Riverhead Books; $29.95
There was a time when the word "awesome" was reserved for what we felt when we peered into the Grand Canyon or witnessed the force of a hurricane. Today, "awesome" is an appropriate response to everything from "How"s the new Justin Timberlake album?" to "I'll call you next week."
Similarly, when everyone from Tony LaRussa to Will Ferrell to Stephen Hawking is a "genius," the whole concept of genius becomes virtually meaningless. Kurt Cobain, of course, is one of those people to whom the genius label has been applied liberally, especially since his suicide in 1994.
Journals, which reproduces portions of his most intimate writings from his high school days until shortly before his death, was supposed to shed light on his genius for those of us who didn't grasp it solely on the basis of Nirvana's music.
Genius? Maybe not. But what Journals makes abundantly clear is that Cobain was very bright, very talented and very troubled. Some readers may understandably see nothing more than a disturbed young man obsessively making lists of favorite bands, albums and songs and indulging in violent and perverse fantasies. ("I would only wear a tie dyed shirt if it were dyed with the urine of Phil Collins and the blood of Gerry [sic] Garcia.") Others, particularly people with artistic backgrounds, will recognize something else: a smart and gifted kid struggling to come to terms with all the bits and pieces in his head, the light and the dark, noble and ignoble alike, and to make something worthwhile of them.
Journals is especially instructive to young writers who are encouraged to "just write" and not worry about spelling or content, to simply empty the mind onto the page. This, folks, is how you do it.
Journals reproduces Cobain's notebooks in his own hand, and yes, it gets tedious to read page after page of anyone's handwriting. (The more difficult to read passages are set in type at the back of the book.) No, the material doesn't shed much light on Cobain's relationships with Courtney Love or Dave Grohl or other important people in his life, but it occasionally illuminates his ideas about the band ("Nirvana can't decide whether they want to be punk or REM") and his own obsessions with rape and unnatural sex acts with TV stars. And, let's face it: It's fun to see the lyrics to the songs that defined a decade of rock music take shape.
In the end, Journals raises some interesting questions about artistry, if not genius; if Cobain had gotten his demons under control, could he have continued to create extraordinary music? Sadly, we'll never know. -Ken Honeywell
City Lights; $11.95
David Felsenstein lives in a world of his own making. Most of us do; but for Felsenstein, this world is so insular it is ultimately dangerous. Mark Swartz's debut novel, Instant Karma, the story of one man's increasingly disturbed and yet strangely insightful journey inwards, is written in the first-person narrative of David Felsenstein's journal entries, logged during his daily visits to the Chicago Public Library.
A self-professed anarchist, Swartz's Felsenstein weaves his own philosophical observations with supporting text (in the form of footnotes - 202 of these in all) from the likes of scholars, novelists, philosophers, artists and such - in short, authors whose books he finds on the library's shelves. He casts a wide net, and we, too, are easily caught up in it.
Felsenstein, who recalls showing up for a job interview in a Brooks Brothers suit with a paper bag over his head, likens terrorism to art, and in particular, points to Dadaism as his guiding light, for the very fact that it speaks to no guiding principle or rules whatsoever. This becomes part of his justification for his intention of "liberating" the books of the library in an act of bibliophilic martyrdom. In his own words, he admits, "Destruction of the Harold Washington Public Library will mean the loss of 4.5 million U.S. and 2 million British patents; a Civil War collection including photos, letters and 2,000 books; 800 first and rare editions by Chicago authors Ö" and on it goes.
Felsenstein's fascination with the Tibetan monks who visit the library to install a sand mandala provides an ironic juxtaposition to this grandiose scheme, but somehow Felsenstein connects them: "My research has led me to the conclusion that anarchism and Tibetan Buddhism express essentially the same truths," he writes on Feb. 1. "They eschew sentiment and the fear of death for art and the acceptance of death. Things deteriorate and return to dust; the energy they once contained flows back into the universe."
This is what both infuriates and endears us to Felsenstein; his position is arguable, on the one hand, but ridiculous on the other. And this captures the very essence of Instant Karma: It intoxicates us with its satirical brilliance. -Julianna Thibodeaux
The World at Night and Dark Star
Random House Trade Paperbacks; $11.95 and $12.95
The imaginative virtues of historical fiction can be considerable. George Garrett's Death of the Fox, about the fall of Sir Walter Raleigh, is a model of the genre, a book that recreates Elizabethan England right down to the rhythms of its remarkable style of speaking.
It's difficult to think of a nonfiction work capable of so completely immersing us in such a distant world. Yet, for the most part, historical fiction lacks a certain contemporary urgency. It may be great escapism, but what does it say about the world we live in now?
Over the course of the past decade, Alan Furst has successfully blended the rigor and detail of historical fiction with another time-honored form, the espionage thriller, to come up with a series of remarkable novels that transcend both genres.
Furst's books, set in Europe during the rise of Nazism, Stalin and the early days of occupation, are complex studies of how people adjust and adapt to the brutalities - psychological as much as physical - of daily life in a fascist state.
Random House publishes handsome softcover editions of Furst's work. I found my way into his world via two books, The World at Night and Dark Star.
Set in 1940 Paris, The World at Night follows the troubled trajectory of a French B-movie producer whose fortunes ebb when the Nazis occupy France, but who then finds himself drawn, almost against his will, into a mission for British intelligence. Furst's evocation of Paris during the occupation, the ways in which personal histories are altered or expunged before the force of a new order, is chillingly matter of fact.
In Dark Star, Furst introduces us to a Russian journalist who is dragooned into serving as a spymaster for Stalin's NKVD. A dense, ambitious fiction about the intersection of secrets and survival, this book takes us through the long night of 1937 Europe: Moscow, Berlin, Prague and Paris provide the geographical reference points for a man who finds his life seized by Kafka-esque forces for whom existence is little more than a series of murderous manipulations.
Furst's 1930s Europe has an almost cinematic immediacy. This not only makes his characters accessible to readers generations removed from the situations he describes, it readily invites comparisons with the politics of our own situation. If you read Furst's history as metaphor, you begin to wonder about how easily, for example, Americans accepted the contrived nationalism of words like "homeland."
In a matter of weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, this neologism seemed as if it had been commonplace for years. Sometimes entire countries can experience something like being hit by a truck. Change, something we think of as gradual, a process, is sudden instead. In situations like these, "normalcy" becomes a watchword. In the world of Alan Furst, it's a mask. -David Hoppe