Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Reading through the year 2009

Out There

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Coming soon to damn near all print and new media near you: critics' Top 10 lists for the year 2009. This column isn't one of them, because we didn't read nearly enough to compile a list of Top 10 books. But Out There did take this year's digital conversion of broadcast frequencies as our cue to stop watching TV altogether (except on our computer or on DVD). Here are some books we read in the time we freed up, any one of them worth our attention more than The Situation and his abs greasing up for Jersey Shore.

The Believers by Zoe Heller (Harper).

The Double Life Is Twice As Good by Jonathan Ames (Scribner).

Impossible Princess by Kevin Killian (City Lights). Short stories from a well-loved SF author.

The King of Vodka: The Story of Vodka and the Upheaval of an Empire by Linda Himelstein (Harper). We saw a woman reading this poolside at Paris Las Vegas. It was somehow perfect.

Lit by Mary Karr (Harper). More of her life story and eventual liberation from the bottle, from The Liars' Club memoirist.

Little Bird of Heaven: A Novel by Joyce Carol Oates (Ecco). Is there a genre called Upstate Gothic?

Nothing in my Pockets by Laurie Anderson (Editions Dis Voir). The book accompanies a sound journal on disc.

Pacific Agony by Bruce Benderson (Semiotext(e)).

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron (Picador).

Sprout by Dale Peck (Bloomsbury).

The Talented Miss Highsmith – The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith by Joan Schenkar (St. Martin's Press). Recent years have been a boon time for Highsmith aficionados – and OT qualifies as one, since our inner life is best understood as a cross between Rene Clement's Plein Soleil and Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley – what with new editions of the Ripley novels, her stories, her lesbian novel The Price of Salt, and a previous biography. Schenkar's epic bio raises the stakes, portraying the author of existential crime fiction as a conflicted soul, a predatory lover and a difficult, prickly creature whose prolific output matched the darkness of her outsized life.

Trotsky by Bertrand M. Patenande (Harper). The years in exile for Stalin rival Leon Trotsky , up through his violent end at the hands of a Stalinist assassin. A competing bio, by Robert Service and from Harvard press, got better reviews.

Waiting to Land: A (Mostly) Political Memoir, 1985-2009 by Martin Duberman (New Press).

You or Someone Like You by Chandler Burr (Ecco).

Dept. of We Didn't Read, But Like to Know It's Published: The Collected Poems & Unfinished Poems by C.P. Cavafy, translated from the Greek by Daniel Mendelsohn (Knopf). The most important poet of Modern Greek was gay.

Dept. of We're Waiting for the Paperback: Flannery by Brad Gooch (Little, Brown). Gooch wrote City Poet, a fine bio of Frank O'Hara, and we're curious about his take on Southern Gothicist Flannery O'Connor.

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin (Scribner). Irish emigration to 20th-century NYC by a master novelist.

Entertained to death

Even though its publication date in July preceded the national psy

cho-drama of Balloon Boy, and fame wannabes Michaele and Tareq Salahi bringing reality-TV values to the White House, the book that most prophesied these non-event "events" was Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle by Chris Hedges (Nation Books). Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who covered foreign affairs for The New York Times. His thesis, broadly, is that our society, besotted with television, spectacle and entertainment 24/7, has forgotten how to read, critically, and therefore how to think. Instead, we accept reality-TV as reality.

"Celebrity culture has taught us to generate interior personal screenplays in the mold of Hollywood, television, and even commercials. We have learned ways of speaking and thinking that disfigure the way we relate in the world."

The popular culture's retreat into feel-good infantilism and financial illusion is a form of magical thinking, a grand delusion. "It turns worthless mortgages and debt into wealth. It turns the destruction of our manufacturing base into an opportunity for growth. It turns a nation that wages illegal wars and administers off-shore penal colonies where it openly practices torture into the greatest democracy on earth."

Hedges offers statistics suggesting functional illiteracy is epidemic in America. "We are a culture that has been denied, or has passively given up, the linguistic and intellectual tools to cope with complexity." The problem with our short attention span is, we become easy prey for hucksters and tyrants. "The worse reality becomes, the less a beleaguered population wants to hear about it, and the more it distracts itself with squalid pseudo-events of celebrity breakdowns, gossip and trivia. These are the debauched revels of a dying civilization." Balloon Boy, et tu!

Apres le deluge

Last Saturday night during a performance of Thrillpeddlers' Pearls Over Shanghai, the Hypnodrome Theatre at the corner of 10th & Division St. was suddenly deluged with two feet of rushing water coming from a ruptured 100-year-old water-main break right outside the theatre's front door.

It was in the middle of Russell Blackwood 's tap-dance musical number "Cruising." They had to stop the show and evacuate the audience through the dressing room and out on the loading dock, where the quick-responding SF firemen carried people (including cast members in their "whore" costumes and makeup) to safety. Eyewitnesses say it was quite a sight.

The water rose fast in the theatre, and the first order of business was to get the piano up onto the stage platform, which was accomplished with the help of several audience members. The next task was to salvage as much of the theatre's property as possible from the storage areas. The cast was told to get out of costume, and get out of the building. There was a very real danger of water-electricity contact, and the power needed to be cut.

The cleanup is being handled by the SF Dept. of Public Works, who estimated that two million gallons of water gushed out over a two-hour period of time, and most of it went into the theatre, the only building so affected. Shows are expected to resume on Jan 1, 2010. What troupers!

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