the life, death, family and legacy of late 19th century wage-slave Webb Traverse, a miner who moonlights as a dynamite-slinging anti-hero known only as the Kieselguhr Kid. When Traverse is murdered by proxies of robber baron Scarsdale Vibe—a character who conjures images of a wealthy, ruthless and unhinged Powers Boothe—the story truly begins.

The breadth of Pynchon’s intellect and literary lexicography is astounding; readers follow the offspring of Traverse on strange tangents as they explore the nature of time, theoretical mathematics, familial vendetta and bizarre sexual fetishes in the context of laissez-faire macroeconomic conflict. His characteristic flights of whimsy are also present, symbolically embodied by the Chums of Chance, an organization of brash young bureaucrats who exist on the fringes of reality aboard their balloon-airship, the Inconvenience.

All told, Against the Day is both rewarding and ostentatious enough to justify the substantial investment of time, optical fortitude and upper-arm strength required to see it through. Indeed, merely lugging this book around is enough to satisfy any casual glances from the NYC subway literati set. (Drew Toal)

I, Goldstein: My Screwed Life
Written by: Al Goldstein
Publisher: Thunder’s Mouth Press

Pornographer Al Goldstein’s memoir is a textbook example of how not to run your life. A NYC fixture and has-been who resurfaces periodically in the press and on the “Howard Stern Show,” Goldstein has ridden a rollercoaster ride from riches to rags during the last few decades. In 1968, he founded the scurrilous Screw magazine, a weekly tabloid famous for sex ads, grainy pics of orifices being penetrated and Goldstein’s personal diatribes against everyone and their mother. Goldstein’s barbs may be laced with humor, but his memoir makes it clear he’s also outspoken, bordering on the abusive: he’s been sued and accused of harassment on several occasions. Thanks to his impossible personality, he alienated his son and most of his friends, such as Larry Flynt and Hugh Hefner.

During the 1970s and ’80s, Goldstein was a pioneer who had his pulse on trends before they became popular. His graphic pornographic layouts and hooker ads predated hard-core Internet sex. His public access show, “Midnight Blue,” was a precursor to shock jock techniques, and Howard Sterns’ smutty persona. Goldstein ultimately miscalculated how to run his media operation; his delusions of being the Teflon man were wrong. Unlike the more business-savvy Hefner and Flynt, his fortunes floundered when he was unable to maximize the Internet porn industry. His utter lack of a loyal staff or partner and his frequent marital woes made it that much worse. Forced to give up Screw and “Midnight Blue,” after years of living comfortably in a townhouse on the Upper East Side and being driven around town in a white Rolls, he declared bankruptcy in 2004 and lived in a men’s shelter while trying to earn a few extra bucks as a host at Second
Avenue deli and New York City Bagels. Goldstein’s narrative captures the flavor of the times, regaling us with tales of excess. Get that yummy schadenfreude feeling while reading about Goldstein recklessly squandering his fortune on cheap thrills and nouveau riche displays of wealth. Despite being self-congratulatory, egotistical, narcissistic and self-indulgent, Goldstein’s sense of humor and acceptance of life’s cruel twists and turns provides a certain optimism and while he may no longer be a contender, he’s still in the ring duking it out. (Gerry Visco)

How to Move to Canada: A Primer for Americans
Written by: Terese Loeb Kreuzer with Carol Bennett
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin

There’s a palpable force acting on Americans. It’s felt across generations, from draft-dodging hippies in the ’60s, to present-day liberals jaded by the current administration’s conservative values. I’m speaking, of course, of Canada’s magnetic pull on disillusioned Americans. It’s always been there, but the 2004 presidential election was the high water mark. The day after George W. Bush climbed back into the executive saddle, American visitors to Canada’s immigration website increased by 600 percent. And since the world’s second largest nation (in landmass, if not always influence) survives on immigrants, many took the plunge.

Arriving fashionably late for this cultural trend is a handbook written by a pair of Northern-minded Americans. The objective is clear in the title: it tells Americans exactly how to successfully immigrate to Canada. The book takes baby steps (the first chapter is titled “What is Canada?”), and succeeds in casting a broad blanket over the intricacies of a potentially bewildering process. The bulk of the book focuses on specific cities and provinces, including statistics and the occasional historical note (like how the Dutch government sends Ottawa 10,000 tulip bulbs a year, as a debt of gratitude for harboring their Princess during WWII). These tidbits, though superfluous to a potential immigrant, give a more intimate feel to a largely formulaic digest.

So why do most Americans choose to ditch Uncle Sam for the Canadian Mounties? According to the authors, the most common reasons are liberal social policies, most notably the universal healthcare system, a wide acceptance of same-sex marriages, stricter gun laws and no capital punishment. But they also point to Canadians’ “caring, sharing legacy” as its “most treasured national characteristic.” So if you’re a gay couple looking for friendly neighbors who won’t be able to shoot you (but it would be OK if they did, because they wouldn’t be put to death and you would have healthcare), this book is good start. And with all the rumblings about re-instituting the draft, this book may not be too late after all. (Doug Black)

Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow
Written by: Zak Smith
Publisher: Tin House Books

If you haven’t gotten your fill of the big, bad PoMo daddy, then check out the beautiful drawings, paintings and photos artist Zak Smith created for the illustrated Gravity’s Rainbow (written way back in 1973). “What!” you scream, no longer do you have to struggle through the dense, difficult language, instead you can enjoy over 750 pages of pictures! I admit it, I’ve tried to tackle the tome many a time and failed, but maybe now with the distraction of green mohawks, kooky line drawings and trippy abstract shapes and colors the pain won’t be as acute. Sometimes Smith goes literal with the prose of the modern classic, but then again, an artist should have fun interpreting the “stumbling bird” and “Grigori the octopus.” If you keep it up, you can fill an entire shelf with nothing but a couple of Pynchon books. Woo-wee! (Jerry Portwood)

Dark Magus: The Jekyll and Hyde Life of Miles Davis
Written by: Gregory Davis
Publisher: Backbeat Books

The dark sorcerer indeed. One of music’s greatest prophets once burglarized a friend who had plucked him from the gutter on 52nd Street; needed an anonymous Frank Sinatra to bail him out of jail in Boston; and, we now learn, made his own son an indecent proposal.

In Dark Magus, Gregory Davis, who stepped up to be his father’s bodyguard when the garrulous icon needed one most (and found few volunteers), recounts painful examples of Miles’ misogyny and drug dependency, plus enough warm fables and cryptic nicknames to equip George W. to sweet-talk the new Congress. But on timeless questions—Miles’ apprenticeship to Charlie Parker in New York, the rivalry with John Coltrane—the son toes the party line. Some of the most compelling personal accounts are related second-hand from older family members, friends like Clark Terry (who penned the foreword) or stories published in Jet magazine.

Dark Magus is the apparent product of conversations with co-author Lesley Sussman, and it has all the hallmarks of oral history: imprecision, ellipsis and redundancy. It feels like talk therapy for its author, who holds a master’s in psychology. Despite Gregory’s opening pledge to avoid “a ‘Daddy Dearest’ type of memoir,” the text is rife with plausible, wincing diagnosis.

Perhaps publication of such a memoir will bring some measure of closure for a family torn by lawsuits that concerned the trumpeter’s estate (and consume many of the book’s 168 pages). Gregory, now in his sixties, promises that his book “is the best version of my father that the reader will ever get.” It’s a shame for Miles, his heirs and the rest of us to think he might be right. (Jonathan Funke)

The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Elite Colleges—and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates
Written by: Daniel Golden
Publisher: Crown

Popular myth has it that America is a meritocracy, while our English cousins are still stuck in the 18th century, weighed down by aristocratic baggage. Not so, says Pulitzer-winning reporter Daniel Golden. His new book exposes one of the most effective ways in which we slick Yanks perpetuate our own aristocracy: college admissions.

Ironically, Golden is a Harvard man himself. Fitting then, that his first chapter skewers the Harvard admissions committee for blatant favoritism toward the often mediocre children of potential donors. An entire chapter is devoted to Notre Dame’s out-of-control legacy preferences. Then Brown is soundly bitch-slapped for their perennially shameless kowtowing to the not-so-exceptional offspring of celebrities like David Halberstam, Michael Ovitz, Dustin Hoffman and even Klaus von Bulow.

Perhaps Golden’s most revealing and original research is on the lax admissions standards for well-heeled prep-schoolers participating in sissified blueblood “sports” like squash and fencing. Equally insightful are his examples of institutionalized bias against “unhooked” Asian Americans, whom he dubs the “New Jews.” He cites commentary from smug Ivy League officials who fear they’ll retain too many violin-playing math nerds if they admit Asian Americans on merit alone.

Golden cites institutions like CalTech as model schools that manage to raise money via methods that don’t involve courting the rich parents of intellectually suspect kids. But judging from Golden’s findings, it’s obvious that merit-based, anti-legacy admissions policies will never become law: That is, not while our Supreme Court is stacked with Ivy alums looking to place their silver-spoon progeny in exclusive, expensive private institutions. (Michael Sandlin)

Movie Lust
Written by: Maitland McDonagh
Publisher: Sasquatch Books

If you’re a cinemaniac (or want to impress one), Maitland McDonagh’s compendium of movie stories satiates that constant craving. The collection of 90-plus short essays and a dozen director profiles by erudite and witty Maitland McDonagh—who’s known to a wide range of fans as TVGuide.com’s Flick Chick—draw upon her encyclopedic knowledge and a genuine passion for the movies to deliver the goods on classic cinema.

McDonagh covers a comprehensive compilation of genres and sub-genres, including adventures in space; beach scenes; horror and haunt; anime and ‘toons; Shakespeare derivatives; flicks featuring dogs, werewolves or starlets; and those with plots revolving around stage doors, cocktail hours or telephone connections.

McDonagh’s discerning list of “landmark” movies—stretching from 1917’s Quo Vadis? to 1977’s Star Wars—traces the changing face of cinema, while her selection of featured directors—ranging from Pedro Almodóvar to Peter Weir—spotlights its highlights.

Her style’s so light and breezy, it’s easy to overlook the depth of McDonagh’s insights, as she generously reveals personal associations with specific films (“we all have those moments when movies express exactly what we’re going through or carry us as far away from our circumstances as possible”). Movie Lust is a book to be referenced repeatedly. You’re guaranteed to get a clearer picture of the movies every time you turn a page. (Jennifer Merin)

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