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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Droll Humor, August 22, 2000
This review is from: Hail Babylon!: NPR's Road Scholar Goes in Search of the American City (Paperback)
Review of the book: "Hail Babylon! !: NPR's road scholar goes in the search of the American city." by Andrei Codrescu Picador USA Paperback Edition: June 1999 Review written August 22, 2000, Encino, California by Ileana Costea, Ph.D., Professor, California State University, Northridge (CSUN)
If you like to travel, or if you do not and only like to read about places on this world while on an armchair in your living room; if you like the US or dislike it; if you think high about the East Coast or the West Coast, or vice-versa, read this most recent book by Andrei Codrescu: Hail Babylon!: NPR's road scholar goes in the search of the American city." You will like it. Well, but I worn you, you must have a good sense of humor to enjoy it and not be easily shocked by pictures like the one on page 39, taken in the streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras. (The book also contains some beautiful or intriguing photos by Walker Evans and David Graham and others...)
For many years (about 30) since my arrival in the US I kept asking myself what is the best way to describe our sense of humor, that of people from Romania (because yes, Andrei Codrescu is from the city Sibiu in Transylvania, and he mentions it in the introduction to his book, and I also come from Dracula country) or other Eastern European countries. Now I have my answer for I found it well expressed on the front cover of the book, in the statement made by John Berendt, author of the "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil": irreverent and droll. In this book, says John Berendt, Andrei Codrescu is his usual self, informative, irreverent and droll. The same Andrei that travells in a red convertible limousine through the US in the movie he made some time ago, called "Road Scholar" (same sense of humor, same powerful way of perceiving things ...)
So, if you saw that movie made by Andrei Codrescu, a feature-length documentary (mentioned in his book on page 177) about strange Americans and you liked it, you will also love this book. If you missed the movie, read the book, it looks at American people, places and "phenomena" with the same eyes. The "Rhode Scholar" becomes the "Road Scholar" (note the pun!) who travels throughout the US not taking the things, people and places he sees too seriously, as he does not take himself too seriously (a mistake that many people from the "Ivory Tower" do, for which "not laughing" = "seriousness".) For me, orginally from the same country as Andrei, the book and the movie seem so very familiar, for I would have most probably observed the same things, and looked at them with the same sense of perception and "strange" humor and LOL (to use a computer jargon term meaning "Lots of Laughter").
If you want to have a good taste of the book before buying it I suggest spend a few minutes to read a very short story ("Christina of Pasadena," two-pages long, pp.165-167) in a bookstore sipping from a cup of coffee... ). It will give you the flavor of the book. In this short story the author looks at Southern California as a God abandoned Heaven (one point of view, the East Coast one, but you can understand the subtleties pro and con this view in a book by David Rieff - Los Angeles, Simon and Schuster, 1991). Andrei is irreverent about the West as he is about the East Coast, and about Paris, France (a city I love, but I would also be the first not to disagree with Andrei that the Parisians let you humiliate yourself for an hour before you find out directions in the street from them, p. 234). However, what Californian can disagree with Andrei's statement that after ten in most places there is no soul to see in the streets, and driving around greater Los Angeles area, "SoCal malls look like badly glued postage stamps about to be blown away any minute by Santa Ana". (I never said it to myself this way, but now that he did, I am sure I felt it very much this way all along ...) I thought the way the author describes the French-accented girl he met in a small Greek restaurant as "suffering from happiness" (as many Californians do...LOL), and his amusing observation at discovering her predestinate first name was Christina ("God made Her sign") were hilarious. (All women will enjoy this!) Of course the author had to insert some verse too as to remind us that he is a professor of English at Louisiana University, and a poet, which sum the story up:
"On a faux-Greek restaurant near Pasadena Alit the Christ of Happiness Christina."
This is not his only poetry in the book, for one of the chapters ("Boston") is a poem, and there too he ties his American experiences with thinking about Romania (the driver of a car in which Andrei hitchhiked to Longan Airport was working for an organization who "could and did" parachute former nationals back behind the Iron Curtain where they earned a hefty paycheck for blowing up bridges". But well, Andrei preferred to get back to his bed in California. At least then, for later he went to Romania and wrote his view on the events December '89 in a book called "The Whole in the Flag:An Exile's Story of Return and Revolution."
The author is indeed a gifted social critic, as he is presented on the back cover of the book. However, he does it in a better way than most, for rather than making a lengthy boring analysis he presents it all by sharp droll observations. In "Hail Babylon!," as well as in his movie, "Road Scholar," Andrei Codrescu gives us the perspective of the ex-foreigner, who ends up in becoming a keener chronicler of the American spirit than many born in this country. With his last short story, "New York" he clearly shows that foreigners know this country better than the natives. He finds himself in New York, on an assignment by Conde Nast Traveller which commissioned hordes of investigators to various cities on the planet to determine rudeness levels (p. 233). Andrei selects an odd-shaped, strange-looking landmark, the Flairton Building, completed in 1902 from plans drawn by Burham & Company, which he believes captures all the humor and the pathos of the metropolis. He starts asking people in the streets if they know where this building is, by showing them a photograph of it. All the people he met but one knew well where it was, a woman from Kiev, and Algerian shop owner, a Chinese, a Frenchman, a Haitian... But he insisted to find a New Yorker, and when he did, well, this one did not have the faintest idea where the building was (pp. 231-240).
I liked the book for many reasons apart from its sense of humor and for recognizing myself in it as an Eastern European observer of America. Because it is breathing knowledge, by mentioning names of people and phenomena I knew about (Milan Kundera, the Czech novelist living in France, Ionescu, who "wasn't French for nothing. And, of course, he was Romanian," Brasaii, a famous photographer, said to be of Romanian origin too, Erza Pound, Walt Withman, Louis Mumford, the Dada movement, etc). Because I learned about others whom (shame on me) I had no idea about, like Walker Evans. (To find out more about this photographer's work of America of the Depression years, and Cuba, I browsed through a wonderful big-format book in the Midnight Bookstore on The 3rd Street promenade in Santa Monica and I will definitely go and see the collection at the J. Paul Getty museum just five minutes by car from my house). Because it shows the America I so differently imagined when I came here in 1973 in Los Angeles, when I could not find the skyscrapers I saw in the movies of my childhood, and that most people from that part of the world have such an unreal image wonderfully suggested by the author's mentioning the question that he recalls his uncle asked long ago: "How could there be a Depression in America when there are so many cars?" Because the author's observations about our urban landscapes (and I have an interest in urbanism from my background in architecture from then the only Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in Romania, "Ion Mincu") makes us think that it is time to reevaluate them. Because you will discover or find cities you know or read about in the light you think about them or a new one: "Boston is a kind of Rome. Only colder" (p. 225). "New Orleans is a creature of the river, much as Egypt (before the Aswan Dam) used to be a creature of the Nile" (p. 4). "New Orleans is in many ways the opposite of Jerusalem. It is most definitely not a holy city" (p. 5). "San Antonio in microcosm mirrors America" (p.95). "Oxford, Mississippi, the town of writers - I did not know that ... (of which the most famous was William Falkner) (p. 57). The fascinating city of Las Vegas where the card dealer the author meets is Polish. And, I was about to forget, because of the fact that at times I recognize the Romanian way of writing, which I miss in English books, permitting to start sentences with the "interdicted" "And" (or at least this is my laic perception!) Two sentences start with "And" (p. 233) and I find it so pleasant to read the continuation ... his way, my way, the familiar way...
This is a book by the only person from Romania that my colleagues "in the Ivory Tower" have heard about
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great insights into great American cities and places, October 22, 2001
Mr. Thomas Dowe (Houston, TX United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Hail Babylon!: NPR's Road Scholar Goes in Search of the American City (Paperback)
Andrei Codrescu's sharp observational wit is put to good use in this insightful book. Mr. Codrescu, as always, looks under the rocks most of us don't even see, and then he finds gem after gem. I am from San Antonio, covered in the book, and next time I go back, I'm definitely looking under some of the rocks Mr. Codrescu did. The book is funny, witty, appreciative of the places he visits and really contains great historical and social information. I would especially recommend it if you're moving to one of the places covered in the book. It'll give you a leg up on the city your moving to or visiting.
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Hail Babylon!: NPR's Road Scholar Goes in Search of the American City
Hail Babylon!: NPR's Road Scholar Goes in Search of the American City by Andrei Codrescu (Paperback - June 19, 1999)
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