Thursday, February 24, 2011

Book Review: C

CC: A Novel by Tom McCarthy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. 320 pp)

Tom McCarthy was born in London and raised in Greenwich. Educated at Dulwich College and New College, Oxford, McCarthy worked as a literary editor for Time Out. In 2005, his debut novel, Remainder, received critical acclaim. He has published numerous essays, articles, and stories in The Observer, The Times Literary Supplement, The London Review of Books, Artforum, and The New York Times. McCarthy’s latest novel, C, was nominated for the 2010 Man Booker Prize.


The thorax is an interesting part of an insect’s body; it connects the head to the abdomen and provides the insect with it sectionalized look. Each section of the body is critical to the life of the organism and connects to each part. Tom McCarthy’s avant-garde novel, C, utilizes this insect imagery in order to link four completely different stories into one cohesive whole.

C begins with the birth of the protagonist, Serge Carrefax. Serge grows up in a well-off family with an eccentric father who experiments with wireless technology and runs a school for deaf children. In his early years, Serge follows his older sister, Sophie, around the property feeding off of her eccentricities as she develops into a brilliant scientist. Under these curious circumstances, Serge develops his own oddities.

McCarthy poetically elaborates on these Serge’s strange developments in writing:

“Serge pictures minute dung-flecks being deposited on this man’s mouth, the even tinier bacteria inside them turning inwards from his lips, swimming against his phlegm through crashing rocks of teeth, past lashing tongue and gurgling epiglottis down towards his stomach…” (81).

The Great War

The book continues to trace Serge’s life as World War I dawns on the European horizon. In this section of C, McCarthy’s prose shines in its brightest hues. While in the war, Serge develops into an advanced flight operator in the British Air Force.  Through brilliant explanations of dogfights and battles of attrition, Serge engages in some of the bloodiest battles in European history.

Observing the horrors of war, McCarthy pens,

“Serge, chewing on his omelette, wonders if it’s really necessary to fight the Germans after all: they could all just lounge around, each on their own side, dying in random accidents until nobody’s left and the war’s over by default” (131).

Current Events in a Mirror

Soure: Al Jazeera
In the last half of the book, Serge meanders through London life and eventually takes a gig in Cairo. Although these sections are not as strong as the World War I depictions, I found it both interesting and currently applicable that Serge encountered protestors in Cairo. While not integral to the plot, the protests certainly echo our current events

Ultimately, C is a novel about repetition. From Serge’s sexual habits and substance abuse to his obsession with germs, insects, the letter “C” and the rhythms of Morse code, each section of the book narrates a similar story in a different setting.

Summing these ideas artfully, McCarthy envisions Serge sleeping. He

“dreams of insects moving around a chessboard that may or may not be the sea. At times it seems more like a gridded carpet than a chessboard. The insects stagger about ponderously, stupidly, reacting with aggression towards other insects when these cross their paths: rearing up, waving their tentacles threateningly as antennae quiver and contract, and so on. Despite the unintelligent, blind nature of the creatures’ movement, there’s a will at work behind them, calculating and announcing moves, dictating their trajectories across the board. The presence of this will gives the whole scene an air of ritual” (300).

McCarthy’s second novel is a difficult read. The narrative flows into long passages of abstract illustrations of the plot. Through repetition, the story materializes. If you are unwilling to navigate McCarthy’s abstract style, this book is not for you. However, if you persevere through the difficult sections, C as a whole becomes an impeccable work of fiction. If you are a fan of literary fiction, I recommend this book. 

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Film Review: The Social Network

The Social Network (Two-Disc Collector's Edition) I finally watched the Social Network last night. I think it is a pretty good movie but not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination. Below is an excerpt from a review far better stated than any attempt I could make.
"In the prologue of David Fincher's film The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is on what you might call a "date." But he isn't enjoying it. Neither is his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend Erica.

Zuckerberg, a Harvard student with his eyes set on privilege and status, is griping about how his perfect SAT scores have failed to earn him access to the school's most elite clubs. As he rants, his vanity exposes his disrespect for the rest of the world–including Erica. She storms off, refusing to feed his ego's voracious appetite.
Like both of my housecats, Zuckerberg finds closed doors to be intolerable. If the cool kids won't roll out the red carpet, and if he can't have the girl he wants on his own terms, he'll strike back.
Excerpt from

Friday, February 11, 2011

Book Review: The Art of the Commonplace

The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell BerryThe Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry by Wendell Berry; edited by Norman Wirzba (Berkley: Counterpoint, 2002. 352 pp)

Born in rural Kentucky, Wendell Berry is a farmer, critic, and prolific author. He has published many works in novels, essays, poems, and short stories genres. Berry received his B.A. and M.A. in English from the University of Kentucky before attending Stanford University’s Creative Writing Program. He obtained a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and taught English at New York University before taking a position on faculty at the University of Kentucky.  After a decade of teaching, Berry purchased a farm in the Kentucky countryside where he currently works and writes about the virtues of connecting with the land. Berry has won numerous awards including the T.S. Eliot Award, the Thomas Merton Award, and the Cleanth Brooks Medal for Lifetime Achievement from the Fellowship of Southern Writers.

Urban Jungles

Living in a city, I sometimes find nature a nuisance. Snow might display beautiful characteristics as it coats a meadow, but it certainly exhibits headache-inducing qualities when it materializes during the commute. Vibrant evergreens coating a mountain convey the finest forms of art, yet no tree stands in the way of a property owner desiring a better view. Urban life is ultimately divorced from the land. A simple block-to-block walk downtown provides little to no evidence of ecology. The Art of the Commonplace decries these realities as it presents a case for an agrarian-minded society.

Berry’s collection of essays is divided into five parts: a geobiography, understanding our cultural crisis, the agrarian basis for an authentic culture, agrarian economics, and agrarian religion. In these sections, Berry makes the case for a counter-cultural understanding of society, a way of life rooted in and sustained by the land.

Critiquing the System

Central to Berry’s thesis is a scathing critique of consumerist culture and industrial business practice. Where our ancestors lived in unity with the land, we exist in tension with the land. The Art of the Commonplace contains prophetic passages where Berry takes the form of a minor prophet beating the drum of repentance in the face of giant institutions.

Along these lines, Berry writes,

“It is possible to make a little economy, such as our present one, that is so shortsighted and in which accounting is of so short a term as to give the impression that vices are necessary and practically justifiable. When we make our economy a little wheel turning in opposition to what we call ‘nature,’ then we set up competitiveness as the ruling principle in our explanation of reality and in our understanding of economy; we make of it, willy-nilly, a virtue. But competitiveness, as a ruling principle and a virtue, imposes a logic that is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to control. That logic explains why our cars and our clothes are shoddily made, why our ‘wastes’ are toxic, and why our ‘defensive’ weapons are suicidal; it explains why it is so difficult for us to draw a line between ‘free enterprise’ and crime. If our economic ideal is maximum profit with minimum responsibility, why should we be surprised to find our corporations so frequently in court and robbery on the increase? Why should we be surprised to find that medicine has become an exploitive industry, profitable in direct proportion to its hurry and its mechanical indifference? People who pay for shoddy products or careless services and people who are robbed outright are equally victims of theft, the only difference being that robbers outright are not guilty of fraud” (233).

In Berry’s mind, the contemporary industrial economy shoulders much of the blame regarding what is wrong with the world. Not only does capitalism create a system where efficiency requires low quality and high profits, but also it compels business leaders to act right up against the barriers of what is legal. In such instances, it is no surprise to see broken laws and broken people.

Eating Strawberries on a Cold, January Day

Moreover, the industrial economy creates a civilization incapable of sustaining itself. Berry laments,

“Most of us, for example, not only do not know how to produce the best food in the best way – we don’t know how to produce any kind in any way. Our model citizen is a sophisticate who before puberty understands how to produce a baby, but who at the age of thirty will not know how to produce a potato. And for this condition we have elaborate rationalizations, instructing us that dependence for everything on somebody else is efficient and economical and a scientific miracle. I say, instead, that it is madness, mass produced” (85).

Forget growing a potato, I could not tell you when they are in season. As a child, I vaguely remember my mother buying blueberries in mass quantities because they were in season. Today, I am a grocery store away from an infinite resource of blueberries year-round. While I have not taken a poll of my generation, it seems that most people my age are in a similar position. The seasonal connection to the land by way of fruits and vegetables has slowly gone the way of the buffalo.  If I do not understand the seasons, how can I expect to establish a green thumb?

Ultimately, Berry argues that our industrialized economy has created a consequentialist culture focused on efficiency.  Berry asserts,

“Logically, in plenitude some things ought to be expendable. Industrial economics has always believed this: abundance justifies waste. This is one of the dominant superstitions of American history – and of the history of colonialism everywhere. Expendability is also an assumption of the world of efficiency which is why that world deals so compulsively in percentages of efficacy and safety. But this sort of logic is absolutely alien to the world of love. To the claim that a certain drug or procedure would save 99 percent of all cancer patients of that a certain pollutant would be safe for 99 percent of a population, love, unembarrassed, would respond, ‘What about the one percent?’ There is nothing rational or perhaps even defensible about this, but it is nonetheless one of the strongest strands of our religious tradition – it is probably the most essential strand – according to which a shepherd, owning a hundred sheep and having lost one, does not say, ‘I have saved 99 percent of my sheep,’ but rather, ‘I have lost one,’ and he goes and searches for the one” (154-155).

In short, reconnecting ourselves to the land both through a local economy and an agrarian-based religion reminds us of the power of pursuing the one as opposed to neglecting it by rationalizing that the 99 are enough.

Let’s Pack Our Bags, We’re Going to Eden!

While I appreciate and typically side with the critiques posed by the Art of the Commonplace, I find the conclusions to be slightly utopian in nature. In other words, Berry’s urge to reconnect with nature seems slightly akin to arguing that humanity ought to go back to a place and time before the fall, living a reconciled life in God’s Creation.

The fall, in my estimation, significantly alters humanity’s relationship with nature. Granted, industry possesses a poor track record of domination over the natural world. Nevertheless, biblically mandated stewardship does not negate the possibility of development. As with most things, the extremes on both sides of the economic argument fall into untenable positions. Business provides valuable opportunities to assist those in need; local economies connected to nature remind humanity that it is a creature and not a creator.

Even though I do not find anything inherently evil about urban life, Berry’s writing presents a counterpoint to the dominant views. As a society, we ought to remember and enjoy the natural world and humanity’s connection to it. Berry’s economic, cultural, and religious positions found in the Art of the Commonplace are wholeheartedly worthy of study. He poetically renders his positions unashamedly; his critiques remind us that business as usual will never solve all of the world’s problems. For this reason, I recommend this book.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Album Review: Kiss Each Other Clean

Kiss Each Other Clean (Deluxe) [Explicit]Kiss Each Other Clean by Iron & Wine (Warner Bros. Records, 2011. 44 minutes)

Iron & Wine is the stage named of songwriter Sam Beam. Born in South Carolina, Beam now resides in Austin, Texas. He earned his bachelor's degree at Virginia Commonwealth University and received an MFA degree from Florida State University. Beam signed with the record label, Sub Pop, and  subsequently releasing his first three records – The Creek Drank the Cradle, Our Endless Numbered Days, and The Shepherd’s Dog. The current record is his first on Warner Bros. Records.

Traffic Jam; Got More Cars Than a Beach Got Sand

For some reason, Dave Matthews receives a disproportionately high amount of hatred from younger generations of music lovers. I sometimes feel bad admitting my enjoyment of the Dave Matthews Band in front of local musicians, as if mere mention of that name formulates a giant dunce cap on my head with arrows pointing toward the corner of a room. I wonder if people just hate saxophones. Well, Iron & Wine’s new record, Kiss Each Other Clean challenges the assumptions of indie kids everywhere. This album – released by a songwriter hallowed almost unanimously by people who claim to have the best taste in music – sounds remarkably similar to good ol’ DMB; it even has a saxophone!

Kiss Each Other Clean represents a further step in Iron & Wine’s path toward a completed sound. The two earliest records, The Creek Drank the Cradle and Our Endless Numbered Days, demonstrated the basic foundation of Sam Beam’s music – hushed vocals floating lightly over a finger-picked guitar. 

Next, The Shepherd’s Dog found a developing band around Beam’s atmospheric vocals and guitar work; the record announced the introduction of drums, steel guitar, percussion, and piano.

Bigger, Better, Faster, Stronger, Louder?

Keeping these elements, Kiss Each Other Clean provides a further step: a cornucopia of instrumentation such as saxophone solos, synthesizers, wah-wahed electric guitar, and perhaps most importantly, projected vocals.

No longer is Iron & Wine defined by vocals at decibel levels discerned slightly above a whisper.  Kiss Each Other Clean finds Sam Beam belting with mixed results. Although certain songs exhibit the patented hushed tones, it is clear that Beam begins this new expedition with a newly-timbred voice.

Lyrically, Kiss Each Other Clean continues Beam’s tendency to mix emotional and narrative styles. “Walking far From Home,” the album opener, expresses this dualism when he sings,

I was walking far from home / Where the names were not burned along the wall / Saw a building high as heaven / But the door was so small / I saw rain clouds, little babies / And a bridge that had tumbled to the ground / I saw sinners making music / And I’ve dreamt of that sound

Beam’s lyricism shines as well in “Rabbit Will Run,”

We’ve all envied grace at the end of the day / And we’ve armed all the children we thought we betrayed / And I still have a prayer, though too few occasions to pray / And just judgment is just like a that cup we share / I’ll jump over the wall and I’ll wait for you there / Well passed the weeds in our vision of things to come / We’ve all found a reason for hiding the gun / And we’ve helped out a few if we’ve hurt anyone / And I still have a prayer and so be it I’ve done what I’ve done

Utilizing the senses, Iron & Wine transplants the listener to a scene. Less meant to express a specific ideology, the lyrics become a setting for the instrumentation.

I Don't Want the Beat, I Want a Kick Drum

Nevertheless, Kiss Each Other Clean contains a couple of weaknesses. First, the quality of production on the record lacks some high-end polish. More specifically, the drums sound slightly weak in the mix. In places where I expect some percussive intensity, I hear the drums playing what I want to hear but translated poorly in the mix. A well-mixed authoritative snap of a snare drum and the rumble of a kick carry songs to the pantheon of quality.

Photo by Yadalith
Second, Sam Beam has a tendency to repeat melodies well past their freshness date. “Walking far From Home” possesses a beautiful melody that is repeated for almost 5 minutes. Perhaps even worse, Beam codas lyrical variations of “become” for 4 minutes at the end of the addictive jam, “Your Fake Name Is Good Enough for Me.” While I still enjoy both songs, creating some variation in the tunes would have made them much better.

It is your move hipster kids. Kiss Each Other Clean presents a new Iron & Wine – saxophone included. Although the foundation remains somewhat similar, Sam Beam’s new record expands into the dreaded territory of adult alternative. I personally enjoy and recommend the record, but I admit that I also like Dave Matthews.