VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Flaubert's Parrot (1984) by Julian Barnes


Book Review
Flaubert's Parrot (1984)
 by Julian Barnes

   You could argue that Julian Barnes, with only one novel on the 1001 Books list, is underrepresented.  He's been Booker Prize shortlisted three times, including for Flaubert's Parrot, and he won in 2011 for The Sense of An Ending, not included on the 1001 Books list.  Flaubert's Parrot is a little slip of a book, not 200 pages all in.  It has a structure that flows back and forth between subjects related to the narrator's quest for a stuffed parrot said to have inspired author Gustave Flaubert and subjects related to his own personal life.  The book is simultaneously "about" the narrator and his life, and different interpretations of the life of Flaubert.

  Narrator Geofrrey Braithwaite is a retired Doctor, widowed, English, tracing the foot steps of author Gustave Flaubert at various locations in France.  As you might expect from a narrator who is obsessed with Gustave Flaubert, Braithwaite has opinions about literature, and he shares those thoughts with the reader.  This commentary on literature (Example- Braithwaite would ban novels that contain incest as a plot point) creates one of the first memorable "meta" moments in literature.  Emphasis on the "memorable."   One of the major. mainstream events of the 1980's was the introduction of humor into post-modern books, and an attendant widening of the audience for works that contain dense, self contained arguments between the narrator and a long-dead English critic about the attention that Flaubert paid to his description to the color of Emma's eye in Madame Bovary.

  Flaubert's Parrot, alongside Waterland, represents a flowering of the type of literature I would equate with my personal taste- starting in the 1970's but really coming into form by the mid 1980's and beyond, up through the publication of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, in 1996.  It's a vast flourishing of literature that encompasses specialist-only areas of knowledge and embraces footnotes and other accouterments of twentieth century graduate student life.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Image may contain: 1 person, beard and text
Jamey Johnson on tour with Margo Price and Brent Cobb.



Stagecoach Spotlight Tour
Jamey Johnson
Margo Price
Brent Cobb

04 25 The Observatory North Park - San Diego, CA.
04 27 The Theatre at Ace Hotel - Los Angeles, CA.
04 28 Brooklyn Bowl - Las Vegas, NV.
04 30 Marquee Theatre - Tempe, AZ
05 03 Ogden Theatre - Denver, CO.
05 08 Crystal Ballroom - Portland, OR.
05 09 Showbox Sodo - Seattle, WA.
05 11 Warfield Theatre - San Francisco, CA.


   The rise and rise of Margo Price has been nothing short of astonishing, one of the best stories in indie music in the past decade and a true inspiration to legions of "local musicians" nation wide who are on the verge of throwing in the towel.  From the perspective of a record label operator, what stands out is that Price had a finished record that she was trying to find a label to release.  She just couldn't find any takers until Third Man, in what was a borderline reckless decision, decided to put some umph behind the release.   There are a million bands like that in dozens of markets.  It's the equivalent of lighting striking, but the question is what kind of fire does the lightning strike set.  It could be a small fire, a big fire, or just smoke.

   My point being is that the lightning strike is just a brief moment in time, and it doesn't repeat. The process of fanning the resulting spark into a fire, that is why you need a label, a booking agent and a manager, or need to be able to do those things yourselves.   You can also try to get the label, booking agent and manager and try to make lightning strike- either way it's a tough bid.  But the point of the Margo Price story is that you have to be ready to make and finish a record without financial backing.  Doing that increases your chances of a lightning strike by a hundred fold.  That is what Margo Price did, against great odds.

The Sorrow of Belgium (1983) by Hugo Claus


Book Review
The Sorrow of Belgium (1983)
by Hugo Claus

   It is both easy and accurate to describe The Sorrow of Belgium as a "Flemish  The Tin Drum."  Whether that description means anything depends on how familiar you are with the Flemish and The Tin Drum, respectively.  The Flemish are a Dutch speaking minority in the modern nation of Belgium, where the French speaking Walloons (and Flemish who emulate Walloons by speaking French) is dominant, and the Flemish, while not exactly oppressed, are not at the top of the pyramid.

  Thus, for Louis, the narrator, and son of a middle class Flemish household in the time before World War II, the rise of Hitler is viewed with excitement.  The Flemish were part of the greater Germanic nation (a group which also included the Eastern Germans of The Tin Drum) and they benefited from the German occupation, economically and socially.   The pro and anti German locals of the Flemish part of Belgium were known by the color of their shirts, Black shirts for pro, White for anti.  Louis, mirroring his family line, is pro-Germany, and he goes so far as to enroll (and then dis-enroll) in the local analogue of the Hitler Youth (called the VNV. )

  I didn't particularly enjoy reading a 700 page memoir from a Flemish Hitler Youth, but I suppose The Sorrow of Belgium is proof of the enduring appeal of the European realist novel well into the 20th century.  The Sorrow of Belgium wasn't even published in English until 1990 which brings the publication history almost up to present day.   Like The Tin Drum, there is insight to be had from those on the periphery of World War II- first of all, they weren't wiped out like the more affected groups, and second they maintained some distance from the center of the maelstrom created by Hitler and the National Socialist.

  It is interesting reading about how the local Dutch speaking Belgian minority debated the rise of National Socialism as it related to their own quasi-nationalist leanings.  Other than that, there is a limit, a personal limit, when it comes to pro-Nazi memoirs, even if narrated by children.

Waterland (1983) by Graham Swift


Book Review
Waterland (1983)
by Graham Swift

  Waterland is an inventive novel that manages to make a palette of seemingly unpromising locales and themes into something more than the sum of its parts.   Loosely speaking, Waterland is a work of historical fiction or historical meta-fiction, centered around the history of an area of the East Anglia Fens/Wetlands.  Tom Crick, the narrator, is a history teacher on the edge of (forced) retirement. He is told by the headmaster that history is being phased out as a separate department, and almost simultaneously his wife is arrested for attempting to steal a baby.  These events spur a series of recollections about his personal history and the history of Waterland, which he in turn describes to his class of high school students, a last act of defiance that forms most of the "action" of the present time of the plot.

  Wikipedia identifies Waterland as strongly affiliated with "New Historicism," which was a cross-discipline movement to use literature to illuminate history and vice versa.  Waterland achieves both those goals, seemingly effortlessly, while keeping Waterland well within the heartland of the tradition of English fiction, with sex, death and madness along for the ride.   There is a familiarity about the themes and events of Waterland that serve to mask the theory behind, the literary equivalent of a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down.

  In 1983 the meta-historical novel barely existed, and it is easy to see why this early example found such a receptive audience,

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Worstward Ho (1983) by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett
Nobel Prize for Literature winner Samuel Beckett
Book Review
Worstward Ho (1983)
 by Samuel Beckett

    Samuel Beckett won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, and he didn't die until 1989, giving him two decades to exist as a veritable literary saint on earth.  Samuel Beckett is a colossus of 20th century literature and drama.  He has a direct link to James Joyce, the high priest of high modernism, and his own work represents a bridge between the modern and post-modern,   He also was a key avatar in the linguistic turn as it manifested itself both in literature and academia.  Finally, he is an apostle of minimalism, a movement that continues to inform large swaths of varied artistic disciplines.

   At the same time, he was never a huge popular figure.  In popular culture, most people don't know who he is, and if they do, he's vaguely associated with the play, Waiting for Godot- two guys waiting for a person who never arrives.  In popular culture, Beckett is a Simpsons reference.   You would expect Samuel Beckett, who died in 1989, to on a cusp of a revival- 30 years from death represents a generational opportunity to revive the titles of an Author and introduce them to a totally new generation, one who need to purchase copies of the author's titles.

  Among the critical/serious/academic class, Beckett is a saint and participation in that culture requires knowledge of his career high-points, but it's not like he is a hot topic on campus.  Beckett is a given.  He's been a given for a generation.  He was a given in the Bay Area in the early 1990's, where I took a girl on a first date to a Berkeley Repertory Theater production of Waiting for Godot.   Amazingly, that title doesn't make the 1001 Books list, probably because all plays- from Shakespeare onward are excluded from the 1001 Books definition of a "book."   Even without Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett is a key figure in the 1001 Books list, with Worstward Ho the last of his eight titles.

  Murphy, his first title on the 1001 Books list, was published in 1938, giving his included titles a date range of 45 years!  My recommendation, having now read all eight books on the list, is to focus on early Beckett.  Of middle and later Beckett, it can be summarized as "difficult to understand."  Unless you have some vested interest in understanding Samuel Beckett, it's his early novels- Murphy and Malloy, specifically which are the only books that are likely to bring the casual reader something like pleasure.

  It's impossible to pass from the topic of Samuel Beckett without addressing existentialism, an attitude which his entire oeuvre exudes.  Existentialism suffuses much of art after World War II, but Becektt is one of the few artists whose work fully anticipated existentialism before it existed. The idea of the meaningless of existence animates all of his work, and there is some irony in the fact that a man so obsessed with emptiness could create work which has proved to be so full of meaning.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Fools of Fortune (1983) by William Trevor


Book Review
Fools of Fortune
 by William Trevor

  I feel like the Anglo Irish aristocracy is dramatically over-represented in the original 1001 Books list.  Even granting Irish status as the first "colonial" environment and the attendant proposition that Ireland was also the location of the first "post-colonial" literature, the Anglo Irish (as supposed to the Irish themselves) were at best a highly parasitic bunch of land barons.  That they produced excellent novelists is no surprise, since they were both wealthy enough to have the time, energy and education to write and they were also semi-despised outsiders who were ultimately largely expelled.

  Still, when you compare the 20th century Irish colonial experience to places in Africa and Asia, the Irish tend to come bottom of the table. Consider that as of 1983, the 1001 Books list has not a single book by a Chinese speaking author and the first novel on the list ABOUT China is Empire of the Sun, by J.G. Ballard.   Meanwhile, I count as many as 15 novels on the original 1001 Books list that come from Anglo Irish writers.   I'm not counting the books of IRISH authors like James Joyce and Samuel Beckett.

 Fools of Fortune is such a late example of the Anglo Irish experience that it almost reads as an exercise in historical fiction.  He traces the fortunes of a very liberal Anglo Irish family through the story of Louis, a child at the beginning of the book.  His family owns a mill, but is relatively unique in that the father and family going back two generations are supporters of Irish independence, to the point where the Grandfather had given away his ancestral estate to the farmers- a highly unusual act.

     The action picks up during the time of "the troubles" during and after World War I, where a sometimes brutal war of independence was waged and the English behaved, and were treated like, an occupying army.  Louis' father learns this the hard way, when he is murdered by a "Black and Tan" in reprisal for his support for the Irish independence movement, embodied by Michael Collins, who appears in Fools of Fortune as a minor character.

      The murder of Louis' father at the hands of the English occupying forces sets in motion a series of events one might expect from a 20th century novel, leavened somewhat by a love story between Louis and his English cousin, Marianne. What seems to be a highly Louis centered narrative suddenly switches half way through, as we learn about events from the eyes of Marianne, Louis' beloved.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Shame (1983) by Salman Rushdie

Ali Bhutto appears as Iskander Harappa in Shame, the 1983 novel by Salman Rushdie.
Book Review
Shame (1983)
 by Salman Rushdie

  You don't have to know about the history of Pakistan, but it helps, because Shame, Rushdie's third novel, is a magically realistic take on the tragic friendship between Zulifkar Ali Bhutto (Iskander Harappa) and General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (General Raza Hyder).  As recounted in The Struggle for Pakistan by Ayesha Jalal (2014),  these two figures ran Pakistan successively between 1971 and 1988.  Bhutto was the cosmopolitan playboy who championed "Islamic Socialism" and Zia, as he was known, was responsible for creating Pakistan as an Islamic Republic.

  Like The House of Spirits, another work of magical realism published in the early 1980's featuring a fictionalized take on the troubled 20th century history of a small Latin American nation (Chile), Shame has a heavy dose of realism- dark realism- mixed in with the by now familiar bag of magical tricks to spice up the grim reality of 20th century Pakistani history.    Anyone who has read both Midnight's Children, his 1981 break out hit, and Shame is likely to spot continuities and similarities.  Rushdie's confidence as an author is on full display in Shame, with several interludes by the narrator revealing that he (the narrator) is either Rushdie himself or someone so close to Rushdie and his life experience as to make the difference negligible

  It's difficult to see Shame as anything other then a kind of second chapter of Midnight's Children, and it's fair to say that there is nothing wrong with that, when one considers how intoxicating Rushdie's brand of magic realism proved after that novel was published.  But Rushdie doesn't break any new thematic ground in Shame, and if you consider that The House of the Spirits was published just the year before, it might be fair to ask whether the tenets of magical realism were already becoming cliche when Shame was published in 1983.

The Piano Teacher (1983) by Elfriede Jelinek

Image result for isabelle huppert piano teacher
Isabelle Huppert gave a memorable performance as the title character in the movie version of the The Piano Teacher, released in 2001;

Book Review
The Piano Teacher (1983)
by Elfriede Jelinek

  I am familiar with the movie version, memorably starring Isabelle Huppert and directed by Michael Haneke (2001).  The movie is compelling stuff, a twisted pyscho sexual "thriller" as that word applies to a French art film.   The book I found less emotionally compelling, but more interesting intellectually.    I'm not a big fan of BDSM, but I'm not frightened by it either.  My position is that it's a normal part of the range of human sexuality, perhaps not as benign as the LGBTQ rainbow of affiliations, but a step above outright reprehensible expressions of sexuality like pedophilia or bestiality.   The difference is the presence of consent on the part of both partners.  It's also, to me, the most interesting part of the BDSM world, the contractual nature of it all.

  If you are unfamiliar with the BDSM world, BDSM is more then just restraints, whips and chains (though indeed those props figure in the plot of The Piano Teacher.)  The more involved areas of the BDSM world typically involve written contracts with explicit language concerning the rights and responsibilities of the parties concern.  The contracts, of course, regard agreements of the sort where one party is essentially voluntarily enslaved by the other, usually with the explicit purpose of sexual gratification on the part of the both parties.

  In the professional BDSM world, professional dominatrix's are often called "Mistresses," and it reflects the common posture of a woman dominating a man, and being paid for it.   The Piano Teacher, set in Vienna in the mid 1970's, is a world away from the contemporary world of BDSM, but as the birthplace of Freudianism, it is a place very much at the center of BDSM culture.   Much of the theory and practice that underlays this area of human sexuality was formed explicitly either following or opposed to classic Freudian theory regarding the relationship between families, sexual pleasure and death obsession.  This trilogy is also a good summation of the themes of The Piano Teacher, about a soon-to-be spinster who lives with her domineering mother in a small Viennnese apartment, with the daughter supporting both with her work as a piano teacher.

  Freudian motifs dominate The Piano Teacher from start to finish: unfulfilled ambitions, troubled familial relationships, an obsession with the obliteration of the self through self destructive activity, The Piano Teacher is a panoply of neuroses. 

Monday, February 06, 2017

A Boy'a Own Story (1982) by Edmund White


Author Edmund White
Book Review
A Boy'a Own Story (1982)
 by Edmund White

  A Boy's Own Story is the first of Edmund White's trilogy of semi auto-biographical novels about his experience of growing up gay in the American mid-West in the period after World War II.  A Boy's Own Story is set in and around Cincinnati, where White grew up the only son of divorced parents, his father a wealthy business man, and his Mother an emotionally needy divorcee largely unprepared for life as a single woman.  In light of recent progress in the field of LGBTQ rights, it is shocking that such a vanilla gay coming of age story written by a privileged, wealthy, white male wasn't published until 1982.

  A Boy's Own Story is of course set decades before publication, during the child hood of the now adult Edmund White, but it's easy to slip into thinking that A Boy's Own Story was published in the late 1960's or early 1970's .   White is frank about the sexual aspect of being young and gay.  Starting from chapter one, where he is initiated into the world of gay sex by a younger friend of the family (he calls it "corn-holing",) through the time the narrator spends as a young man in Cincinnati.

  The themes White raises about the masculinity of American men are of interest not just to LGBTQ readers, but to anyone wanting to learn about the awareness of sexuality that young men develop as they enter adolescence.   White is a hugely insightful writer, and his prose elevates the often mundane details into real art.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Principles of Playlist Construction: Length of Playlist



Principles of Playlist Construction: Length of Playlist

  I think there are right and wrong answers when it comes to the principles of playlist construction.  It's not something I would discuss in public, but if you take any of the major playlist services: Spotify, Apple Music or Tidal, the principles of the same.

The Right Length of the Playlist:

       A playlist needs to be long enough so that you do not grow tired of it before you can naturally find new music for that playlist.   For example, a playlist of ten songs, where each song is 3 to 4 minutes long, is too short.   Amazingly enough, there are plenty of examples of Spotify ITSELF violating these obvious true/false rules.  Spotify often provides playlists of pop songs that are under two hours of length.  If an average song on that playlist is three and a half minutes, a ninety minute playlist would have something like 25-30 songs.  No human being is going to listen to a playlist that short without tiring of it.
 
  I would argue that the optimum length for a playlist is somewhere between 100 and 200 songs depending on the average length of each song.  This should produce a playlist of 10 to 15 hours of music, which I would argue is ideal.  The idea of a one to two hour playlist is itself rooted in the recording technology of the 20th century- up to and including the downloading of the mp3 album- but does not take into account the changes wrought by streaming music services.

  The idea behind having several (1 to 5) 10 to 15 hour playlist is that you have an adequate selection of music to carry you through days, weeks, or even months when you have little time to identify new music to listen to.  For example, a student, trying to get through finals, is likely to need a 10-15 hour playlist to help them study and prepare for test taking.  Once these playlists have been developed on one device, they can then follow the user into ambient listening situations: in public, driving in cars, using headphones, etc.

  Many people have all are part of the working day where they can't listen to music at all and of course there is some period where you are sleeping, so the playlists have to address major periods outside those zones.   However, you don't want the playlist to narrowly tied to one specific purpose, you want it to be broad enough to encompass multiple purposes.   To give another Spotify derived example, they have playlists like Morning Commute or Evening Commute- both are too narrow  Commute playlists are likely to share songs with larger categories encompassing a greater range of music.  As I said before, I think the three major playlists are fast, medium and slow tempos- all other topical playlists can be subsumed into one of these three.





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