Libra by Don Delillo
Delillo is an author who I've heard mixed things about. I've heard some regard him as embodying the worst of contemporary "high brow" literature while others have praised him. Since Cronenberg, one of my favorite directors, adapted one of his books, I figured he was worth checking out. My library didn't have Cosmopolis, so I decided to check this one out instead.
Libra is a historical novel about Lee Harvey Oswald. It speculates that Oswald was a patsy in a CIA scheme to shoot John F. Kennedy, however that the assassination was supposed to fail. Oswald is portrayed as something of a fuck up. Which seems to be somewhat accurate to how he was in real life. He was an outcast in school, he was a wannabe revolutionary that defected to the Soviet Union, only to come back when he couldn't fit in. Even here, he becomes a CIA patsy picked specifically because it seems like he's a terrible shot. However, he succeeds in killing Kennedy when he wasn't supposed to.
The books is pretty solidly structured, going between Oswald and the CIA conspirators plot to shoot Kennedy. It reads like a solid thriller and still manages to go through most of Oswald's life from childhood. It does a good job at showing how someone like Oswald could become the kind of person who would shoot a beloved president. There's also an interesting aspect where a "Curator" tries to sort out all the facts of the Kennedy assassination, concluding that the full truth of the case will never be known. It gives it a nice postmodern touch that isn't too alienating or overbearing.
One of my biggest problems with the book is that there are several times where the dialogue is very stiff and unnatural. It feels like Delillo didn't know how to properly steer the conversations where he needed to and just forced them. Jack Ruby's story line (the man who killed Oswald) also felt very rushed and underdeveloped.
Even though I've been to the Kennedy museum in Dallas, I don't actually know that much about the case. This novel was helpful in teaching me things I didn't know about Oswald or many other figures surrounding the assassination. Obviously, since this is fiction I had to check to see what was true, but it's a helpful guide.
I enjoyed this book and I'll try some more of Delillo's in the near future. I'll also probably try find more non-fiction work about JFK's assassination since this got me just as interested in it as visiting the Kennedy museum.
Buy Libra by Don Delillo here.
Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music by Irwin Chusid
I've been fascinated by "Outsider Music" for a long time now. WMFU's website is a good resource for it, especially Irwin Chusid's effort to collect and archive fringe music. When I found he had written a book on the subject, I had to pick it up. Though it took me a while to actually read it, as I have a bad habit of doing.
As the title suggests, this book attempts to define "Outsider Music" as a genre and goes through the artists that fall within it. The genre includes music that's both outside of the mainstream and (usually unintentionally) ignores most conventions of making music. Often, the creators suffer from mental illness, or at the very least, exhibit unusual behavior. Of course, Chusid himself points out that this is a very slippery genre. He includes a chapter on Captain Beefheart who was both on a major label and made a lot of conventional music in addition to his weirder albums. Also, he wasn't mentally ill or erratic, he was just a dick.
While his attempt to define the genre doesn't quite work, this is still a fascinating book. Chusid recounts figures who worked all over the map, from complete amateurs to trained composers, who all made odd music. I was familiar with some artists here like Jandek and Wild Man Fischer, but I learned a lot about some who'd I never or only only vaguely heard of like the Cherry Sisters and Robert Graettinger. Chusid writes with a mixture of insight and humor, delving into artists in an engaging way even with artists he clearly doesn't enjoy.
Some of his choices for who he writes about are a bit odd to me. Beefheart for the reasons I previously mentioned. It also seems odd that he gives two sentences to the Chipmunks but only mentions Anton LaVey at the end where he names some other artists that might fit in the genre. It seems like music by the founder of the Church of Satan would be worth more than a mere mention. I also noticed the complete absence of Y. Bhekhirst and JW Farquhar. Though I'll grant it would be impossible to name every artist who could possibly fall in the genre. The book is also somewhat dated. It was released in 2000 and some of the artists mentioned have died.
Despite that, this book is a great read and valuable as a reference. If I ever want to find some weird music, I can just pull this out and look up the artists listed. Highly recommended.
Buy Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music by Irwin Chusid here.