1) The final third of The Last Genet, Hadrien Laroche (1997; Arsenal edition, 2010)
Certainly a great idea for a book: an in-depth examination of the writing/political activism of notorious thief-turned-literateur Genet, from his activities at/coverage of the Democratic Convention in Chicago '68 to his roosting with Palestinean refugees et.al. that culminated in the creation of his posthumous Prisoner of Love. And to give Laroche credit, the guy did do his homework, and draws quite a few provocative and pertinent parallels (his evocations and citations of Ezra Pound are extremely savvy, to say the least). But the whole damn thing is so very damn French in all the wrong ways. The thing does put one's guard up right from the start: Laroche begins his study, for all intents and purposes, with a section called "Outrageous Hair." Which topic is not EXACTLY beside the point but which hardly requires foregrounding either. Elsewhere, and largely, this student of Derrida (the book is a version of a dissertation that the Great Man oversaw) overworks a deconstructionist pretzel logic that leads to word-groupings like "Hitler (the good man)" and impossible conclusions such as "[...] Genet misses his target twice: he gives in to the cliché about the plot, and offends death." "Offends DEATH?" I thought when I read that passage. "Who wrote this, Armond White?" And then it occured to me...well, you can imagine. Anyway, Laroche is not entirely insupportable, as an Italian-born/French-raised ex-girlfriend used to call me all the time, but he's pretty damn irritating in too many respects. Mainly, the whole thing made me want to look further into George Jackson's Soledad letters, and into The Declared Enemy, a collection of Genet interviews and essays and a major source for Laroche.
2) The Death of the Author, by Gilbert Adair (1992; Melville House edition, 2008)
I didn't plan it this way, but it turned out to be kind of funny that I started this after putting down the Laroche, given that DOTA is, for one thing, a pretty wicked and wickedly on-target sendup of certain strains of European postmodernist theory, and such. I picked it up because after eulogizing Adair after his very untimely death last month, I felt bad that I wasn't all that up on his fiction, and this particular example of it proved extremely easy to acquire. "Based on a real-life scandal," the inner-flap promo copy reads, and I was glad they didn't go further and say what scandal, as it was pretty evident once the point came up, and Adair finesses the point with his customary wit. Aside from expertly pastiching both the novel of academe and the whodunit, Adair uses a diabolically clever structural device that gets funnier (and, some might notice, deliberately more difficult to pull off, and doesn't Adair know it) each time it recurs. The impeccably crafted clockwork mechanism works its way to a punchline that's as frustrating as it is inevitable, which is, as one could say, central to Adair's point. Nifty, engrossing, and entirely worthy of Georges Perec, whose La disparation Adair so lovingly and resourcefully translated.
2) The Third Reich, Roberto Bolaño (written 1998, copyrighted 2011; Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition, 2011)
Frustrated novelists might want to avoid this book. Not because it's bad; in fact, its relatively excellent quality is part of the reason. This is actually an unpublished novel by the prolific Chilean writer Bolaño, who by some accounts only began writing novels to increase his earning potential and better support his family—he apparently thought himself a poet first and foremost. But it's the novels that are continuing to earn the late writer (he died in 2003 at the age of 50) his international reputation, and this early effort was found among his papers after his death. As far as the fiction goes—and this only goes as far as I can tell, because I've only read four of his other novels and a not-unsizeable smattering of his short stories—it strikes me as pretty quintessential. It's about a young German war-game champion vacationing in Spain who undergoes an odd personality mutation after a fellow vacationer he wasn't all that enthusiastic to know to begin with disappears. Soon the gamer is engaged in an intense, up-and-down round of the, um, game from which the novel's title is derived with a horribly burn-scarred young beach bum. The storyline goes along a fairly predictable acolyte-becomes-the-master reversal course for a bit, but the pleasure here is in the details, and how much confidence Bolaño brings to both his droll detachment and moral ferocity. The story never explodes into the meta territory that it appears to flirt with, nor does it contain the kind of mind-blowing narrative twist/summation that made The Savage Detectives such an admirable Borges/Not Borges exercise. But the fact that it makes you hink it might go to either place is testament enough to Bolaño's entirely enviable deftness.
4) Mamoulian, Tom Milne (1968; BFI Silver edition 2010)
The world sure can be perverse at times. I can't testify to what impact this study of the distinctive director had on its first publication, but as of now I can't say that Mamoulian's critical rep is in all that much better a shape than the one Milne himself bemoans in the opening pages of this book: "Parallel to the neglect by the studios, critical evaluation of Mamoulian's work seems to have solidified to a remarkable degree [...] [e]verything from The Gay Desperado to Silk Stockings is [...] cheerfully consigned to oblivion." Some decent DVDs of Mamoulian's work are readily available, but what still seems fixed in amber is a sometimes kinder reiteration of Sarris' verdict in The American Cinema of an innovator run out of innovations. What Milne therefore concentrates on in this, essentially a film-by-film critical monograph, is the elegance and compassion of the Mamoulian sensibility. This provides the through-line, and Milne also insists that Mamoulian's innovations held him in good stead even after they ceased to be innovations per se. In the chapter on Silk Stockings, he implicitly praises Mamoulian's adaptability, providing eloquent accounts of the way he shoots the film's dance sequences in the "breathtaking Cinemascope" one of the film's songs sends up. He's particularly good on Mamoulian's use of color, making one wish for a goddamn respectable video version of the early Technicolor Becky Sharp (public domain has yielded us a cavalcade of digital crap on this one) and glad that one may now get the apparently unsung gem Summer Holiday from Warner Archive. (There's another good Rouben hopefully out this year from a very reputable source, but I'm not sure I'm allowed to talk about it yet. I know of it cause I did the liner notes...) Very worthwhile and largely convincing.
5) Two-thirds of Thelonious Monk: The Life And Times Of An American Original, Robin D. G. Kelley (2009, Free Press)
This is just the kind of biography I tend to really go for: fact-crammed, heavily researched and heavily footnoted. So far it strikes a near-exemplary balance between illuminating the art (Kelley knows his stuff musicologically, and can explain it pretty cogently, although it helps if the readers has SOME technical knowledge) and chronicling the life. While indubitably a warts-and-all portrait, it largely (so far) achieves what Kelley told various interviewers his aim was: creating a portrait of Monk that counters the mythic accounts of Thelonious the eccentric, or mad genius, or just plain weirdo. Diagnosing Monk as bipolar and providing both engaging stories of his ups and dispiriting examples of his downs, he's coming pretty close to presenting a biographical man in full, if you will. Kelley's style is of no small interest; while largely straight, it sometimes veers into the casual/colloquial, with references to family as "folks" and phrases like "jazz guys." Kelley's a clear and solid enough writer that these usages not only don't jar, but they're even apt to make the reader feel more at home in the text. His language also points to his conviction with respect to presenting Monk as a Great African-American Musician, which conviction irked some of the folks who left reader reviews at Amazon; one dude complains that Kelley has a "leftist/racial grievance axe to grind" while another finger-wags at the "left-wing socio-babble." Yeah, Kelley sure has a lot of nerve implying that those cops in Delaware who kicked the crap out of him FOR NO REASON other than maybe he was in a car driven by a white woman were racist; I bet it's Kelley who's the REAL racist. Heh. By the same token, however, at every point when Kelley insists that a civil rights offense "deeply affected" Monk, the lack of corroboration for this is made especially conspicuous by the missing footnote. As I said, I'm not done with the book yet, so I can't definitively talk about this issue in terms of projection just yet. But even if I could, I'd be inclined to forgive it as a reasonably harmless affectation on the part of an otherwise largely blameless writer, researcher, and champion. (My only real argument so far is with Kelley's apparent eagerness to go along with sources who would disparage producer Orrin Keepnews, who did, after all, have no small part in shepherding the absolute classic records Brilliant Corners and Monk's Music to completion.) And of course the whole thing has given me an excellent excuse to embark on an ever-pleasurable orgy of Monk listening; I've loved the man's music from the first beautifully skewed note of his I ever heard.