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American Rococo: Essays on the Edge Paperback – March 16, 2017
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The Amazon Book Review
Author interviews, book reviews, editors picks, and more. Read it now
- "Food for thought, elegantly prepared."--Kirkus Reviews
- "Reminds one of an etching that has been precisely scribed to create a sharp effect."--Michael Collins, author of St George and the Dragons: The Making of English Identity
- "Imagine a conversation over thirteen evenings with a perceptive and erudite companion."--James Lande, author of Yang Shen: The God from the West
About the Author
American essayist and novelist based in China since 1994. Writing philosophy: downmarket, big concept, provocative, discriminating, outrageous, creepy, sordid. Ballard, Beckett, Borges, Dick, Kafka, Hesse, Melville, Mishima, Sade are influences.
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American novelist and essayist Isham Cook scores quite well in all three respects. His latest book, ‘American Rococo: Essays on the Edge’ is nothing if not eclectic, containing reflections on subjects ranging from the smartphone to Noh theatre, from John Dowland to Philip Glass and from Airbnb to atheists. Several essays are, however, connected by an interest in the human body, covering topics including sexually transmitted disease in Shakespearean London, Japanese konyoku onsen (nude mixed-bathing hot springs), and the features of People of Walmart. Indeed, in the essay which gives the book its title, Cook finds a “peculiarly American … rococo beauty” in the fleshy swirls of the morbidly obese.
This is characteristic of Cook’s willingness to shock and provoke. Sometimes this can work well. Any American teenager tempted to sext would certainly refrain from doing so after reading Cook’s account of how American sex laws (notably the Adam Walsh Child Act of 2006) actually work.
On the other hand, Cook can easily tip into preachiness (condemning monogamy in ‘My Problem with Atheists’) or even downright silliness (‘The Brest Etiquette Project’).
In the end, whilst many are likely to be impressed by Cook’s scholarship (for example in challenging the standard account of the development of the English language) at least as many are likely to be alienated by what they take to be his libertarian, or even libertine, views.
Part of the draw of American Rococo, besides its maverick heterodoxy, is the juxtaposition of the incongruous: seashells, obesity, graffiti, ghettos, nude hot springs and Japanese theater, atheists and family-values conservatives, Shakespeare and syphilis, and the dangers of juvenile sexting posed by the Adam Walsh act. Each article sent me searching for more on the subject - and thus expanded my mind with new notions that pushed out many of the timeworn banalities crowded into that unused space. Engaging the epee of Isham Cooks's mind with my little wooden sword forced my mind back into the attack, parry and riposte of younger days of active thought.
Of particular interest to me was Isham's Basho-like "Narrow Road..." pilgrimage through the onsen of Japan - the public mixed-sex hot spring baths common in the islands - and his comparison of them to the mainstays of Japanese theater, the popular Kabuki, and the more formal Noh. His imagery loosed my senses to scramble over the terrain of sight, sound, and smell in old places nearly forgotten where "on a summer evening long ago I lay soaking in the cloudy water of such a hot spring pool, feeling its rough, unfinished cement floor beneath my feet; the odors mixed of the rotten-egg sulphur water, and the camphor mosquito coils smoldering beside the closed door, swelling in my head; the sway of the cicada's summer song seducing me into sleep and, beside me in the pool, a dark, slender girl with long black hair, and black eyes shining with eagerness not yet diminished by disappointment."
Also of interest was Isham's article contrasting Philip Glass, and the East West fusion that is Tan Dun, in character as well as in music (you may recall the extraordinary score Tan Dun wrote for Crunchy Tiger Hotpot Dragon or, if you insist, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.) Tan approaches "each composition as a new experiment, and in the process unleashing an endless procession of new possibilities and sounds never imagined before.... It is breathtaking and moving - or maddening, depending on your tolerance for the acoustically novel.... He is able to create new sounds altogether from the simplest of materials - paper, water, stones, metals - and animates them with an infinite repertoire of textures and rhythms drawn from non-Western traditions.... Each new concerto is an event.... He writes Chinese music with an American sensibility and American music with a Chinese sensibility."
Isham's article on the lost English consort school of chamber music helped me to appreciate the accomplishments of musicians who recreate ancient Western music on period instruments. I also learned why never to use Airbnb, the advantages of baring breasts upon first acquaintance, and the character of theaters and audiences in Shakespeare’s time. The article Multiply, Cascade, Explode... reminded me why I won’t delve very deeply into abstract theories of literary fiction like deconstruction and poststructuralism (missed them the first time around and we have since moved on). The merging of ancient origins in modern English helps to explain that bane of ESL students: "Why does English have so many d--- words for the same thing?!). And more.
Imagine a conversation over thirteen evenings with a perceptive and erudite companion, sort of like being in the company of non-fiction Scheherazade as she spins her tales, or at a dinner with, not Andre, but with Isham, where there are no clichés, and you'll have something of an idea of what it will be like to read American Rococo.
So, I obviously find his voice both lacking and annoying. While I will stand behind what I wrote above I also know that many will find some substance in the essays simply because they hear his voice different from the way I do. If you have never read Cook and for some reason you want to (I don't mean that negatively, I just mean that perhaps someone recommended him so you want to read him) I don't think this is a particularly bad book to start with. The things he touches on that are more narrative and less pseudo-intellectual posturing are quite interesting. If they cause you to consider them independent of the essay then you will have gained something. If you're a fan or at least have liked his other work then I see nothing in this volume that would likely cause you to dislike it, so I would recommend this to you as well. If you have not liked his previous work or you have no compelling reason to read this then I would suggest reading almost anything else available, especially if you want to be mentally stimulated and challenged to (re)consider ideas or events.
Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.
Most recent customer reviews
Rococo may be defined as “ornate or florid in speech, literary style, etc.”. The author begins by going into the Byzantine scrolls and nuances of law as it...Read more
On the positive, If you are clever enough to decifer what Cook is saying then there is enough...Read more