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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Holiday Reading, Pt. 1

For Thanksgiving, I managed to put down the periodicals and pick up some books.

Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon (2009)
Before reading this book, I was excited by my own imagination of this private-eye genre short novel (short for Pynchon, anyway) being a vehicle for a new movie by the Coen brothers. As far as I know, Pynchon has never been made into a movie, and it's more than about time someone tried to do it. After reading it, though, I don't think that way so much. There's enough humor, and satire, but the story's key events--cop vigilantes, drug dealing, a yacht and a rehab center of iniquity--may not rise to the level of the Coens' search for high concept.

This novel is a lot of fun, easy to get into, and shows that Pynchon is working harder in developing well-rounded characters. The star of Inherent Vice is Larry "Doc" Sportello, a "freak" (in the 60's sense) private detective who, apart from his sandals, long hair and pot-smoking habit, fits many of the classic PI notions of the tough guy with a warm heart, a slim wallet, an ambivalent relationship with the local cops, and strong moral values.

A trip down '60's memory lane like this is still far too rare, in my view. Pynchon can recall incredible details--whether real or invented is often hard to tell--of innumerable dive bars, restaurants, and the most fascinating and obscure music always seemed to be playing on Sportello's car radio. Me, I couldn't seem to get away from the pop hits and only found the good stuff by accident or word of mouth, so that undercut the usual Pynchon feeling of augmented reality--that's just not "the way it was".

Two more items that bugged me when reading I.V.: 1) in its 370 pages, there were probably fifty times that "Sportello pulled a joint out of his shirt pocket and lit it". OK, but what's the significance? Pynchon should've explored a bit aspects like--how did he smoke it--what were his sensations? Where did his mind travel afterwards? What were the unique characteristics of that particular joint? It seemed to be just a routine, some filler, as though he was required to list what Doc had for breakfast. 2) There were so many references to cunnilingus (by other, more vulgar terms this blog will not stoop to use), but--same thing. What were the sensations, or reactions? If we're going to get lascivious, give us some juicy (so to speak) details! I'm sure that "69" was a feature of increased importance during the era, and that was a good thing, but how?

Clapton, Eric Clapton (2003)

I picked up this book at a friend's house and burned through the first 70 pages of it in an hour. The first chapters, focusing on his illegitimate birth, growing up in townhouses without indoor plumbing, and discovering the blues as a teen, were fascinating, and I had to get a copy of it for myself.

Unfortunately, those chapters, and the ones immediately after on his early career, were the clear highlight of this autobiography. I loved his early encounters with the Beatles, Mick Jagger, the Yardbirds, the famous bluesmen that he admired so much, and very significantly, Jimi Hendrix during his early days in England. One realizes that Clapton was a real poorboy, something of an idiot savant in the early days, unable to read music, drive a car, or deal with his early fame--especially the hero worship to which he was suggested.

There were far too many pages about his abuse of drugs, which gave way to even more pages about his even more intense abuse of alcohol. Eventually, I realized that this book is part of his ongoing 12-step program, which, along with his acceptance of God's grace, has allowed him to stay sober for 20+ years.

Good for him, but the mature Eric Clapton, though consistent in his devotion to the early blues masters, whose techniques he has now thoroughly mastered, is a lot less interesting than the young, fiery nomad trying to find his way through the labyrinth of fame in the Sixties.

In the middle period (roughly from the end of Cream to the end of the '80's), it was interesting to read about the source of the songs he performed--the majority of which were either covers or retreads of rare blues songs--the days of Derek and the Dominoes, his infatuation with George Harrison's wife (Patti), and the details of the tragic loss of his son Connor (in his version, at least, he is pretty blameless for the death despite being less than optimal in the quality of his fatherhood during the period before his son's death). Throughout the memoir, he avoids making criticisms of anyone, which I consider very healthy for a memoir, but that probably held down the book sales somewhat. Not that he should care too much.

The aging, sober Clapton is a typical squire of the English gentry, with multiple manors, shooting (of birds flushed out by hired hands), a big-ass yacht, etc. He has done much better recently as a father to his daughters, not so much as a husband, and has remained true to his muse, Robert Johnson, and to trying to help others with substance abuse problems. The writing quality is quite good; given that he admitted he did it with two fingers, I would have to say that the three names he credits in his acknowledgments--Christopher Simon Sykes, Richard Steele, and "Nici" who transcribed the manuscript--should be mentioned favorably by me. So, I do.

One Country, Ali Abunimah (2006)

This book's subtitle is "A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse", and it lives up to that ambition. As one who has been skeptical about the third word in the proposals using the phrase "two state solution", I was very receptive to the author's argument.

Abunimah prepares a skillful, logical argument along the following lines (my wording):
1) There will never be an agreement to peacefully partition Palestine made between the Israelis and Palestinian Arabs;
2) This is because the Israelis have never offered, and will never offer, what the Palestinians require, in terms of sovereignty, land--especially with regard to Jerusalem--or right of return.
3) The continuing development of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and the policy of "unilateral separation" (withdrawal from Gaza, what I call "Sharon's Wall") are only making the possibilities of negotiated peace more remote.
4) Demographic trends are working against the Israelis, and will lead to more extreme, less democratic measures to maintain their political dominance.
5) A single-state democracy encompassing both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs is possible; formulas to successfully establish governance in binational states have been successfully found elsewhere.
6) Both Israelis and Palestinians are coming towards a single-state solution due to their own recognition that the two-state approach will not work.

I would say that 1) looks correct for the present--instead of two partners for peace, we now need three (the Palestinian Authority, Israel, and Hamas), and with the Netanyahu government in and the Abbas government going out, I'd give each of those two parties about half-credit, leaving us two short of the required agreement (Hamas not yet participating, though they seem willing to consider a negotiated agreement). I was skeptical about point 2), in that I felt that Arafat balked when offered the best deal Palestine could ever have gotten (in 2000, from Ehud Barak); on that litmus test, Abunimah argues strongly that the deal (which he admits was too generous, from the Israelis' point of view) was clearly insufficient, and that just proves the point.

3) is undoubtedly true, and a continuing provocation to Palestinians, but it doesn't mean that 4) is true. Abunimah provides the numbers on the Israeli Jews and on the Palestinian Arabs a) within Israel--the all-important Israeli Arabs, or what he calls "Palestinian citizens in Israel"; b) living within Palestine; and c) in the diaspora of Palestinians. Israeli Arabs are a significant minority (some 20% today) and growing, but they will not threaten a Jewish majority within Israel's borders (even extended ones) anytime soon. In Palestine as a whole, Jews and Muslims are about at numerical parity, but with the numbers moving fairly rapidly in the Muslims' favor. The interesting argument that he makes is that there is much more potential for Palestinians returning to the neighborhood than there is for diaspora Jews. I would say, though, that these numbers mean that Israeli Jews cannot confidently subsume themselves in a larger state without accepting permanent minority status.

Next (point 5) is where Abunimah needs to bring the creativity, and I would say his most impressive sections are those in which he brings forward his study of successful binational and multinational states (Belgium, with its Flemish and French-speaking populations,is the prime example, but he also cites Canada and South Africa--without going over the line and making the point that Israel is apartheid like South Africa used to be). I didn't see him bringing up Rwanda, though, or Bosnia-Herzegovina, as examples, and the experience of Northern Ireland--though ultimately what appears now to be a successful negotiation--won't inspire peacemakers much. `

His weakest arguments are for point 6): certainly there are many Palestinians who weary of endless two-state babble and propose something along these lines, but the idea is anathema to most Israeli Jews--something they wouldn't even consider at this time.

Abunimah writes well, and he is in many ways fair-minded: what he proposes (a state to be called "Yisrael-Falastin" in Hebrew and "Falastin-Isra'il" in Arabic!) could work, if only we could get our minds around it and figure out how to make it happen. He is not an objective viewer, though: his is the perspective of the diaspora Palestinian, whose family was forced out of Israel in 1948, and for whom the Right of Return is something neither Israel nor the PA can negotiate away.

I don't like Sharon's Wall, and I would agree that none of the 2SS's around solve the really tough issues, like security in the Palestinian areas, sharing Jerusalem, or what rights Palestinian refugees may have someday. A 1SS could solve one biggie, if people of both religions could live where they wanted (and could afford). Unfortunately, though, recent developments seem only to harden the shells around the (now, three) opposed camps in the Palestinian lands, and interaction seems less than ever, so the real question is whether there is any formula that will get them to learn to live together. Without which, whatever the formula, nothing.

1 comment:

Chin Shih Tang said...

Regarding Clapton, one comment I need to add regards "Presence of the Lord", a song on the Blind Faith album. It's listed as "Trad. arranged by Eric Clapton", but now, more often, just as by Eric Clapton. The story in the book is that Steve Winwood didn't understand why Eric wanted Stevie to sing it, since it was Eric's song. I think Clapton didn't feel honest in singing "I have finally found a way to live in the presence of the Lord" at the time. Now--as in the Clapton/Winwood live album from MadisonSq. Garden--Clapton will sing it. He reaas "finally found a way". (Winwood sings the second and third verses, and it sounds better with him to me. But still.)

Generally, Clapton's songwriting is excellent but limited, to subject that he really felt strongly about, like "Layla" and "Tears inHeaven" about his son who died so young.