Thursday, December 7, 2017

Roundup

While I mull over another music-and-nostalgia piece that's almost finished, here's a brief rundown on what I've been reading lately. There are a few good things in here. But most of it, eh.
* Tobias Wolff: IN PHARAOH'S ARMY (1994) -- If Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's THE VIETNAM WAR series on PBS got to you, you might try this, though I think the best book on Vietnam is still Michael Herr's brilliant DISPATCHES. Wolff was a field-artillery officer in a backwater village in the Mekong Delta in 1967-68, and was grateful to be assigned there, because he would rather have died than show how incompetent he was. Wolff tells 13 stories about his war experiences in this brief book, and all but one of them work. Some of it's even funny. Near the end it gets brutally funny. Vivid, direct, involved. There's no distance between Wolff and the events he describes. I wish the book had been twice as long. You can read it in an hour or two.
* Damon Knight: CHARLES FORT - PROPHET OF THE UNEXPLAINED (1970) -- Fort was maybe the first of those folks who keep track of bizarre occurrences -- rains of stones, rains of frogs, spontaneous combustion, unexplained disappearances, even UFOs. He kept track of these kinds of oddities for years in the 1920s and '30s, and eventually filled four books with what he'd learned and let readers be the judges. Unfortunately, he led to those folks who now track Bigfoot, compile details about UFO sightings, try to reach people beyond the grave, and think the Twin Towers were transported to an alternate universe during 9/11. At least Fort had a sense of humor. Knight covers the ground with some sensitivity. Fort had a truly weird childhood, and he was lucky he had enough money to follow the odd compulsions that led to his books. But I wished there was more about what's IN the books, and the reactions to them. Knight sometimes goes off track -- there's a whole chapter about Velikovsky's WORLDS IN COLLISION theories, ghod knows why.
* Viv Albertine: CLOTHES MUSIC BOYS (2014) -- Viv gained some attention as self-taught guitarist with English punk-noise band The Slits back in the day. I picked up the book for that. Her memoirs of that time are direct, intimate, funny, gross. She slept with Mick Jones of The Clash, Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious of The Sex Pistols, and other Names. But the only time she felt right was when she picked up a guitar. Short, hard-hitting chapters, and she doesn't romanticize what happened. Later, the book turned kind of self-indulgent as she drifted into the 1980s and I lost interest. I couldn't finish it.
* Anthony DeCurtis: IN OTHER WORDS (2005) -- Interviews with musicians, writers and movie-directors. I bought it for the Bob Fripp interview, which didn't tell me anything new. Phil Spector on John Lennon held my interest. The Van Morrison interview didn't seem as awkward as DeCurtis thought. Don DeLillo was pretty gripping when talking about his JFK-assassination novel LIBRA. The rest are all people you've heard from before. Includes the dullest front-cover I've ever seen on a book.
* Philip Caputo: A RUMOR OF WAR (1977/1996) -- I respect Caputo as a reporter, but this memoir of his tour in Vietnam is too distant. He's too far separated from the events he describes. It's dull. I couldn't finish it.
* Jon Fisher: UNINHABITED OCEAN ISLANDS (1999) -- If you want to get away from it all, this is a book you could consult. Didn't realize there were so many islands in the Pacific once used by the military and now uninhabited. One of them has been bulldozed and shaped to look JUST LIKE an aircraft carrier. The maps were not as detailed as I'd hoped. A full-color "atlas"-type edition of this book would be well worth the price. The descriptions of some of these places make them sound like they'd be interesting to visit. Some prices for the properties are even included.
* M. Harry: THE MUCKRAKER'S MANUAL (1980/1984) -- I thought Harry's guide to investigative reporting might teach me all the areas in which I'd unknowingly made mistakes. Unfortunately, most of his advice is very basic: Everyone has dirt on them, and if you're careful, organized and never give up, you can get your hands on that information. Well, duh. I didn't learn much.

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