An unusual sequel to Robinson's 2004 novel Gilead which sees her returning not just to that novel's characters, but to that novel's story, now told from the point of view of those living in a house not but a few minutes away. Marilynne Robinson's works of fiction--there are only three of them--deal initially with parent/child relationships, but this is essentially by necessity. What they really become is a kind of theological praxis, a laboratory where Robinson can work at answering questions of faith that would become stilted or confused if she were to stick to talking them out in a more non-fiction setting. (In both books, Robinson's characters consistently acknowledge that their theological debates are essentially circular conversations, and that forward momentum towards conclusion is not to be found. It's not addressed within the text that those sorts of debates are, by the nature of their subjects, impossible to conclude, but by the way all of the characters are depicted it is clear that their theological knowledge is implied. "I'm not going to make nonsense out of a mystery" is a phrase that pops up as the book struggles toward conclusion, but it's not the struggle of a writer who doesn't know where she is going. It's the purposeful slog of people trying so hard to wring the fabric of truth out of what they feel and what they mean that the very ground gapes to draw them low.
The Devil and Sonny Liston By Nick Tosches, 2000
Tosches seems to have found himself on the disapproving end of the post-blog era, amongst that class of writers whose common thread is that a bunch of people on the Internet hate them for a multitude of contradictory reasons, and the theory that maybe it's just because they were the last batch of people who got decent paychecks and research budgets to write about music is dismissed in favor of pointing out how unaware they are of copious signifiers from the last three months. That's not to give Tosches' critics a blanket condemnation--his novels have deserved most of the disgust they've received--and his tendency to prioritize his brand over his points has always a nuisance. But there's a thing he does, or did, that has immense, inarguable value, and that's the gruntwork. His books--specifically his non-fiction books, of which this is one, the others being mostly music biographies--aren't built from pontification or enthusiasm, they're built from work. Like Steve Coll and Dostoyevsky, a Tosches book expects you to remember the names, to pay attention to the job titles, to keep up your end of the bargain. And while Coll will grant you the rich syrup of gossip for your labors, Tosches goes for wild-eyed poetry, for paragraph long breaks where he rhapsodically idolizes what it must be like to have a gigantic penis, or coldbloodedly explains what the spiral of drug addiction feels like. He forces himself into a corner, opening by saying that Sonny was murdered (a long standing piece of gossip that remains tantalizingly unprovable), only to conclude by saying he's glad he said that, but he doesn't believe it anymore. It's the sort of work we have too little of, a work that admits and admires unanswerable complexity, a book as opposed to disgusting behavior as it is to the idea that that behavior should be responded to in kind. There's nothing wrong with hate, venom, foul language or bile: but in the world where the children of Tosches now rule, it's worth recognizing that they're best left to the professionals.
A Hell Of A Woman By Jim Thompson, 1954
The story of a man, a woman, and money that doesn't belong to them: that's the plot of a bunch of Jim Thompson books, but few of them go as nightmarish in the final pages, and that's saying something when you remember...oh, just about anything else he wrote after the first three books. There's a temptation when reading a book like this to fly through the words just to see in what specific way this one will go wrong, but if you can slow down, do so. There's just so much here that's worth savoring, even if every bit of it is drunk with blood and mean as hell.
Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power By Steve Coll, 2012
This isn't the first book that long-time journalist and author Steve Coll has written about oil, but Private Empire--Coll's years-in-the-making examination of the Exxon corporation--does have a wiry sense of newness to it, a general feeling that, for the first time in years, Coll's carnivorous ability to drain sources whole might have run dry. Whereas his previous string of books has seen Coll structure entire passages around knockout quotes--many of which often turn out to be rollicking strings of hilariously creative expletives--Private Empire leans quieter, with chapters that empty out slowly, like a listing laundry bag. It's a quality that might be, at first, difficult to embrace, but as the pages flit by, it becomes more and more clear: the book can only read like this, a taciturn list of events and decisions, because the subject won't have it any other way.
Coll opens the book in the only way history could ever allow, on that morning in '89 when the companies name became forever entangled with Valdez. Holding back from pat surprises and cheese, his ability to recall that event's feeling--the way the world just seemed to stop and hold its collective breath as so many political consciousnesses were born--makes for an experience rich with feeling for anyone who might remember those events first hand. By the time Coll's starts introducing colorful side characters--the best and first being Admiral Paul Yost, a Coast Guard commandant known most at that point for banning beards amongst all his men, ensuring a legacy of disgust, the book seems like its going down the road so many others have before: courtroom battles, funny lines, the late-night legal revelations popularized in movies.
And then it doesn't. Instead, it chases a company, its hard-as-nails chief executive, and a near-robotic system of discipline that does more to explain why men become libertarians then any political theory ever will. There's a toxic, undeniable logic to this book, one that you can almost sense Coll struggling against. This is a story of a fortress of intelligence and income, of people who have gone further down the road of profit than almost anyone in human history. After decades of writing and reporting about these sorts of people--Coll's previous books have been on the reach of the CIA, the incredible financial success of the Bin Laden empire (as well as the dark monstrosity of its infamous son), the fall of massive corporations and the destruction of the AT&T empire--you can't blame him for the shadow of wonder throughout the book. Exxon is an unusual place, an unusual beast, and at its highest level of staff, there isn't a real comparison. These are men--and it is all men, for reasons the book explicitly details--who dismiss Vladimir Putin publicly, who humiliate Hugo Chavez in New York courts out of a weird sense of fairness, men who respond to an offer of help from then-President George W. Bush with a startled sneer and a violent shaking of heads. And they do it less out of ego--which is what onlookers wrongly assume--then they do it of a faith in efficiency and the cold pursuit of success. As an "aw-shucks, what can you do" Bush put it himself, when an insulted head of state asked the President to put the company in line, "Nobody tells those guys what to do."
It's in the way the company handled climate change--or rather, how it refused to handle climate change--that Coll is most able to shake off the allure of the company's massive success, because it's there that the company is most wrong. It's also there that Coll might have missed an opportunity to write more about the contemporary addiction with the wholesale fabrication of belief that so diseases today's corporate empires, the way that governments and focus groups and gigantic corporations decide their side and then invest all energy into proving its veracity. Year after year, billion after billion, ExxonMobil so thoroughly fucked up what had once been a straightforward issue--humans have culpability in the Earth's changing climate--that a generation grew up believing the debate's origin was in science, when it actually came straight from the bank.
---What follows are some key passages I found interesting. I apologize for not expanding this review into the larger piece the book deserves.
Page 309: "Hardly anyone outside of the industry truly grasped the gargantuan scale of global energy production. Titanic changes in the patterns of energy use over decades would be required to create even modest changes in fuel consumption patterns."
Page 418: During the Khodorkovsky arrest, the Bush administration decided to go after Putin a bit, to fuck with him for embarrassing the US, and they offered this service to ExxonMobil, essentially saying that they'd help put the metal to Vladimir during a contract renegotiation he'd just called for. ExxonMobile sneered back and said "no thanks, not necessary." The implication being that the US governement doesn't scare Putin, which, in light of the last year, seems to be completely accurate.
Page 448: ExxonMobile didn't mess around with subsidized businesses, as a rule, for two reasons: because subsidies could dry up, making it costly, and because one easy way to please voters would be to figure out which subsidized businesses ExxonMobile was in and then take that business away.
Page 472: "It's hard to get used to the fact that Nigerian officials will lie to you straight up".
Page 502: One of the things that makes it hard to understand ExxonMobile's profits is because people don't really understand how big they are. One number he threw out was this: 4000 dollars a second, in taxes.
Page 548: If the US does decide to restrict the sale of Canadian tar sands oil, then ExxonMobile will just sell it to Asia. That's how oil works. The US can't do shit.
Page 615: "The public demanded protection from reckless airplane operators and pushed airline companies into compliance--crashes repelled customers."
Page 617: Every time that the end of oil gets predicted, it's been wrong. Also: Mongolia probably has 152 billion tons of coal, which is enough to run power plants in China for another 50 years.
After the break you''ll hear the first live episode of the Travis Bickle on the Riviera movie podcast! Listen to how live it is! We really caught the vibe of a wednesday afternoon in the Allegheny County VFW luncheon hall.
It seems that I like auto-bio comics. The other thing is that I seem to really like auto-bio comics that are set in locations near to where I've lived. Or where I live.
This one is no exception.
I'm on the lookout for vignettes or anecdotes about people and places where I may have been before, or potentially had hung out at the same time the writer was hanging there. In other words - maybe we totally know each other?
That’s never the case. It's more likely that I'm just looking for reflections of myself, like I've found a way to expand my own existence--and thereby validate my choices, and my life--by finding out that I was physically near something important, even if it was a passive form of participation. I was just reading Mindy Kaling’s book and realized that at one time she was living in an apartment almost right around the corner from where I'm typing this. When I read the part about how her and her best friend were doing the “Matt & Ben” show, I totally flashed back to when that was out, when I'd see the flyers, when my circle of friends would say "have you heard about" and "I'm going to see it". I was right here while her story was unfolding. And while mine was as well, I don't think of it that often, and I certainly don't treat it as a narrative that I remember in order. It comes in flashes, in moments of embarrassement and joy. It's lumpy, with certain anecdotes standing out in relief due to the way I've gone back to them over and over again. But I read Kaling--or Wertz--and I start to piece it together the way they have, to remember how I got to that apartment, how I found the people I knew, where we were, what, why--that whole old lesson, all over at once.
Anyhow. What has that got to do with anything? I don't know! But it came along all the same. I just find comics about girls moving to NYC (or Brooklyn) and finding their own way to be interesting because I did that, too. It’s a weird time in a girl’s life when she goes and does it, when she makes this choice and finds out what comes along with it. Having the comics medium to frame it in for oneself is really cool--it is all their own, and the way it flows is so personal and slippery. I wish I had something like that. I just have oodles of complain-y, boring journals.
But enough about me - I guess I should really talk about the comic. It’s very funny - Julia Wertz has that sort of self-deprecating humor going on that I can never pull off because I just say something mean and people think I hate myself and get uncomfortable. But what’s really interesting is to see it drawn as well as spoken. She draws herself in such a way that is quite nearly androgynous. Her hair seems to be in this bob with bangs for her entire life, and according to her she just wears the same black shirt all the time, has horrible posture and just doesn’t take much care of herself. Then you see the photo of her in the back of the book, and she’s totally adorable and bears very little resemblance to her comic book self. I found that endearing and hilarious, and while I don't know what possessed me to never flip to the back and see that picture, I'm glad I waited for it. It's not that she’s not capable of drawing herself, it's that her self deprecations goes so far beyond thought that she draws herself looking nothing like reality.
I loved the format of the book. Generally it sticks to one “story” per page, and they're generally between six and nine frames. Again, I think about how therapeutic it must be to take the days and mini-dramas of one life and boil them down into a six frame story on a single page. Something with a beginning, middle and end, conflict and some form of resolution. What a great way to make sense of the nonsensical time of one’s twenties, when you've lost all the structure of school and are handed the full responsibility of managing the rest of your life. To read this is to remember when I had to start giving myself a bedtime.
I recently “marathon-watched” all of the episodes of Lena Dunham’s Girls, quickly followed by a viewing a of Tiny Furniture. I feel like I was having some sort of weird mid-life crisis where I was nostalgic for the awful pain and uncomforability of my early 20's. I mean, Girls captures it so so well. It was very hardly ‘fun times” for me. And although on paper it probably looks all sexy - I moved to New York to pursue my dreams, go to auditions, live on my own, etc. etc., -- it really was completely excrutiating and I express gratitude upon gratitude daily for the very fact that my life has turned out to be this beautiful thing that it is. Because...ugh, what a rocky road!
Wertz’s honest commentary on her bad choices, her inability to be the adult she thinks she is supposed to be, and her ironic drinking problem in the face of her brother’s crippling addiction just have me rooting for her from the first page. I guess that’s what keeps me reading....waiting to see how and when it starts to change, for her life to improve. I want joy for her so badly.
Toward the end, we get a glimmer of the hope that awaits her - her darling new apartment in an adorable area, a publisher who "gets" her, etc.....but its not all sewn up yet. Nah - gotta keep me interested for the next book, right? Can’t have an auto-bio comic about how good life is in your 30s....that’ll be just boring, right?
To be honest, it could be about anything. I'm on board no matter what.