Simon Winchester: The Man Who Loved China

Simon Winchester: The Man Who Loved ChinaReading Simon Winchester is a bit like listening to a well-traveled friend at a cocktail party who’s always just come back from somewhere, brimming with interesting stories about people you would otherwise never have heard of. His previous books, among them the bestsellers The Professor and the Madman, Krakatoa, A Crack at the Edge of the World, and The Meaning of Everything, have shown the author’s unerring knack of unearthing subjects you would never have thought to explore and making page-turners of them. Before I discovered Winchester (courtesy of Professor some years back), I would never have given much thought to the Oxford English Dictionary, and Krakatoa would only have been a footnote in life that brought no small amount of amusement to my fifth-grade teachers.

Winchester returned in 2008* with The Man Who Loved China: The Fascinating Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom which, like The Professor and the Madman, is equal parts biography of the creation of a sprawling tome (in this case, the unfinished-but-still-in-progress Science and Civilisation in China) and of its creator, the eccentric polymath Joseph Neehdam. Needham set out to answer a single question: Why, after centuries of unparalleled innovation–times that saw the invention of movable type, gunpowder, suspension bridges, and the abacus, among scores of other useful stuff, sometimes centuries before their appearance in the West–did China suddenly, and for hundreds of years more, effectively shut off the lights, backsliding to the status of a scientific backwater? His quest to answer that question animates Winchester’s book, and–the author suggests–may yet underpin our understanding of a modern, very resurgent, China. Continue reading “Simon Winchester: The Man Who Loved China”

Neil Gaiman: The Graveyard Book

Neil Gaiman: The Graveyard BookI shouldn’t be surprised that Neil Gaiman’s latest offering, The Graveyard Book, is as good as it is. Many moons ago, when he and Terry Pratchett wrote Good Omens (which I’d also suggest you read), they captured the kids to a “T.” These weren’t a bunch of adults trapped in little bodies, nor were they a bunch of one-dimensional hellions. Nearly twenty years later, Gaiman delivers a book that’s properly “for” kids, though it’d be short-sighted to dismiss it as “just” kiddie lit. Adam Young, meet Nobody (“Bod”) Owens.

Much has been made of the book’s genesis in, and parallels with, Kipling’s Jungle Book, and the English major in me could probably while away the better part of an afternoon finding the parallels between the two. I’ll leave that to the folks over on Amazon, likewise leaving them their complaints that Kipling did it better. So much in literature–whether for adults or kids–cannibalizes so much of what came before that it seems silly sometimes to point out that really, Kipling did Kipling better. There’s satisfaction enough in reading The Graveyard Book on its, and its author’s, own merits. Continue reading “Neil Gaiman: The Graveyard Book”

Robert S. McElvaine: Grand Theft Jesus

Robert S. McElvaine: Grand Theft JesusRobert McElvaine is one pissed-off individual. It’s hard to escape the conclusion, all the way from the cover to the very last page of his Grand Theft Jesus: The Hijacking of Religion in America. On the other hand, all the old saws about not judging a book by its cover aside, once you get to the contents, it’s easy to see why he might be–ahem–slightly perturbed.

The author’s interest is in those who’ve read the New Testament so closely that they can’t see the forest–in this case, Jesus’ teachings and central message–for the trees (i.e. the individual, highly legalized, very specific and often very specious focus on certain bits that make the more difficult bits of Jesus go down easy). To say that he’s disturbed by the shape of the religious landscape in this country would be putting it mildly. Writing of those he calls “Lite Christians,” he says:

They’re all about having fun, spending money, and seeking pleasure, but when it comes to the fundamental teachings of Jesus, they take a pass. Turn the other cheek? Self-sacrifice? Help the poor? Nonviolence? That shit’s too hard!

And, as it turns out, McElvaine’s in a target-rich environment. Continue reading “Robert S. McElvaine: Grand Theft Jesus”

Magic and Loss: The Nick Hornby Songbook, Love is a Mix Tape

Rob Sheffield: Love is a Mix TapeNick Hornby: SongbookWhen is a music book not about music? It’s a valid question to ask if you stop to consider Nick Hornby’s Songbook, and Rob Sheffield’s Love is a Mix Tape. Both are ostensibly about music, and the role it plays in our lives. But if you’re serious–in a passionate sort of way, not a pipe-smoking, suede-patch-wearing sort of way–about music, you get on some instinctive level what it means to say that music is the soundtrack of our lives, something that provides not just background noise but also meaning and context. It’s in that context that both of these works fit.

This isn’t either writer’s first go-round with music. Hornby first came to wide attention with High Fidelity, whose protagonist and his friends are a handful of music-addicted arrested development cases, and drew further acclaim with the book About a Boy, over which the ghosts of pop and Kurt Cobain loom large. Sheffield, on the other hand, has contributed some great music writing to the Village Voice and Rolling Stone, turning in his first book with Mix Tape. That both books are about music would seem to be one of the few things they have in common, save for a biting sense of humor. Continue reading “Magic and Loss: The Nick Hornby Songbook, Love is a Mix Tape”

Donald Barthelme: Flying to America

Donald Barthelme: Flying to AmericaWhenever an artist dies, someone’s always tempted to raid their notebooks, letters, hard drives, and anything else they can find in order to put out still more product to add to the canon. The results are highly varied, since for every unfinished masterpiece and every piece that hints at the greatness that could’ve been, from sources as varied as Douglas Adams, Jeff Buckley, or Charles Dickens, there’s a slew of stuff that was probably best left to the cutting room floor, and that’s of interest only to completists (think, for instance, of the flood of Tupac Shakur marginalia that began just as the body was cooling, and that continues unabated to this day).

Flying to America: 45 More Stories, by Donald Barthelme, lands with a meaty thump between those extremes. While it’s not the best of his output by any means–and I’ll leave the debate over the merits of specific works to others who are more inclined than myself to take it up–it’s still a worthy addition to the artist’s body of work. Continue reading “Donald Barthelme: Flying to America”

Circling Dresden: Kurt Vonnegut’s Armageddon In Retrospect

Kurt Vonnegut: Armageddon In Retrospect Kurt Vonnegut’s career–at least the most visible part of it–has been  bookended by Dresden. After being captured during the Battle of the Bulge, the author spent time in a POW camp in that city, watching it transformed literally overnight from a lively and lovely European city to a smoldering wasteland, incinerated by American bombs. He would return to Dresden in Slaughterhouse Five, the novel that made him a household name, and its streets and ghosts would return periodically to haunt his writing.

War and peace similarly stalk the pages of Armageddon in Retrospect. At its most effective–as in the photostat of a letter that Vonnegut wrote to his family at war’s end–it’s a snapshot of the fury and futility of war. Continue reading “Circling Dresden: Kurt Vonnegut’s Armageddon In Retrospect”

Work and Circuses

Office drones, courtesy of the Utne ReaderDisgruntled employees are a dangerous lot. Just ask the postal service. Or ask the guy who, inspired by equal amounts of frustration and creativity, one day decided to staple a ham sandwich–on a paper plate, no less, with a napkin set rakishly off to one side–to the ceiling over his boss’s desk. Sooner or later, it just needs some kind of outlet.

I thought back to the ham sandwich incident when I read the latest issue of the Utne Reader. Every couple of months, they gather between covers the best of the alternative press, and stories that the mainstream media tend to pass over, and two pieces in this month’s issue cover what they’ve aptly termed the “infantilization” of corporate culture.

Continue reading “Work and Circuses”

Chris Hedges: I Don’t Believe in Atheists

Chris Hedges: I Don’t Believe in AtheistsDouglas Adams famously referred to himself as a “militant Atheist,” mostly so that people would know he did not, in fact, believe God existed; he didn’t want to be confused with a garden-variety agnostic. However, the last few years have given rise–or at least a lot more attention–to an atheism that is militant in the more traditional understanding. These atheists have raised their profile considerably, collectively publishing thousands of pages on their belief system, and spending a good amount of time on the bestseller lists as a result. To wit: Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great; Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion; Sam Harris’s The End of Belief and Letter To A Christian Nation; and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.

More on them later; for now, let’s have a look at one of the products of a pendulum shift in the other direction, courtesy of Chris Hedges. Previously the author of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning and American Fascists, Hedges trained early on as a seminarian, and later cut his teeth as a journalist for the New York Times. With I Don’t Believe in Atheists, Hedges concerns himself with—to borrow a phrase from Tariq Ali—the clash of fundamentalisms. In doing this, he’s delivered not only a good read, but also something that will hopefully start a lively (not to mention probably heated) debate. Continue reading “Chris Hedges: I Don’t Believe in Atheists”

Nicholson Baker: Human Smoke

Nicholson Baker’s latest offering, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization traces the devolution of humanity and human nature as weaponry and tactics evolve. War has never been civilized business, but Baker shows the dizzying speed at which it took on ever more barbaric aspects in the first half of the last century.

There is the same attention to detail in evidence that’s characterized such earlier works as Vox, A Box of Matches, and The Size of Thoughts. Individuals are captured at very specific moments in time, their words and actions rendered in miniature, the better to illuminate the larger picture. Just as important, Baker is not content to simply rehash the same arguments, or perpetuate the same myths, that now pass for received wisdom. Much of the book’s impact derives from the fact that it thrusts generally ignored or forgotten figures like Stefan Zweig or Henry Fosdick into the spotlight, while also not shirking the faults of the narrative’s traditional “heroes,” like FDR and Winston Churchill.

The protagonists and antagonists here are as likely to be ideas as people. Pacifism is presented, more or less unquestioningly, as an a priori good, as are its proponents, among them Zweig, Charles Lindbergh, A.J. Muste, Jeanette Rankin (who has the distinction of being the only person to cast a dissenting vote against both World Wars), Christopher Isherwood, Muriel Lester, and Gandhi. Continue reading “Nicholson Baker: Human Smoke”

This Ain’t Your Pappy’s Broadway Musical

I’ve set out to write this thing about half a dozen times now, and I keep stalling. This afternoon, I was listening to a mixed CD of tunes by Passing Strange co-creator/narrator Stew and his band, The Negro Problem, and things started (kinda hesitantly) to come together.

Stew’s music, both in its gentler “Afro-baroque” guise (as Stew) and its more rock-oriented guise (as The Negro Problem) has always consisted of intimate, closely-observed vignettes. They’re character sketches of people who, no matter how screwy they may seem, are immediately familiar. We all know, or have known, these people.

Therein lies what works best about Passing Strange. Sure, the character of Youth is an Everyman character, and many of the play’s other characters are composites of some kind or another. The thing is that a lot of writers, both in song and on stage, confuse “everyman” with “lowest common denominator.” They remove all the identifying characteristics, and whitewash all the uniqueness, out of their characters, so that what you’re left with is less a flesh-and-blood human being and more like a horoscope: a blank slate onto which you can project your own dreams, insecurities, paranoia, nostalgia, whatever. These are some very specific people, and not just a series of “types” who’ve stumbled onstage.

The music doesn’t hurt, either. On the whole, Passing Strange feels like you’ve wandered into a rock concert and a Broadway show broke out. A lot of ink has been spilled (and more, no doubt, will be) about how this play so gleefully breaks down boundaries; I tend to disagree. From very early on (TNP’s 1997 offering, Post Minstrel Syndrome) it’s clear that Stew doesn’t so much demolish the boundaries as ignore them. He realizes, I think, that—like the concept of “The Real” that provides Strange’s backdrop—these boundaries (rock “versus” R&B, James Brown “versus” Arthur Lee, Kurt Weill “versus” Einsturzende Neubaten) are just constructs. Music’s just… well, music. There’s nothing inherently incompatible in any of it. So punk segues to soul, “My Little Red Book” and “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” have equal earworm time with shades of Sondheim and industrial. The musical draws a handful of its tunes from past efforts, their lyrics changed slightly to better fit the action onstage. Two songs are lifted from The Negro Problem’s albums including the show’s opener, “We Might Play All Night,” (reworked from “Out Now”) and “Come Down Now,” which in its current incarnation deserves to be a hit single. Stew’s solo efforts also yield some material; “Arlington Hill” and “Must’ve Been High” come from “The Naked Dutch Painter,” while “Love Like That” first showed up on “Something Deeper Than These Changes.” But, unlike the rash of “Jukebox Musicals” that mix an artist’s back catalog with a handful of dancers and a thin plot (Mama Mia!, Xanadu, Movin’ Out, and The Times They Are A-Changin’ all come to mind), this looks, feels, and plays different.See, if this isn’t your typical Broadway musical, it also shouldn’t somehow be relegated to “black theater.” Sure, it’s written and acted by people who happen to be (to cop a phrase from Curtis Mayfield) darker than blue… but it’s as thematically universal as it is stylistically varied. And, unlike Rent, to use just one example, it’s not trying to be anything other than what it is. It doesn’t worry about whether it’s Broadway enough, rock enough, black enough, or whether it’s going to make the white folks in the orchestra seats uneasy. For two-and-a-half hours, it’s nothing other than its own bad self.

I won’t rehash the story itself, partly because it’s been done in every other review that’s out there, and partly because you’re better off getting the story from the show than from a review anyway. Suffice to say that it’s a creative and pretty lively take on the timeworn coming-of-age/self-discovery arc. That’s not to say that Passing Strange is flawless. The second act’s stereotypical Germans come off somewhat ham-handed, at least in part because the first act was so deft at skewering stereotypes and expectations. Also, the story arc has a few dull spots, but the show’s pacing—which varies between brisk and breakneck—is such that these amount to speed bumps, and not potholes.

And the show’s ending isn’t quite its ending. Other reviews have mentioned that the ending feels a bit tacked on, but I ended up seeing the ending in a bit different context; the show itself—its music, its semi-autobiographical context, the Narrator looking on with a mix of amusement and exasperation at his fictionalized younger self—suggest that the show doesn’t quite end at the curtain call. Go back to the albums that preceded the show to see both how it all turned out, and also where it all started. All of which is to say that when it’s all said and done, Passing Strange isn’t so much the destination, as one stop on a journey, or maybe some kind of Mobius strip. It’s a long, (passing) strange, trip, and its characters aren’t the only ones who come out a little different on the other side.

The cast includes Daniel Breaker, de’Adre Aziza, Eliza Davis, Colman Domingo (who steals many of the scenes in which he’s featured), Chad Goodridge, and Rebecca Naomi Jones, many of whom play multiple roles, and all of whom, one assumes, will be seen much more often. They’re directed by Annie Dorsen, who keeps things just rough enough around the edges. She’s joined by Karole Armitage, who’s billed as “Movement Coordinator,” providing choreography with a loose but sure hand. The band (who are on stage with the other players) consist of Stew’s longtime partner/collaborator Heidi Rodewald (bass, backing vocals), Christian Cassan (drums), Jon Spurney (keyboards, guitar, backing vocals) and Christian Gibbs (who not only plays guitar and keyboards, but also doubles—to hilarious effect—as a prop from time to time). Passing Strange is playing at the Belasco Theater.