Sunday, November 29, 2015

Welcome To The Kiko's House Book Issue

Today we're celebrating books not because it's a special day, but because we can.  Besides which, every day I spend in the company of a good book is special. 
Books, like music, have been lifelong companions, but as much as I love music, books can take me places -- and I can take them -- that music cannot go.  Books are fun.  They're brain candy.  They enable me to both concentrate and relax.  And as a writer, they inspire me.
Following are several book-related posts, including capsule summaries of 25 books I read in the past year that would make terrific holiday gifts, a profile of Joan Didion, who is one of my favorite writers, a review of a Thomas Pynchon classic, an appreciation of Jack Kerouac, a peek at the most beautiful book in the world, and an immodest plug for my own books. 
As literary creation myths go, the story of Jack Kerouac's On The Road typescript pictured above is a whopper.
According to the myth, the great Beat trailblazer wrote the book on a 120-foot roll of Teletype paper in the course of a three-week Benzedrine and coffee binge.  Inconveniently for fans who believe that the novel was written off the top of his head, much of it had been laid out in diaries and correspondence during an extended road trip across the U.S. and Mexico with Neal Cassady, who was the model for the character Dean Moriarity.
No matter.

From Beethoven To Bethlehem: Twenty-Five Great Books For Holiday Gift Giving

Your Faithful Reviewer plowed through a slew of books in the course of 2015, ranging from an 88-year old literary classic to hot-off-the-press offerings. Here are the best 25 of the bunch.  All are great holiday gifts for a literary inclined spouse, other family member or friend, and all are available online in paperback.

BEETHOVEN: ANGUISH AND TRIUMPH (Jan Swofford, 2014) The great virtue of this doorstop of a tome is that it strips away the theories, postures and myths about this profoundly influential composer,
who was the crucial figure in the transition from the Classical to Romantic eras in Western music.  Swofford keeps interpretation to a minimum in telling the story of Beethoven's life ("the most astonishing thing about him is that he survived the burdens of being Beethoven," he writes) and parks out the finer points of musical theory in a handy appendix, a relief to readers like myself who are not classically trained.
BONITA AVENUE: A Novel (Peter Buwalda, 2015) From the outside, brilliant math professor Siem Sigerius, his wife, children and future son-in-law are bourgeois normalcy itself, but lies, deceptions and twists of fate reveal the family to be profoundly dysfunctional.   Propelled by three distinctively different narrative voices, this spectacular debut novel is darkly humorous, suspenseful, entertaining and addictive as we are taken from the Netherlands to California and back, through literal and figurative pyrotechnics, and ultimately into the heart of madness.  

(Marlon James, 2014) The too often violent history of post-colonial Jamaica has fascinated and revulsed this longtime lover of Bob Marley's music in particular and ska and reggae in general.  A Brief

History more or less revolves around the 1976 politically-motivated assassination attempt on Marley, and the author's cast of rastas, gunmen, drug traffickers and CIA agents, rendered with a sublime inventiveness, casts a gripping light on that event and the tremors from it, which reverberated all the way to New York in the form of the crack epidemic, and well into the 1990s.
CATALOGING THE WORLD: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information World (Alex Wright, 2014) Some 25 years before the first microchip, 40 years before the first personal computer, and 50 years before the first Web browser, Belgian librarian Paul Otlet envisioned something very much like today's Internet.  This led to his great achievement: Construction of the Mundaneum, a mechanical collective brain that would house and disseminate everything ever committed to paper.  A fascinating and fast-paced history of a regretably obscure visionary and creative genius.
THE CORRECTIONS: A Novel (Jonathan Franzen, 2001) The dysfunctional family as novelistic
gist is well-trod ground, but Franzen covers new ground in this complex but beautifully written, biting but ultimately sensitive satire.  The five members of
the troubled Lambert family, each in their own very different way, are walking commentaries on social issues ranging from laissez-faire parenting to sexuality and homosexuality to U.S.-Third World relations.  The climactic Christmas homecoming goes awry, of course, but is deeply moving as the large-heartedness of this kooky clan prevails.
THE DINOSAUR FEATHER (S.J. Gavan, 2008) Too many of the characters in this weird but engrossing Danish murder mystery have anger-management problems which tend to gum up a plot that can seem needlessly complicated because everybody lies and has something to hide.  But this is a worthy addition to the top shelf of Actic Noir and the back story -- fossil trench warfare waged by scientists over whether birds are descended from dinosaurs -- is the improbable glue that keeps the journey from murder to murder interesting even if the ending is more or less predictable.

ELEPHANT COMPANY: The Inspiring Story of an Unlikely Hero and the Animals WhoHelped Him Save Lives in World War II
(Vicki Croke, 2014) We all know that elephants are pretty damned smart, but Croke's wonderful story of

Billy Williams is a revelation. Mesmerized by the great beasts' intelligence, character, courage and humor, Williams became a gifted "elephant wallah" deeply skilled at understanding the beasts, as well as treating their maladies.  In return, the elephants made him a better man, and in the process saved countless lives as the Japanese overran Southeast Asia.
FACTORY MAN: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local - and Helped Save an American Town (Beth Macy, 2014) A cautionary tale about the dark side of globalization and the Bassett Furniture Company, which once was the world's largest wood furniture manufacturer.  Enter the Chinese, who decimated much of the domestic industry. The few holdouts included the indomitable if patriarchal John Bassett III, who through smarts, loyalty to his workers and sheer cunning, beat the Chinese at their own game and saved his business and the town of Galax, Virginia. 
IN COLD BLOOD (Truman Capote, 1966) I first read this true-crime masterpiece about the quadruple murder of Kansas farmer Herbert Clutter and his family in 1970 or so and very much liked it.  But it was more compelling the second time around and more
obvious to me that it actually was a "non-fiction novel" because of the liberties Capote took in telling the story, including weaving in factual discrepancies when it helped the flow.  Critics howled, but so what?  It's art, and the psychological relationship between murderers Dick Hickock and Perry Smith is especially fascinating.

THE INDIAN BRIDE (Karin Fossum, 2001).  The success of the Arctic Noir murder mystery genre has spawned imitators who simply don't have the chops of a Jo Nesbø, Henning Mankell or Stieg Larsson, which makes reading any book in Karin Fossum's Inspector Sejer series a delight.  The Indian Bride is typical of Fossum's masterful plot construction, but it is her psychological portrait of the residents of a provincial Norwegian village rocked by a brutal murder and Sejer's understated but methodical quest to find the killer that makes this book such a terrific read.

JONI MITCHELL: In Her Own Words (With Malka Marom, 2014)  I have written that being young is to love Joni Mitchell's music and  growing older is to understand why you do. I am convinced of that even more after reading this anthology of recorded
interviews with the singer-songwriter from 1973, 1979 and 2012, by which time Mitchell had stopped recording and touring.  Mitchell's musings on her collaborations with other artists, notably jazz legend Charles Mingus, and her creative processes are riveting and make her greatest music -- reverentially covered by so many contemporary musicians -- seem even greater.
THE LAST GOOD KISS (James Crumley, 1978) Having pretty much scraped the bottom of the barrel for Arctic Noir thrillers, my thirst for the well-crafted detective story took me to Crumley and three overwritten and ultimately unsatisfying offerings in his C.W. Sughrue series.  But The Last Good Kiss clicked, probably because it predated the three others.  The prose flowed beautifully, cliches were kept in check, and Dashielle Hammett would have approved of the story line in this debut of Sughrue, a Vietnam veteran turned hard-boiled gumshoe with a fondness for the bottle and a slim but enduring and endearing hope for mankind.
MAN IN PROFILE: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker (Thomas Kunkel, 2015) If The Sympathizer was the best book of fiction I read this year, Kunkel's biography of one of the giants of long-form journalism is the best non-fiction entry.
Sadly, upon his death in 1996 at age 87, Mitchell was less known for his extraordinarily elegant writing than a decades-long case of writers block. Mitchell arguably was the progenitor of New Journalism (a term he loathed), and as John McPhee has written, "When New Journalists came ashore, Joe Mitchell was there on the beach to greet them."  (Click HERE for a full-length review.)
NICA'S DREAM: The Life and Legend of the Jazz Baroness (David Kastin, 2011) Kathleen Annie Pannonica Rothschild de Koenigswarter had it all: Wealth, a title and influence of one of the most powerful families in the world.  But then she heard a recording of Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight," fell deeply in love with jazz and began an extraordinary three-decade rein as the legendary jazz baroness of New York City because of her close and loving relationships with dozens of jazz greats, not the least of whom was Monk himself.  A great bio for jazz lovers and a worthy addition to the history of the genre.
ROSCOE: A Novel (William Kennedy, 2002)  This comic masterpiece is the most accessible of Kennedy's Albany books (his Ironweed was one of my selections last year) and Roscoe Conway, second in command of the New York capital city's notorious political
machine, is perhaps his most likeable character, which is saying a heap because Kennedy imparts even his homicidal mobsters with charm.  Roscoe decides to quit politics as the book opens, but of course that is easier said than done as he overcomes obstacles, scandals and disasters small and large that all seem to lead back to the loss of his true love.
THE SHORT AND TRAGIC LIFE OF ROBERT PEACE: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark For the Ivy League (Jeff Hobbs, 2014) People have been writing books about their college roommates for years, but this one is very different and very special because the roommate was not a famous novelist or scientist in the making, but rather Robert Peace, who against formidable odds escaped the mean streets of Newark, New Jersey for Yale.  Hobbs's biography is a must-read: Painstakingly researched, painfully honest, and like the title says, ultimately tragic.

(Robert Galbraith, 2014) J.K. Rowling built a literary empire with the Harry Potter series and she's well on her way to doing it again with the first two Cormoran Strike detective novels written under the name of Robert Galbraith.  The initial

offering, The Cuckoo's Calling, which introduced Strike and secretary Robin Ellacott (think Holmes and Watson), was good, but The Silkworm is better still with a labyrinthine plot based on a controversial bestseller-to-be and its uncomfortable place in the shark-infested waters of the British book publishing business.  Is Galbraith/Rowling sending a message here?  You betcha.
SLOUCHING TOWARD BETHLEHEM (Joan Didion, 1968) Great writing -- or in this case great journalism -- is never passé. This collection of 20 magazine essays, most on 1960s California, is so rich and Didion's observations so pungent that they still leap off the page 50 years on.  Favorites include being on location with John Wayne in Mexico, the Hawaii of fact and fantasy, a musing in the Santa Ana Winds, and an encounter with a preschool-age child who is given LSD by her hippie parents in Haight Ashbury.

STEPHEN CRANE: A Life of Fire (Paul Sorrento, 2014) Next to Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman, no other 19th century American writer was as romanticized in his lifetime.  But while Crane may have "opened the gates to modern American
literature," as this biographer puts it, it's a wonder that he accomplished anything.  Preternaturally shy and a spendthrift who repeatedly undercut and double-crossed editors and friends alike, his one redeeming quality seems to have been a deep humanity evident in his greatest and most impressionistic works, The Red Badge of Courage and Maggie: A Girl of the Streets

STEPPENWOLF (Herman Hesse, 1927) I read this classic in the late 1960s when I was first exploring inner worlds, which in turn led me to examine spirituality, but four-plus decades on, rereading it was a revelation.  Who can't -- and shouldn't -- relate to Harry Haller, a joyless and lonely intellectual (who Hesse has said mirrored himself at the time he wrote the book) who struggles to reconcile the man and the beast within, only to fall in love on the path to liberation and then fall further into the surreal "Magic Theater - For Madmen Only!" where his fate is finally determined.
THE STORY OF ALICE: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland  (Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, 2015) Has there ever been a more peculiar relationship in life and fiction than that between Oxford mathematician Charles Dodgson (Carroll) and
Alice Liddell, the child for whom he invented the enduringly popular Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass?  Douglas-Fairhurst is a fine biographer and plumbs the inevitable questions about Carroll's sexuality, as well as less controversial aspects of his life and place in the shifting cultural landscape of Victorian society, all to fascinating and witty effect.
THE SYMPATHIZER (Viet Thanh Nguyen, 2015) This remarkable debut novel is hands down the best book of fiction I read this year and is bound to become a classic of war fiction.  The Captain, the story's narrator, leaves South Vietnam to go to university in the U.S. and becomes fluent in its language and ways before returning to his war-torn homeland ostensibly to fight the Communist cause.  But he has a secret: he is a Communist sympathizer and spy.  Among the greatest lessons imparted in this marvelous book is that the Vietnam War was not an American struggle; we merely supplied bodies and napalm. (Click HERE for a full-length review.)
TIBETAN PEACH PIE (Tom Robbins, 2014) The author of the great Only Cowgirls Get the Blues, as well as a bunch of other "seriocomedies," as he calls his novels, says this book is neither an autobio nor a memoir, but it is both.  I had tired of Robbins, as
great as his shtick could be, because it had become shopworn from too-thin material.  But Tibetan Peach Pie is a delightful reminder of a heyday when his prose, with its interwoven social and philosophical undercurrents, was magical. His observations here about LSD and his personal exploration of that deeply misunderstood drug are among the most acute that I've read.
A TOWN LIKE ALICE (Neville Shute, 1950) War romances are not my cup of tea, but the author of On the Beach won me over with his engagingly written tale of Jean Paget, a young Englishwoman who endures a death march in the jungles of Malaya during World War II to improbably end up in the remote and rugged Australian outback where she is reunited with a man who nearly lost his life to save hers.  Paget faces the challenge of her life, as well as ossified gender and racial stereotypes -- in trying to turn the tiny community where she decides to live into "a town like Alice" -- the outback "oasis" of Alice Springs.

THE WEATHER EXPERIMENT: The Pioneers Who Sought To See the Future (Peter Moore, 2015) For anyone who loves observing the weather, as well as marveling how often forecasters still get it wrong, this book is a delight.  This group biography reveals how pioneering 19th century researchers -- with nothing more than thermometers, barometers and hygrometers their disposal -- succeeded in cracking the weather's code by observing, inventing and observing some more despite a so-called scientific establishment that continued to cling to ancient, church-sanctioned views of meteorology.
Meanwhile, here are my lists for 2014 and 2013, as well as a 2o12 post of the books that have most influenced me.

Find Me If You Can, Joan Didion Declares, As She Hides In Plain Sight

As a child of comfortable family in the temperate zone she had been as a matter of course provided with clean sheets, orthodontia, living grandparents, ballet lessons, and casual timely information about menstruation and the care of flat silver. ~ JOAN DIDION, “A Book of Common Prayer”
The more I have come to love Joan Didion as a writer, the less I like her as a person.
I hasten to add that virtually all of my literary heroes have been, to one extent or another, not particularly likable.  Genius — or a facsimile thereof — will do that to you, and I understand that Didion's dysfunctions and insecurities have informed and contributed greatly to her work.  This work includes among the best non-fiction, much of it first-person journalism at its most outstanding, on the cusp of the 20th and 21st centuries.  And some pretty damned good fiction, as well.
Beyond her compelling prose (she writes with the ferocity of George Orwell and Norman Mailer),
Didion’s greatest contribution as a journalist has been to chronicle in her distinctive voice the corruption of American democracy, a devolution she has traced with unsparing venom and well ahead of the largely clueless media pack from the post-World War II years through Vietnam, Watergate, the Ronald Reagan era and to Bushes père and frère.
"She writes with a razor, carving her characters out of her perceptions with strokes so swift and economical that each scene ends almost before the reader is aware of it," critic John Leonard once wrote of Didion.  "And yet the character go on bleeding afterward.”
The first full-length biography of Didion, who turns a frail 81 on Saturday, was published in August.  I did not walk but ran to pick up a copy of Tracy Daugherty's The Last Love Song in the hope that I would get a better understanding of how she wields her razor and perhaps not be so critical of her as a person. 
Daugherty delivers on both her writerly art and her life, and while The Last Love Song is a bit overheated at times and a too worshipful at others, I better understand the technical aspects of Didion's craft and that what she writes is deeply informed by her nervous, quarrelsome, controlling and self-informed self.  She is a mess, I suppose, but a brilliant one. 
Didion understood, as few others did, that language no longer described the problems of democracy.  It was part of a semantic problem in which the napalming of a Vietnamese village was called an "assistance effort" as the larger horror was conveniently if not all that cleverly obscured.
"For a committed writer, the only moral recourse at this point in American history, is to strip away by the bad politics of our time: setting, history, backstory, psychological motivation, romance, fable," writes Daugherty of the madness to Didion's method. "We begin with whatever's left -- 'colors, moisture, heat, blue in the air.'  From there we build our story."
Writing in the first person can be perilous for a journalist, but her own point of view is so authoritative that this approach almost always works.  Yet Didion can be amazingly tone deaf when it comes to popular culture.  Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1968) is a most excellent collection of magazine pieces, but her take on Haight Ashbury is a bomb.  She just didn't get it.  And some of her writing on feminism is acutely spot on while some of it has a silly tit-for-tat quality. 
Didion at her very best is Political Fictions (2001), a collection of essays on the American political process, including the election of George H.W. Bush, his defeat by Bill Clinton and Clinton's impeachment, and the 2000 George W. Bush-Al Gore election.  These trenchant and frighteningly prescient essays should be mandatory reading for anyone needing to be disabused of the notion that the system works.
It was in Political Fictions that Didion revealed the Political-Media Industrial Complex, as I call it, in all its awfulness, an unstoppable mind-stealing monster that again is running wild in the astonishingly awful 2016 presidential campaign. 
An excerpt:
"The piece I finally did on the 1988 campaign, 'Insider Baseball,' was the first of a number of pieces I did about various aspects of American politics, most of which had to do, I came to realize, with the ways in which the political process did not reflect but increasingly proceeded from a series of fables about American experience. . . . 
"At a point quite soon during the dozen-some years that followed . . . it came to my attention that there was to writing about politics a certain Sisyphean aspect. Broad patterns could be defined, specific inconsistencies documented, but no amount of definition or documentation seemed sufficient to stop the stone that was our apprehension of politics from hurtling back downhill. The romance of New Hampshire would again be with us. The crucible event in the candidate's 'character' would again be explored. Even that which seemed ineluctably clear would again vanish from our collective memory, sink traceless into a stream of collapsing news and comment cycles that became our national River Lethe. . . . 
 "Perhaps most striking of all, it was clear in 1988 that those inside the process had congealed into a permanent political class, the defining characteristic of which was its readiness to abandon those not inside the process. All of this was known. Yet by the time of the November 2000 presidential election and the onset of the thirty-six days that came to be known as 'Florida,' every aspect of what had been known in 1988 would again need to be rediscovered, the stone pushed up the hill one more time."
So while I might not have particularly relished spending an evening drinking with Joan Didion, something I did with pleasure with Hunter S. Thompson, a terrific New Journalism contemporary who nevertheless couldn't hold a candle to her, Didion has my deepest admiration as a stoic and  survivor.
The lapses into her trademark self-absorbed whininess become muted on reflection, and for all the mystery she has draped around her tiny shoulders, she hides in plain sight.  And wants it to be that way.


Book Review: Pynchon's 'Mason & Dixon,' An 18th Century Musing On All Things

So, one day, into Delaware's great Basin/With strange Machinery sail Mr. Mason/And Mr. Dixon, by the Falmouth Packet/Connect, as with some invis'ble Bracket/Sharing a Fate, directed by the Stars/To mark the Earth with geometrick Scars. -- TIMOTHY TOX
The penultimate book in my long slog to read the complete works of Thomas Pynchon (only his Vineland awaits), Mason & Dixon is the penultimate book in my long slog to read the complete works of Thomas Pynchon and is of more than usual interest because your Faithful Reviewer once plied his trade within a stone's throw of the marker to the right, one of several placed by the eponomymous pair of 18th century surveyors in determining the demarcation line between Pennsylvania, Maryland, Delaware and West Virginia. And although they could not have known it, what would become the symbolic cultural boundary between the North and South nearly a century later during the bloody War Between the States.
Like Pynchon's 2007 magnum opus, Against the Day (reviewed here), Mason & Dixon is complex, wonderfully subversive and laugh-out-loud funny. But also like that book, it is more accessible than his earlier works, notably Gravity's Rainbow, a masterpiece but with prose so dense that you can stand a fork in them.
I knew I was in for a treat from the moment I read the Pynchonic run-on opening sentence of Mason & Dixon:
"Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs, starr'd the Sides of Outbuildings, as of Cousins, carried Hats away into the brisk Wind off Delaware,-the Sleds are brought in and their Runners carefully dried and greased, shoes deposited in the back Hall, a stocking'd-foot Descent made upon the great Kitchen, in a purposeful Dither since Morning, punctuated by the ringing Lids of various Boilers and Stewing-Pots, fragrant with Pie-Spices, peel'd Fruits, Suet, heated Sugar,-the Children, having all upon the Fly, among rhythmic slaps of Batter and Spoon, coax'd and stolen what they might, proceed, as upon each afternoon all this snowy Advent, to a comfortable Room at the rear of the House, years since given over to their carefree Assaults."
Pynchon casts Charles Mason, who actually was an astronomer by trade, and surveyor Jeremiah Dixon as straight man and goof ball in a rollicking epic that deftly combines fiction and fact through a cast of characters that include the poet Timothy Tox, a Pynchon invention, and the very real Nevil Maskelyne, the Astronomer Royal and owner of one of the most evocative names in English history. The story of this dynamic duo's adventures is told by the Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke 20 years after the fact in his sister's Philadelphia parlor in an 18th century dialect which I fell into rather easily. (And now find Meself talkin' to the Cats in said Dialeckt.)
These adventures include stopovers in Cape Town to observe the transit of Venus, and the island of St. Helena, where the winds never stop howling and the locals never stop whoring, and a brief return home to England, where Dixon is entrusted with a perpetual motion pocket watch, a fictitious bit player in the real English-French competition eventually won by clockmaker John Harrison, who constructed the first seagoing timepiece that could accurately determine longitude.
Pynchon beautifully describes Mason and Dixon's arrival off of the Delaware cape:
"From the shore they will hear Milkmaids quarreling and cowbells a-clank, and dogs, and Babies old and new, -- Hammers upon Nails, Wives upon Husbands, the ring of Pot-lids, the jingling of Draft-chains, a rifle-shot from a stretch of woods, lengthily crackling tree to tree and across the water. . . . An animal will come to a Headland, and stand, regarding them with narrowly set eyes that glow a Moment. Its Face slowly turning as they pass. America."
The pair meet and party with Benjamin Franklin, who is showing off a pair of tinted sunglasses, his latest invention, and smoke hemp with George Washington, who gets the munchies and jabbers in Yiddish before they set out to try to settle the blue blood royal border dispute between the Calvert family of Maryland (the various Lords Baltimore) and the Penn family of . . . well, you can figure out where they're at.
Mason and Dixon clear cut their way through hundreds of miles of forests thronging with Indians with a rag-tag collection of axmen, purveyors, cooks and kooks, including R.C., a local land surveyor and resident of The Wedge, where Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware meet hard by the onetime home of Kiko’s House and described by the author as a carnival of fee churning by generations of attorneys outlaw . . . er, at law:
"To be born and rear'd in the Wedge is to occupy a singular location in an emerging moral Geometry. Indeed, the oddness of Demarcation here, the inscriptions made upon the body of the Earth, primitive as Designs prick'd by an Iroquois, with a Thorn and a supply of soot, upon his human body, -- a compulsion, withal, supported by the most advanc'd scientific instruments of their Day, -- present to Lawyers enough Litigation upon matters of Property within the Wedge, to becoach-and-six a small Pack of them, one generation upon another, yea into the year 1900, and beyond."
In any event, R.C. covets Dixon's perpetual motion pocket watch, which he steals and swallows when found out, giving new meaning to the old Timex slogan that "it takes a licking but keeps on ticking." R.C. subsequently drives his wife and children batty because of the never ending ticking coming from his stomach.
But I doth digress.  Dixon is a bit of a prankster and the rare Quaker of the day with a sense of humor and an eye for the ladies. He is never put off by the chilliness of Mason, a melancholic soul unable to connect with his young children and ever mourning his dear departed wife, Rebekah, who appears to him as a ghostly apparition.
As they make their way west to the Allegheny Mountains from their starting point near Philadelphia, Mason suffers repeated bouts of the creeps from the unrelentingly dark forests that is made only slightly better by the ministrations of Captain Zhang, a feng shui expert who assures him that Adam and Eve, Buddha and Newton were all enlightened while sitting beneath trees, but warns him that the line he and Dixon are drawing inevitably will lead to bad jujus:
"A quick review would suggest that Trees produce Enlightenment. Trees are not the Problem. The Forest is not an Agent of Darkness. But it may be your Visto [line] is. . . . .Nothing will produce Bad History more directly nor brutally, than drawing a line."
Although Zhang does not come right out and say so, those jujus certainly include the demarcation between the emancipated North and pro-slavery South.
In the end, Mason & Dixon is a pun-filled send up on the clockwork-like machinations of and metaphysical musings on the universe disguised as an 18th century novel. (Or at least I think it is.) My only criticism is a minor one -- that the book could lose a hundred or so of its 773 pages and be none the worse for wear. But then the same and then some could be said about Against the Day, which is doorstop worthy at 1,085 pages.
Oh. I nearly forgot to mention that amidst all this higher mathematics and low comedy, Dixon introduces pizza to England, bestowing upon a lowly pub keeper the following recipe:
"Half a school of sardines in a sea of his beloved Indonesian ketjap atop a loaf pounded flat and sprinkled over with Stilton cheese."
Mason & Dixon is a delicious book; about the pizza I'm not so sure.

Jack Kerouac: An Appreciation

Like a lot of college kids who came of age in the Sixties, reading Jack Kerouac's On the Road was a rite of passage for me, one that occurred a few days into my freshman year when my considerably more sophisticated dormitory roommate loaned me his dog-eared copy.
I caught the Kerouac bug so bad that I went on to read virtually everything he wrote after tracking down a last few obscure titles in the early 1970s, when I was traveling the Far East, at a wonderful bookstore on the Ginza in Tokyo that specialized in those orange-spined Pengiun paperback editions. And like the movable feast of characters that populated Kerouac's real and fictional lives, I spent much of the 1970s on the road, an odyssey that took me to 49 of the 50 American states. (Sorry, Montana, I'll drop by someday.)
The good news from this literary experience is that I can confirm -- as if I needed to tell the bibliophiles among you -- that Kerouac is deserving of the mantle of trailblazing Beat Generation writer. He has exerted an enormous influence on many writers, myself included, as well as Ken Kesey and Richard Brautigan, and musicians like as Bob Dylan and Tom Waits.
The bad news is that I was to read only two more Kerouac books -- The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels -- that gripped me as On the Road had, and most of the rest of what Kerouac wrote is second rate or worse. Maybe that's just me because most critics are somewhat kinder.
Kerouac had many of the ingredients that make up the tortured artistic soul, including a difficult lifelong relationship with his mother, deep sensitivity and low self esteem, ambivalence about spirituality, ambiguous sexuality, unhappy in love and a profound addiction -- in his case alcohol. That is obvious from the body of Kerouac's work, some 25 or so novels and other books in all, but does not explain why his prolific but relatively short life produced a mere handful of books that arguably are worth reading today.
Jack Kerouac was born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac in Lowell, Massachusetts on March 12, 1921 to French-Canadian parents, Léo-Alcide Kerouac and Gabrielle-Ange Lévesque, who like many other Quebecers of their generation had emigrated to New England to find work.
Kerouac and his family spoke joual, a Quebec French dialect, and he did not begin to learn English until the age of six, two years after the death of his nine-year-old brother, Gérard, whose passing affected him deeply.
Kerouac started writing poetry at a young age, but it was his ability as a running back and a football scholarship to Columbia University that was his ticket out of gritty Lowell.
In a twist of fate, Kerouac broke a leg in a game during his freshman season, soon dropped out of college and began meeting many of the Beat Generation characters who would populate his novels, including Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, John Clellon Holmes and William S. Burroughs. He joined the Merchant Marine in 1942 and then the Navy in 1943 at the height of World War II, but was honorably discharged on psychiatric grounds – for having an "indifferent disposition."
He later lived with his parents in the Ozone Park neighborhood of Queens after they too moved to New York, and that is where he wrote his first novel, The Town and the City (1950) and began On the Road.
From the outset, Kerouac's novels were long, rambling, dense and packed with details about his daily life and thoughts, and his editor at publisher Robert Giroux cut some 400 pages from The Town and the City, a generational epic influenced by Thomas Wolfe. No matter, the book sold poorly and for the next six years Kerouac was unable to find a publisher.
Fame, all of its attendant problems and Kerouac’s eventual undoing came calling with publication of On the Road in 1957.
Kerouac had written the book on a roll of Teletype paper in the course of a three-week Benzedrine and coffee binge in 1951. Inconveniently for fans who believe that the novel was written off the top of his head, much of it had been laid out in diaries and correspondence during an extended road trip across the U.S. and into Mexico with Cassady, who was the model for the character Dean Moriarty.
On the Road relied heavily on the narrative style, Kerouac's early flirtation with Buddhism and the music of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and the other bebop musicians that he and his friends were grooving to. It also borrowed liberally – too liberally for the alternately awed and hurt Cassady, who himself never matured as a writer -- from Cassady's own letters to Kerouac.
Publisher after publisher rejected On the Road because of its experimental writing style, but finally Viking Press purchased it after insisting on and getting major revisions.
Kerouac was living and writing in Orlando, Florida by the time On the Road was reviewed by The New York Times on September 5, 1957. Gilbert Millstein hailed him as a major American writer and the book as the defining work of the Beat Generation.
The review began:
[I]ts publication is a historic occasion in so far as the exposure of an authentic work of art is of any great moment in an age in which the attention is fragmented and the sensibilities are blunted by the superlatives of fashion (multiplied a millionfold by the speed and pound of communications).
And concluded:
There are sections of "On the Road" in which the writing is of a beauty almost breathtaking. There is a description of a cross-country automobile ride fully the equal, for example, of the train ride told by Thomas Wolfe in "Of Time and the River." There are details of a trip to Mexico (and an interlude in a Mexican bordello) that are by turns, awesome, tender and funny. And, finally, there is some writing on jazz that has never been equaled in American fiction, either for insight, style or technical virtuosity. "On the Road" is a major novel.
Overnight, Kerouac's antics with Cassady, Ginsberg and friends became the stuff of legend in large part because of his inevitably awkward appearances on The Tonight Show with Steve Allen, and other programs. During his lifetime, many fewer people read Kerouac's books than celebrated his adventures through the interviews he gave.
The Dharma Bums, set in California and based on Kerouac's experiences with Buddhism and San Francisco area poets, was published in 1958. (A personal aside: I reread Dharma Bums while living in San Francisco in the mid-70s. Book in hand, I was riding a city bus one afternoon when it stopped for a traffic light at Columbus Avenue and Broadway as Kerouac walked across that very intersection in the book.) 
My other fave, Desolation Angels, drawn from a summer he spent as a fire lookout in the North Cascade Mountains of Washington state, appeared in 1965.
These books are to my mind the most accomplished examples of Kerouac's narrative style, which he later called Spontaneous Prose, a technique akin to stream of consciousness. Indeed, a big reason that I find most of the rest of his writing not as good is because it seems anything but spontaneous although, and to burst another Kerouac myth, he rewrote and rewrote all of his manuscripts.
Years later, Kerouac was asked by Ginsberg to explain Spontaneous Prose. The result was a list of what he called 30 "essentials":
1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
3. Try never get drunk outside your own house
4. Be in love with your life
5. Something that you feel will find its own form
6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind
9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
17. Write in recollection and amazement for yrself
18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
19. Accept loss forever
20. Believe in the holy contour of life
21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
22. Don't think of words when you stop but to see picture better
23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
29. You're a Genius all the time
30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven
To end at the beginning, why then did Kerouac produce a mere handful of books that arguably are worth reading today?
Because these books, notably On the Road, are "about how to live your life," as John Leland puts it in Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On the Road (They're Not What You Think), a sweet little 2007 tome only slightly longer than the title. And Kerouac simply was incapable of living that idyllic low-overhead life of work, love, artistry and faith.
Jack Kerouac died at age 47 on October 21, 1969 in a St. Petersburg, Florida, hospital as a result of internal bleeding caused cirrhosis of the liver, the result of a lifetime of heavy drinking. He was living with his third wife and his mother.