Dedicated to classics and hits.

Monday, September 29, 2014

British Clubs and Societies 1580-1800: The Origins of an Associational World by Peter Clark

British Clubs and Societies 1580-1800:
The Origins of an Associational World
by Peter Clark
Oxford Studies in Social History
Oxford University Press, 2000

  True, I get off on reading expensive books.  Not owning them, I'm not much for possessing things, but I am a demon for the possession of expensive knowledge.  At 150 USD new, British Clubs and Societies 1580-1800: The Origins of an Associational World, well qualifies in that department, and it was a main stay of my Amazon Wish List for nearly a decade until I located a copy at the Geisel Library at UCSD and requested it via the San Diego Public Library.

  The subject may at first blush sound obscure, but it is an area of interest both to savvy political commentators (Alexis de Tocqueville and Jurgen Habermas to name two) and conspiracy nut jobs (Freemasons, Illuminati) alike.  In his famous Democracy in America treatise, Alexis de Tocqueville posits that the peculiar nature of American democracy stems from an abundance of "private associations."  By his reckoning, private associations were the lattice work upon which the garlands of democracy were hung.  Two centuries later, German philosopher Jurgen Habermas placed the development of the "public sphere" at the center of his wide ranging theories regarding the centrality of communications at the core of the experience of modernity.

  On the lighter side of the scale, you have the pop cultural obsession with Freemasons and Illuminati.  According to a single reference in this book, the Illuminati were a sub-organizations of Freemasons in Europe, and did not figure in the British experience (England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, the Colonies of England and their successors.)  Finding sober information about the Freemasons is tough, and there are plenty of fanciful accounts of their origins and influence.  The Illuminati are even more difficult to track, but a working knowledge of German and French would be a first step.  The absence of Illuminati dealings in the English speaking world makes English language sources on the subject questionable.

  Clark presents a well accounted description of the rise of  his "Associational World."  With some roots in the country-side tradition of county feasts, the associational world was a quintescentially urban experience with a distinct London center.  The earliest roots came in the mid 18th century, with an explosion between 1750 and 1800.  This explosion is illustrated with actual charts and graphs.  For example, in England alone, the Number of Clubs went from 200 in 1750 to 1200 by 1800.

  These clubs hand numerous different areas of interest.  They ranged from early 18th century groups of men interested in science and ancient civilization, to the more popular Mason type fraternal lodges that mixed social networking with heavy drinking and rituals, to the associations of the working class which were often specifically set up to pay for burial benefits and poor relief.   There were also many morally focused associations set up by wealthier people to "help the poor,"

  Clark makes it clear that the groundwork was laid by the "loosening up" of rules by the King in the areas of freedom of the press and the ability for small groups to meet privately.  This last point may seem obvious, but Monarchs were often quite defensive about groups meeting privat

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Show Review: Way Over Yonder Fest, Day 1: Local Natives, Lucinda Williams, Houndmouth, Bootstraps, Moses Sumney

Lucinda Williams played the Way Over Yonder Festival at the Santa Monica Pier

Show Review:
Way Over Yonder Fest, Day 1:
 Local Natives, Lucinda Williams, Houndmouth, Bootstraps, Moses Sumney
Santa Monica Pier

   Loyal readers will have certainly noticed a precipitous decline in the amount of writing about music  here.   This is a result of the combination of a number of factors:  Having said everything I have to say about "local music" (true for a number of years), some undisclosed changes in my participation in the record business, and an objective decline in the amount of shows attended.  It is a sad reality of this blog that the often exciting events in my life, as a criminal defense lawyer and record label owner must go undisclosed on this blog, leaving a steady diet of old book reviews in their stead.

  Yesterday I found myself on the Santa Monica pier for the first night of the two night Way Over Yonder Festival, a collaboration between the Echo and the Newport Folk Festival.  This was the second year for this festival- last year I saw Calexico, Justin Townes Earle and Jessica Pratt.  This year the main attraction was Lucinda Williams.
Bootstraps, played the Way Over Yonder festival- handsome lads indeed.

  Arrived at 430 PM sharp to see Bootstraps, a mainstream ready indie act, with radio friendly hits on tap, a professional stage presence and male model looks (literally) that is somehow label-less and playing the opening slot.  They had a Top 40 rock sound that reminded me of other Top 40 Adult Contemporary acts like The Script or The Fray.  The scuttlebutt among industry types in the crowd was that they had parted ways with indie leaning Capitol Records sub-label Harvest, which, if true, makes me wonder what the fucking fuck they are even doing at Harvest if they don't know what to do with Bootstraps.    I mean, they aren't in my income bracket, but if I had a spare hundred grand I wouldn't hesitate to try to get their song California on commercial rock/adult contemporary radio.
Houndmouth played the Way Over Yonder Festival at the Santa Monica Pier

   Second act was Houndmouth (not Houndsmouth, apparently) which I took in from the back of the pier while scarfing down an excellent fried chicken sandwich from the "Peaches" food truck.  During this episode it was clear that once again a show at the Santa Monica pier had delivered A plus people watching- which is  nowadays my primary criterion for whether or not I attend a show.  Houndmouth also had a highly professional stage presence, male and female vocals, and an accessible rock/country/americana sound.

Moses Sumney played the first day of Way Over Yonder fest.

  Moses Sumney was a bit of head scratcher as the sunset set pick- solo for much of the set with some accompaniment on acoustic guitar, he mixed singer songwriter material with more esoteric drone and electronic influenced music, none of which seemed to particularly impress the mellow crowd.

  The highlight was the set by Lucinda Williams.  I'm not a fan, but I know a priceless opportunity when I hear about one, and seeing Lucinda Williams play the Santa Monica pier is a priceless opportunity.  She opened strong with a couple of older hits, then veered into newer material that featured a heavy blues-rocks influence, and many, many, many lengthy guitar solos.  She also read her lyrics off of a lectern just to her right.  God bless her.  I have never seen so many middle aged white ladies dance with abandon as I did last night.

  Headliners, and Pitchfork approved, alt rock bros Local Natives took the stage to billowing clouds of pot smoke.   I've managed to totally avoid their rise to prominence. I'm not saying I hate Ian Cohen and everything he stands for, but his seal of approval was critical to me deciding to avoid them for the last few years.  But what can you say- they do know how to put on a show, they have an unpretentious stage presence and despite struggles with the sound mix, it was easy to see why people are into them.   If they are ever looking for a new band name, might I humbly suggest "Arcade Weekend?"  Good for them though, they have seemingly earned their success, and appear poised to become a top rank touring rock band.

  Again, the Santa Monica Pier earned high marks for people watching and just generally being an amazing place to see a live show.  I highly recommend it, and if you are so inclined, get down there today to see Jackson Browne play his hits.  18 million records sold IN THE US ALONE.  Running On Empty- it should be dope.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Artamonov Business (1927) by Maxim Gorky

Maxim Gorky: literary favorite of the Russian Communist regime

Book Review
The Artamonov Business (1927)
by Maxim Gorky

   Perhaps best described as a Russian version of a multi-generational family late Victorian book by Anthony Trollope grafted onto a Russian scene, Gorky's characters are unabashedly earthy, with a "just liberated from serfdom by the Czar" feel.   Like We by Yevgeny Zamytin, The Artmonov Business was tough to track down  Given how familiar the plot of the multi-generational family owning a factory feels to anyone familiar with 19th or 20th century English/American/French literature, it is surprising that The Artmonov Business isn't better known, but that may relate to Gorky's status as a pet of the Russian Communist dictatorship.

   Along with the earthiness comes a lustiness, which certainly is not reminiscent from late-Victorian/Edwardian English prose. Gorky's characters drink, carouse, kill bears for fun, screw, etc, etc, etc. In one particularly memorable scene the head of the second generation of the family heads to all Russian trade fair and goes on a week long bender, drinking and whoring like a world champion.

  The Communists would ultimately wipe out the nascent industrial class of Czarist Russia, and that gives the Artmonov's and their linen factory a certain elegiac quality, like a glimpse into a vanished past.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

We (1924) by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Cover detail from the Penguin Classics edition of We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Book Review
We (1924)
by Yevgeny Zamyatin

 We was a tough get- had to request it from the UCSD library, and the version that showed up was a 2006(!) translation with a foreword by the writer Bruce Sterling.  We holds the double distinction of being the first dystopian novel- a genre that is currently enjoying a huge wave of popularity due to franchise level hits like The Hunger Games.  For many years, We was known only via a version published in Czechoslovakia.  That edition made it to London, where it was likely read by both George Orwell (1984) and Aldous Huxley (Brave New World.)

  The foreword and translator's introduction point out that Zamyatin was a player in the literary circle of Maxim Gorky, one of the few Russian writers to make it through the revolution with the approval of the new government. Unlike Gorky, Zamyatin put forward a book that was easy to read as a critique of the incipient totalitarianism of the Communist regime.

  We has many of the features that define the dystopian novel: A world where rationalism has won out over feelings, an all seeing government that brooks no dissent, characters with  numbers instead of names, a male/female relationship that breaks down the boundary of the state: It's all there.  It's an obvious pick for people who are obsessed with The Hunger Games and want to win dystopian fan points, also for fans of early science fiction andddd of course it's a must for Russian Literature buffs. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Sound and the Fury (1929) by William Faulkner

Of course James Franco made a movie version of The Sound and the Fury this year (2014) and cast himself as Benjy Compson

Book Review
The Sound and the Fury (1929)
 by William Faulkner

   The Sound and the Fury is a well recognized classic of experimental modernism, typically listed alongside works of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf as exemplars of the narrative technique of "stream of consciousness," though The Sound and the Fury only uses a "true" stream of consciousness technique for one of the four parts of this book.  The Sound and the Fury is also notable because Faulkner is an AMERICAN modernist, and because he writes about the south.  I can think of several prior examples, but Faulkner is typically credited with the invention of Southern Literature.

  I would suspect that due to the combination of modernist technique/American parentage/Southern provenance, The Sound and the Fury is widely taught in college level literature courses.  How ironic (or fitting?) that the first hundred pages, he stream of consciousness ramblings of the mentally challenged Benjamin "Benjy" Compson should be such a famous example of American modernist literature.  One might well ask- as does the writer for the capsule summary of this title in 1001 Books to Read Before You Die, why the first narrator of the American south in world literature is a retard obsessed with his sister's dirty panties, but perhaps to ask is to miss the point of modernist literature and literature period.

   Themes of virginity, incest, failure and suicide permeate the four portions of The Sound and the Fury.  The pure stream of consciousness of the first portion subsides into a more conventional last 3 quarters of the novel, with the last section even adopting a classic third person narrator for the segment involving Dilsey, the Compson families long-suffering African American maid.  The "difficult" tag so affixed to The Sound and the Fury really only fits for that first portion- afterwards the reader can expect a relatively placid stroll through the caverns of incest, suicide and madness that Faulkner used to create his world of southern literature.


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Fat Girl (2001) d. Catherine Breillat

Anais Reboux and Roxane Mesquida in Fat Girl, directed by Catherine Breillat

Movie Review
Fat Girl (2001)
 d. Catherine Breillat
Criterion Collection #259

  Fat Girl is a film that retains the capacity to shock a viewer nearly fifteen years after the initial showing.  Like many films, Fat Girl was, and continues to be, controversial because of the frank depiction of what we would call "underage" girls having sex.  Anais, the Fat Girl of the title, and played by Anais Reboux, is the 13 year old younger sister (by two years) of the thinner, more attractive Elena (played by Roxane Mesquida.)  On vacation, the two engage in some frankly sexual banter, before Elena promptly hooks up with Fernando, an older law student.  Elena and Fernando start out with a little light anal sex when Elena balks at going "all the way," "It's a proof of your love." he whispers to her as a horrified Anais listens to her sister howl.

   Things escalate from there, with Fernando giving Elena an antique ring and promise of engagement in exchange for her virginity.  Fernando's Mom shows up to reclaim the heirloom, Anais and Elena's Mother is furious and drives them home.  They stop for the night at a rest stop, and an axe murderer kills Elena and their Mom, and drags Anais into the woods where he rapes her.  The next morning, she is pulled stumbling out of the woods, and denies being raped.  ROLL CREDITS.

  Breillat moves the story along at a brisk pace, more sitcom than elegiac French feature.  Anais is simply a witness to her sister's immolation, she is alternately loved and abused by the more attractive Elena, and in an intimate moment she says that the parents play them off against one another.  The ambiguity of the rape/not rape at the hands of the crazed axe murderer inevitably leads someone watching to go back and reconsider the rest of the film.  Perhaps what at first seemed like a moderately harmless sexual adventure is meant to represent something much deeper and darker. Or perhaps it's just a crazy ass ending!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Harriet Hume (1929) by Rebecca West

Book Review
Harriet Hume (1929)
by Rebecca West

 The 1920s is actually the first decade in the 1001 Books Project that just seems insane.  277 titles in, the titles published in the 1920s are almost a fourth of that total (57 posts with 1920s literature label, 7 of which are Criterion Collection films.  Harriet Hume is actually the fiftieth title from the 1001 Books Project that I've tackled. There are probably another dozen or so books left to read, including Remberance of Things Past (3000 pages) and Ulysses (900 pages.)  Those two books are the functional equivalent of another 13 volumes, which means it's more like another 30 books to go, on top of the 50 already read.

  I don't believe this huge jump in volume is some kind of fluke.  I think there was drastic expansion of the field of "literature" in the 1920s that was the product of an increase in people "going to college" in core western markets, combined with the spread of the publishing industry to hitherto untapped markets for books.  It is also likely that the increase in the volume of literature was directly related to the good fortune that many people experienced in the west prior to the stock market crash of 1929 and subsequent Great Depression.

   Rebecca West is an author working out of the literary center of the world (London) but with an Irish (i.e. outsiders) perspective. She was very much involved in the London literary scene, going so far as to bear the illegitimate child of H.G. Wells, and she lands titles on the 1001 Books List in multiple decades.  The other 1920s title that Harriet Hume resembles is Orlando by Virignia Woolf, which also introduces an element of fantasy into an otherwise non-fantastical story about people ad their relationships.

  In Harriet Hume, the title character has an honest-to-God ability to know the thoughts of her paramour Arnold Condorex, a young politician who rises and falls within the context of the novel.  Although the publishers of the Virago Press "Women and Fiction" edition are keen to compare her to Robert Louis Stevenson in terms of her ability to be fantastical, I again, track back to Orlando, where the fantastic element is muted by the very real human emotions expressed by the characters.

 Here it's the same way, Harriet surely does have a fairy like quality, but Condorex is a 20s literature archetype: the striving man on the move trying to escape his penniless roots.   He is hardly a Prince Charming, whereas Hume is like a precursor to the manic pixie dream girl.  Were Harriet Hume written by a man, you might call her character insulting to women, but Hume is obviously written with great sympathy by West.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Trial (1925) by Franz Kafka

Orson Welles did a movie version of The Trial, by Franz Kafka

Book Review
The Trial (1925)
by Franz Kafka

   Hard to figure how Kafka gets three titles into 1001 Books to Read Before You Die and none of them are The Metamorphosis or The Hunger Artist.  I'm under the impression that every high school student in the western world reads The Metamorphosis in high school.  Maybe just my high school?  The book I checked out from the library had The Castle and The Trial in the same volume, with The Castle (published in 1926) first and The Trial (published in 1925) second. It's easy to see why you read the two novels in the same volume: They are both in an unfinished state, and they have stylistic and thematic similarities.  Oh, and the main character in The Castle is called K. and the main character in The Trial is Josef K.

  I would argue that The Castle, with its self-contained snowy village and remote and inaccessible castle, is more fully realized as a locale then the nameless city of The Trial.  That said, as a criminal defense lawyer (Kafka was trained as a lawyer) the nameless criminal trial facing Josef K. struck a resonant chord with me personally.  The idea of being dragged into an endless cycle of criminal charges with no resolution is a fair description of the story of my professional career.  I regularly represent clients that have cases that go on for years at a time, so only the ending of The Trial (Josef K. has his throat slit.) came as a surprise. 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Reception of Jane Austen and Walter Scott by Annika Bautz

Jane Austen has transcended literature and entered the world as a pop culture icon, with "Movie Versions" of her books dominating book stores in waves.

The Reception of Jane Austen and Walter Scott
A Comparative Longitudinal Study
 by Annika Bautz
Continuum Reception Studies
Published by Continuum Books, 2007

   One of the central questions of early nineteenth century literature is why Jane Austen is so popular today while Walter Scott is forgotten, when it was the exact opposite when both authors were writing at the same time in the early 19th century.  This reversal of fortune intrigued me several years back when I was reading both authors as part of the 1001 Books project.  I've actually looked into the rise of Jane Austen before, when I read "Janes Fame" which took a more anecdotal approach to this same question of "the rise of Jane Austen."

  Bautz makes it clear that Austen was in no way ignored upon initial publication- writing anonymously, at a time when both women and the novel had low status in the eyes of critics, Austen's books were singled out by reviewers- at times being the ONLY novel reviewed in the few literary periodicals of the early 20th century.  Scott, on the other hand, was thought to be such a genius that his books transcended the "genre" of the novel, and were treated as either a new type of literature or a novel without compare.

  In the period after the initial publication, Scott was above everyone else, and Austen was typically compared favorably to other Authors, but clearly underneath Scott.   Walter Scott dominated the 18th century.  What is often forgotten by contemporary writers opining on the subject is that Scott continued to be extremely popular into the 20th century- and this is an important point- he was more popular with general audiences into the 1920s and 30s, but critics deserted him a generation earlier, demonstrating that popular support exceeded critical support.

   This corresponds more with the popular conception of critics "leading" popular opinion than do the circumstances around his rise to prominence.  When his first novels were published, Scott already had a strong reputation as a poet, which was seen as "real" literature compared to the novel.  His first novel, Waverley, was a huge sales success, but critical notice trailed AFTER the sales had been obtained, leaving the critics, not leading public taste, but being led.

  Austen meanwhile was more of a slow burn.  Her femaleness and "ordinariness," which initially worked against her in terms of being taken seriously, turned into huge assets over time, when generations of female readers, and male educators, saw Austen as a kind of quintessential "high art" exponent of the novel as art form.  Today, the works of Austen are like a familiar shorthand for "high literature" and Scott is forgotten.  Scott is often now offhandedly claimed to be "unreadable" for modern audiences, but the truth is that few, outside of undergraduate and graduate literature programs, even try, whereas every high school senior has read at least one Austen novel.

The Castle (1926) by Franz Kafka

Author Franz Kafka

Book Review
The Castle (1926)
 by Franz Kafka

   There are certain authors I have convinced myself I have actually read, when in fact I have not actually read them.   I know I read The Metamorphosis and The Hunger Artist in high school.  I know I bought a used copy of Amerika (and never read it.)   I've also convinced myself that I've read The Castle and The Trial at some indeterminate point in the past, but, that it is not true.  Before last month, I'd never read either book, but I'd gone so far as to write down that I had read The Castle "in high school" in my copy of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.  Because I had falsely tricked myself into thinking I'd previously read The Castle, it is one of the last fifteen or so titles from the 1920s that remain in the 1001 Books Project.

Among those 15 titles are the 3000 pages of Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust and 900 pages of Ulysses by James Joyce.  The rest are equally divided by titles that seem too obvious to actually read (The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis) and books that are hard to track down (The Green Hat by Michael Arlen) and/or foreign (The Artamonov Business by Maxim Gorky, We by Yevgeny Zamyatin.)

 The Castle is a true classic, with Kafka expertly evoking the sense of nameless fear and dread that gave rise to the term "Kafkaesque."  You can call Kafka expressionist, surreal, existentialist- all of those.  Describing the plot points of The Castle: A land surveyor journeys to a small village in the mountains of an unnamed European country, his attempts to do his job are thwarted by a series of vague, unseen castle bound bureaucrats;  simply do not do the material justice.

  On the hand, The Castle can be read as a straight-forward parody of bureaucracy and the vagaries of life in late 19th century Europe.  On the other hand, The Castle also works as a religious allegory, with the unseen castle higher ups standing in for an absent God.  In this way, there is some thematic consistency between Kafka's fiction and philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche and Soren Kierkegaard.  Kafka, like those philosophers, question the existence of God, but his fiction poeticizes the coming existentialist crisis of the 20th century.

  His departure from the canons of 19th century of European Realism represent a radical departure from the mainstream of traditionalist and experimental modernists alike.  Even more remarkable is the biographical details of his early death and subsequent request to have all this unpublished books burned afterwards.  Max Brod, his executor, essentially published unfinished manuscripts, meaning that The Castle is not only unfinished, it also has 80 pages that were added by Brod at the end by fiat, and 50 additional pages of deletions and fragments.

  Regardless of the manuscript issues, The Castle is a compelling read.


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