Saturday, July 29

Robert Moses: The Original B-Boy

Well, not exactly. In fact not at all, though Mr. Moses does hold a rather ignominious position in the annals of hip-hop. In 1959 New York Parks Commissioner Moses (otherwise known as The Power Broker--one of Book-Loop pal Bryan's favorite books) commenced work on the Cross-Bronx Expressway, laying the foundation for hip-hop in the Bronx. You see, the expressway tore apart neighborhoods and led to the departure of numerous middle class families. As these middle class inhabitants left, many of the Bronx’s businesses followed. What remained was a community consisting largely of struggling black and Hispanic families. As the situation in the Bronx grew increasingly dire gang activity and drug use became increasingly widespread. As a response to the desperation facing young people living in the South Bronx during the 1970s, the hip-hop movement emerged.

As I read Can't Stop Won't Stop I have found myself struck by how a movement that was so vital, so potent in its nascent stages, has now devolved into the current celebration of all things extravagant and dispensable. Certainly there are those who still pay homage to the roots of hip-hop in their own way, but these are a small minority when one considers who's getting airplay and who’s garnering platinum plaques. The great thing about a lot of popular hip-hop in the early days is that it was party music with a social message appended--Afrika Bambaataa's motto of "Peace, Love, Unity and Having Fun" really stood for something. Why is it that now it seems the songs must be one or the other, conscious or crunk? It’s really a shame, as it confines the power of the genre.

I’m making my way through Can't Stop Won't Stop incredibly slowly, which surprises me, I thought I would devour it. It’s a pretty dense book and I've been reading it in fits and starts, distracted by other books along the way. Although it is quite thorough and exceedingly well researched, Can't Stop Won't Stop somehow manages to be clear and concise, offering an insightfulness that--unfortunately--you wont find in some widely read hip-hop publications. If you’re curious about the history of hip-hop this is THE book. I'll likely comment on this book further as I make my way through it--especially when I get to the Native Tongues part.

Thursday, July 27

Facing the Congo:
A Modern-Day Journey into the Heart of Darkness

It's funny that Bryan just completed Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, for I have just finished Jeffrey Tayler's Facing the Congo. Bryson's book is about his attempt to hike the 2,100 miles of Appalachian Trail between Georgia and Maine, while Tayler's book chronicles his attempt to become the first man since Henry Stanley in the mid-19th century to travel the length of the Congo River between Kinsangani and Kinshasa.

In some ways Tayler is the anti-Bryson, filling his prose with sober, severe language and almost never even cracking a smile. On the other hand, Bryson doesn't make trips that force him to be confronted with Mobutu's treacherous military men, the threat (real or imagined) of cannibals, or the dangerous desperation of otherwise decent people.

One wonders whether Tayler would have even made it safely from Brazzaville to his boat journey's starting point in Kinsangani had he not mysteriously won the admiration and assistance of one of Mobutu's colonels. The Colonel, a corrupt fellow like any other of Mobutu's officers, asks for nothing in exchange for providing Tayler with safe passage on his barge. It seems as though the Colonel is amused by Tayler's presence, not only because he is about to embark on an insane quest, but because he is a white man whose aim does not include the economic pillaging of the Congolese.

Though Tayler was not traveling along the Congo to exploit the riches of its natural resources, as I read the book I could not help but think there was still something rather off-putting about an American writer making this superfluous voyage through a country ravaged by colonialism, civil war, Mobutu, starvation, malaria and the continued crippling economic effects of the white world's exploitation. At one point during a particularly hopeless portion of the trip, Tayler acknowledges my concern: "I found myself stung by my failure and trying to deny what I would later come to see as obvious: that I had exploited Zaire as a playground on which to solve my own rich-boy existential dilemma."

Issues of propriety aside, the book is well written and contains several passages that rank amongst the most gripping I've ever read. I recommend this book, and not just to fans of travel literature. Tayler does a decent job of outlining some of the issues facing Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) during the late 90's, but I think he falls short when he is so focused on the completion of his journey that he fails to develop a strong relationship with his African traveling partners. But, given the stress of his trip, it's hard to be too critical of the man's social skills, and perhaps I should only praise him for making it home alive--no matter how frivolous his journey was.

Tuesday, July 25

I live!

I apologize, if only slightly, for the delinquency. I just finished Bill Bryson's A Walk In The Woods, which is appropriately Bryson-esque - that is, funny, pithy, and heartfelt - and will make you want to go camping. I'm sorting through a bevy of baseball books for a possibly publishing project but I think will move onto The Great American Novel after that. I'm no pinko.

Thursday, July 20

Quoting Turgenev

"Nothing is stronger in the world ... and weaker—than a word!"

"Weak people never put an end to things themselves—they always wait for the end."

"Weak people in their mental colloquies, eagerly make use of strong expressions."

Sunday, July 16

Recent Readings

I recently finished Philip Roth's The Great American Novel. If you're a fan of baseball, literature and laughs then this is a must read. If you're not a fan of those things then you're clearly a communist and Book-Loop will not refrain from naming your name. I thank Louis, a friend to Book-Loop, for the most thoughtful recommendation.

I've since moved onto The Torrents of Spring by Ivan Turgenev. This book is, as the name of the author might imply, altogether different from Hemingway's Sherwood Anderson parody of the same name. It is curious to me that Hemingway would title his essentially American burlesque after a story by one of the Russian masters. If you have any information on this please do tell. Perhaps as I get a bit deeper I'll find some reasoning (it's quite a small book, so that could come momentarily), At any rate, Turgenev's Torrents is a pretty standard love tale. It's not written with the same elegance as Fathers and Sons but it's still quite good.

It's funny how I have come to read the two Torrents. When my father visited Seattle he saw that I had just read Fathers and Sons. He said the only Turgenev he had read was a wonderful love tale by the name of The Torrents of Spring. While touring the Seattle Public Library together he suggested we find it. We could not, but we did find the Hemingway work of the same name. We looked for the Turgenev at Elliot Bay Book Company here in Seattle and then at Powell's in Portland. No luck at either cavernous locale. Now, my father is getting on in years and I just assumed that he had confused one book with another--though mixing up Hemingway with Turgenev seems odd for a well-read being of any age or mental capacity. When my father left town I went back to the library and read Hemingway's Torrents just for kicks. It was fun, if dated. A few weeks ago when I visited home my father gave me a copy of Turgenev's Torrents that he had purchased for me. It seemed as though he had made it his mission get me the book after the initial failure in Seattle and Portland. Thoughtful man, my father.

My big brother gave me a crisp $100 bill for my birthday last week. I used the money to purchase seven books (he told me to buy music, but fuck him). Here is what I bought:

The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
Old School by Tobias Wolff
Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata
Blindness by José Saramago
Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges
The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami
The White Album by Joan Didion

Wednesday, July 12

We do have a fourth member

His name is Nick and he does not have a computer. Recently he has read Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, which I gather taught him a little something about the sad realities of America's overwhelming economic and political might, and Freakonomics, which I gather taught him something about sumo wrestling and real estate, among other things. He enjoyed both books and is well aware of the fact that they represent some of the final pleasure reading he will engage in for quite some time. In September he will become consumed by med school reading and will likely retreat to his hermitic undergraduate ways. Bless you for heading back to Colorado to appease your soul before shit hits the fan, Nick.

Nick Hornby on Freakonomics in the June/July issue of The Believer:

Freakonomics ocassionally hits you a little too hard over the head with a sense of its own ingenuity. "Now for another unlikely question: what did crack cocaine have in common with nylon stockings?" (One of the things they shared, apparently, is that they were both addictive, although stockings were only "practically" addictive, which might explain why there are comparatively few silk stocking-related drive-by shootings.) The answer to the question of whether mankind is innately and universally corrupt "may lie in... bagels." (The dots here do not represent an ellipsis, but a kind of trumpeting noise.) Schoolteachers are like sumo wrestlers, real estate agents are like Ku Klux Klan, and so on. I enjoyed the book, which is really a collection of statistical conjuring tricks, but I wasn't entirely sure of what it was about."

If Nick (not Hornby, our Nick) were here to speak for himself he would probably say that that last sentence summed up the telephone conversation between he and I regarding Freakonomics.