Wednesday, November 28, 2001

I'm a sucker for a well-written book about anything relating to rock music, so when my boyfriend Jon picked up a fifty-cent bargain at a flea market, he knew I'd be reading it too. Dave Marsh's The Heart of Rock and Soul: the 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made came out in 1989, but Marsh probably wouldn't have included much from the years since then anyway. His favorites are largely from the 1950s and 1960s, although surprisingly he agrees with me that 1984 was a brilliant year for Top 40. (I was 11 then, so the thrill of discovering MTV and more music than my parents owned influences my view of things.)

Marsh's essays are informational for someone my age who doesn't know a lot about the artists who are not the biggest stars, even if their songs have now made the oldies stations' playlists. Its focus on singles leads to a very different view of rock history from the classic rock/album oriented rock one that a lot of rock criticism I've read sticks to. It's an absorbing read because it's so personal, and Marsh's memories bring up the soudntrack to one's own past.

You won't agree with every single choice (what the hell possessed him to include a piece of bland schlock like Billy Ocean's "Get Out of My Dreams, Get Into My Car"?). But over all, the reason to read this book is that it deserves the exact opposite of the warning at the beginning of the hilarious Dave Barry's Book of Bad Songs: The Heart of Rock and Soul will make good songs play unstoppably in your head.

Saturday, November 24, 2001

When I first saw William Sleator's House of Stairs, I felt an eerie feeling of recognition. It's about five teenagers who mysteriously find themselves in an environment with no one else, no way out, nothing but the machine that feeds them. I used to write so many versions of that story (usually with me as one of the teens), but Sleator's is creepier than any of them.

It's a lot darker than the amusing-yet-suspensful Interstellar Pig by the same author, which I had liked enough to make me pick up House of Stairs and get the shock of recognition in the first place. Here, five sixteen-year-old orphans find themselves in a building of endless stairs, landings, and bridges. There's a toilet and a machine that wants them to do certain things before it releases the food they survive on -- but there is no explanation of what those things are, only trial and error. The reader learns a little about the world the teens come from by hearing them talk about their pasts, and that futuristic world is not a pleasant one, but now there's nothing but the personalities of the five to deal with. The choice is given to Abigail, Lola, Peter, Blossom, and Oliver: conform or resist. Each of them makes their own decision, and although the start is slow, the tension builds until the final chapter's surprise revelations and an ending that lingers with you.

Tuesday, November 20, 2001

Eight or nine years ago, I encountered an excerpt from Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins in my Expository Writing textbook. I was intrigued enough to track down a copy of the book. It wasn't bad, and it has stayed in my personal library through a couple of weedings. But I just finished re-reading it, and I think it's going to the used-book store.

William F. Buckley, Jr. called Love In The Ruins "another 1984. An exquisite extrapolation of what life might be like if we don't dominate technology, and yield to totalitarian imperatives." (1988 interview printed in Buckley: The Right Word) The picture painted in the book is of a world where the elderly are sent to euthanasia facilities with names like "The Happy Isles of Georgia," the country is split into the political parties of "Knothead" and "Leftpapa" who live in different towns, the swamp nearby is full of Bantu guerillas and hippie "love couples," and U.S. soldiers are being sent to fight in the fifteen-year civil war in Ecuador.

So the whole book strikes me as very 1960s, with its thinly veiled Vietnam, its country club with black employees who walk around hinting to customers "Christmas gif'," the back-to-nature swamp inhabitants preaching love, and black civil rights activists planning uprisings against the suburbs. Even the treatment of sex-aid clinics as something unusual strikes me as out-of-date. The book is certainly amusing with such events as the American Catholic Church celebrating "Property Rights Sunday" and the mysterious Art Immelmann's reaction to being called obscene names, but the real classics like Brave New World and 1984 don't have such a dated feeling, in my view, even though they are older. This book, published in 1971, is only two years older than I am, but even the science fiction of the same years (say, John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, another one with a thinly disguised Vietnam War) doesn't seem quite so old.

Saturday, November 17, 2001

Florence King is one of my short list of buy-book-on-sight authors. Even though she's a political conservative, and I am most definitely not, I find her work wonderfully funny (as with P.J. O'Rourke). The only thing I've read in her work that's really bothered me was at the end of Lump It or Leave It, where she reviewed Andrea Dworkin's Letters from a War Zone -- and liked it! Now that scared me.

Dworkin is one of the group of radical feminists who describe pornography in these terms: "Women's lives are made two-dimensional and dead. We are flattened on the page or on the screen. Our vaginal lips are painted purple for the consumer to clue him in as to where to focus his attention such as it is. Our rectums are highlighted so that he knows where to push. Our mouths are used and our throats are used for deep penetration." (from "Pornography Happens to Women," published in The Price We Pay: The Case Against Racist Speech, Hate Propaganda, and Pornography, Laura Lederer and Richard Delgado, eds.; New York: Hill and Wang, 1995). Dworkin is among those who feel that porn is a violation of women's civil rights (no word on how this applies to gay male porn) and ranks it as something to fight along with rape and physical battery on women.

Now me, I am a feminist in the manner of Susie Bright, someone who believes that sex is fun and pornography is something that women might be as interested in as men. I like porn, whether it features men, women, or both. I don't pretend it necessarily has artistic value (I'm satisfied as long as all the words are spelled correctly) -- I just believe in my and anyone else's freedom to read about or look at pictures of anything consenting adults might do.

King compares Dworkin to Carry Nation as a courageous fighter, and also praises her use of language and the structure of her arguments. (I suppose I like King for some of the same reasons.) But I don't understand why Dworkin's views would not enrage a political conservative who said:

  • "Feminists don't like strong women because too many viragos would put them out of business. To prosper they need a steady supply of women who exemplify the other v-word, 'victim.'"
  • "As female political dominance has increased, our august national watchwords of life, liberty, and property have yielded to 'You're being mean to me!', 'Don't you dare touch that child!', and prissy reprimands of 'incivility' directed against anyone with a rigorous, unequivical manner of speaking."
  • "Take sexual harassment. Every time I turn on the news some woman is describing, with murky insouciance, that terrible day ten years ago when her self-esteem was shattered because her male boss kept looking at her 'body parts' instead of her face. A real feminist would say, 'I'm up here, Mr. Crabtree,' and that would be the end of it. If you say it right, you only have to say it once."
Dworkin's belief that women need to be protected from the supposed havoc wreaked by men looking at naked pictures or reading about fucking seems to me to the exact opposite of the independence and self-reliance that King espouses. Even if pornography is crass (and I can't deny that most of it certainly is) and low-class, qualities King certainly disapproves of, a strong woman shouldn't have to seek refuge from a magazine or a movie.