VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Black Dahlia (1987) by James Ellroy

The real life murder of Elizabeth Short AKA the Black Dahila, is the basis for the 1987 James Ellroy novel of the same name.
Book Review
The Black Dahlia (1987)
 by James Ellroy

  The Black Dahlia was a real murder case- of Elizabeth Short, in Los Angeles, in 1947.  The notoriety of the case extended to the realm of fiction, where it became a kind of short-hand for neo-noir.  James Ellroy was not the first or last author to write a fictionalized version of the case, which has remained formally unsolved (although informally the physician George Hodel is considered to be the murderer.) but his version is considered the best, even withstanding a disastrous Brian De Palma movie version to remain not just a certified platinum neo noir classic, but also one of those rare titles which elevated an author from "genre" to "serious" literature after publication.

  That elevation is almost always a combination of popular and critical acclaim, as was the case with The Black Dahila.  In his book, Ellroy successfully uses the Dahila murder as a metaphor for the decay, decadence and spiritual rot that has always existed at the heart of Anglo Los Angeles: an unholy combination of entertainment industry executives, real estate developers, racketeers and police that colluded to run the city for decades.

  That combination of nefarious forces is synonymous both with our historical understanding of Los Angeles and it's heavy representation in the field of neo-noir literature.   In 2017, largely as a result of the success of The Black Dahlia  and the other three books in his  L.A. Quartet really serve as the state of the art in this field, even decades after publication.

Legend (1984) by David Gemmell

Druss, the Legend 
Book Review
Legend (1984)
by David Gemmell

  I actually had to buy this book off of Amazon because the Los Angeles Public Library System doesn't own a copy.  I received a vintage Del Rey paperback- the kind associated with the lower levels of genre fiction, fantasy and science fiction in particular.  There is nothing about the paperback copy of Legend by David Gemmell that would seem to indicate greatness- it's got a picture of Druss, the Legend in question, swinging his battle axe, about to decapitate a barbarian.

   David Gemmell was an English journalist turned genre fiction writer, with a heavy emphasis on military stories involving vaguely non-politically correct Asiatic type hoards and conspicuously white Anglo Saxon/Scandinavian types waging heroic battles against said hoards.  To his credit, and probably the reason that Legend is the sole representative of the genre that Americans would recognizes as "Conan the Barbarian" type adventures, is Gemmell's grasp of the underlying mythical elements of real world history.   Although Legend contains some mildly explicit sex and highly explicit violence that marks it as a book published in the late 20th century, it is otherwise timeless, and could have been written at any time in the past hundred or so years.

  Gemmell obviously had (he dies in 2006) a firm grasp on both history, mythology and the study of both, and he was obviously familiar with Conan (first appeared in the 1930's in American magazines featuring pulp fiction) and his barbarian prodigy.   Part of the fun of Legend is spotting the influences.  Despite all of it's some fantastical flourishes, limited mostly to the presence of dueling psych warrior-monks within its pages, Legend is almost an alternative- earth history, set in the early Middle Ages, along the lines of a "last stand" narrative, like the Alamo.  

  To give one notable example, two characters enjoy a nice glass of orange juice together at the beginning of chapter one.  The biology and physics appear to be the same as that on Earth, there are no non-human sentient creatures and no fantastical beasts.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Pigeon (1987) by Patrick Suskind


Book Review
Pigeon (1987)
 by Patrick Suskind

   Pigeon is a little existential novella  about a lonely Parisian security guard.  He's been living in the same tiny walk-up flat for the better part of four decades when his routine is upset...by a pigeon, incongruously located in the hallway outside.    Like his other 1001 Books entry, Perfume, there is ample evidence of Suskind's skill as a prose stylist, even in translation.  Unlike Perfume, Pigeon is not story dwelling.  The obsessive protagonist resembles various narrators in the novels of Thomas Bernhard, minus the self-conscious intellectualism.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

World's End (1987) by T.C. Boyle


Book Review
World's End (1987)
 by T.C. Boyle

  T.C, Boyle is incredibly prolific for a "serious" novelist.  Since the first edition of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die was published in 2006, Boyle has published five stand alone novels, each of which has remained in print in an evergreen paperback edition.  The editorial language in the listing for this book in 1001 Books calls it Boyle's masterpiece, but without having read any of his other books (Road to Wellsville, anyone?) it seems like there is at least a chance that one of his subsequent novel deserves to replace World's End, which, in my mind, has aged badly, even since the 2006 publication date of the first 1001 Books.

 Set among several generations of the population of the Hudson River Valley in three different time periods:  The late 17th century, the period surrounding the second World War and the "high 1960's."  With the exception of the portion set in the 17th century, Boyle is walking in a well trodden meadow.  One book it recalls in particular is The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow, published in 1971, which also uses The Peetskill Riots as a major plot point.  Those riots were nativist/anti-communist protests of a Peace Concert in the Hudson River Valley by Paul Roebeson.  Like a Woodstock, that was very much ahead of it's time.

  And while there is nothing wrong with two works of 20th century American Fiction that focus on the Peetskill Riots as being emblematic of the American experience in the 1940's, I thought that Boyle's use of Native American characters bordered on the insulting.  There are some subjects where a wry meta-fictional touch isn't appropriate, and personally, I don't see the Native American soft genocide as a topic for a comic novel.  It is different for a writer who is actually Native America- Sherman Alexie, for example, an excellent Native American author who is very funny and not represented on the 1001 Books list.

  It is easy to defend Boyle by saying that he treats his Native American (or part Native American) characters with the same sense of wry detachment that he uses for all his characters, but its hard to imagine him treating enslaved African American characters- who do appear in cameo roles in World's End, with the same attitude.   As it stands, World's End is the first novel that really even discusses the Native American experience in North America- surely a rich vein of literature. A Sherman Alexie book at the least.  Since World's End is Boyle's only core title, it would mean dropping him entirely.  Maybe that isn't fair to Boyle, because World's End is only partially about Native American subjects.

  And, if you are going to start directly comparing books at this point in time- 1987, it's easy for me to say that, a book like Beloved would be one of maybe two or three books to remain on the list, were space needed for new titles.   Whats interesting about the core list is that you've got 700 titles, but those 700 all remained through 2010 and 2012, while the 300 books that were added to the list in 2008 were, I think, replaced entirely in 2012.   In other words, none of the 300 replacement books in 2008 remained after the 2012 revision.   You might also drop The Book of Daniel, since Doctorow has multiple titles on the core list. 

Event Preview: Jamey Johnson & Margo Price @ North Park Observatory Next Week (Tuesday)

Image result for stagecoach spotlight tour
The Stagecoach Spotlight Tour features Jamey Johnson, Margo Price & Bret Cobb
Event Preview
Stagecoach Spotlight Tour (TM)
 Jamey Johnson, Margo Price & Brent Cobb
 @ North Park Observatory
 Next Week: Tuesday, April 25th, 7:30 PM

  I have to hand it to Goldenvoice talent buyer Stacy Vee, she was down with Margo Price from day 1.  Well not really day 1, but who was, really.  But Stacy Vee was at the little industry show Margo Price played in Hollywood, and the Stagecoach offer came in super early.  So when Stagecoach decides to do a Stagecoach Spotlight Tour and asks Margo Price to be on it, she is on it.  That is how things work.   People will criticize Goldenvoice on various grounds, but the fact remains that they (via corporate parent AEG) the only viable alternative to Live Nation.  I mean they aren't an alternative to Live Nation, who can front a monster advance to any artist they please (but usually those who are capable of drawing at a mid size shed venue in any of the top 150 markets in the United States),  but you can structure a solid cycle of American tours around a big Goldenvoice show.

   It's the kind of support that can give rise to the decision to say no to a Live Nation offer.   The trade off for taking Live Nation money is that an artist is forced to work themselves to death to pay back the advance.   Also that it can get an Artist accustomed to the lifestyle that a massive advance can finance but not maintain.  I know these are 1% problems, but they are problems that any American musician achieving viability is going to face.

   The Stagecoach Spotlight Tour covers most of the major western markets:  Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and Denver.  The logic behind this tour gets stronger the further you get from the epicenter of the Stagecoach festival itself, which happens in the middle of the two week long tour stints.

    Part of my continuing enchantment with Price's rise is seeing her touring numbers for secondary markets in the south-east.  She can play these locations, sell out theaters and take in a few thousand in merch, night after night, with most of the markets within driving distance of Nashville, an ideal location for a touring musician, geographically speaking.  She is also viable, though as yet unproven, in secondary markets in other geographic regions of the country: The Northeast, the Midwest and the West.   You compare that with the touring profile of a comparably successful indie rock act, and there is no comparison, Margo Price would crush them.

   Generating a certain level of ticket sales in these secondary market (in addition to some previously demonstrated ability to sell out smaller venues in major markets) is the essential pre-condition to generating a virtuous circle of touring activity.   Once that circle is established, all it requires is additional momentum, provided by more touring.   However, absent additional albums and tours, the virtuous circle stops spiraling.

  Tickets are still available for this show, next Tuesday at the very, very, lovely and nice North Park Observatory Theater- owned by the Affliction clothing company owner!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison

Image result for thandie newton beloved
Thandie Newton played the reverant to Oprah Winfrey's Mother character in her movie version of Beloved by Toni Morrison.

Beloved (1987)
by Toni Morrison

  I think any process of canonization which includes works within the last 30 years is suspects.  30 years of consideration should be the rule before any specific work of art is included in any canonical collection.  Before 30 years have elapsed, you really don't have a feel for the true impact of a work of art, particularly for those works which were commercially but not critically appreciated, or vice versa.   Its possible that there are books out there which were written in 1987 that the editors of the 1001 Books list were not aware of when they made the first edition of this list in 2006.

  The core collection of 1001 Books is 700 titles.  Chronologically speaking, 1987 is probably the cut off for that 700 number if you start from the beginning of time.  I would guess that the 300 replaced titles are disproportionately located in the 300 books that remain between 1987 and the 2006 cut off for the first book.  In 2006, they had no idea which books published in 2005 might qualify, and so how can they know which books might have to be replaced?

  I'm bringing this up because I would argue that Beloved, Morrison's 1987 gothic shocker, is a keeper- an obvious inclusion within the core list of 700 books.  Just to compare her to the other 1987 American authors that made the first edition of the 1001 Books list, you've got The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe, the collected New York Trilogy by Paul Auster (collected in one edition in 1987) and the Black Dahila by James Ellroy.   Looking at a list of those four entries, and I would cut all of them BUT Beloved.  I understand why the other titles have made it:  The Bonfire of the Vanities was a cross-platform phenomenon for a mildly "important" author,  Black Dahila is a stand out of 80's genre fiction and New York Trilogy is a clever work of metafiction.

  Beloved, on the other hand, is an important book, Morrison has stood accused of overwrought, feverish prose, but who are we to quibble with the style when the results are so august?  When Beloved was published, Morrison was at the top of her game, deploying elements of style to induce deeply felt emotions in the reader. 

Mayra(1986) by Joyce Carol Oates

Image result for young joyce carol oates
A photo of a young Joyce Carol Oates
Book Review
Mayra (1986)
 by Joyce Carol Oates

   You might consider Mayra a Joyce Carol Oates origin story.  Mayra, the title character, physically resembles Oates, shares a similar background and has the same experiences as Oates the writer.  Within the 1001 Books project, Oates is a huge loser.  She starts with four titles in the original edition, and that number is cut to a single title in the first revision.  This reduces Oates from a repeat player of some note to a one hit wonder, for the purposes of the list.  It also points to the way that many, if not all, authors with multiple titles- certainly all those from the 20th century and beyond- were subject to having their contribution halved.

  I'd be inclined to think that Oates was ill served- she is almost certainly an author who deserves more than a single title.  It's likely that she is a victim of both being prolific, still writing and not a major literary prize winner.  Oates is not going to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, she hasn't won the Pulitzer Prize.  She's also written non fiction and short stories throughout her career, and flirted with the career of a public intellectual in the television era.

  Like Anagrams by Lorrie Moore, Mayra hasn't aged well, except as it relates to a general up-swell of appreciation for Oates as she ages out of productivity.  Most of Mayra exists within the confines of the academic literature of the 1980's.  Her plight as a white woman, making her way in academia, has only muted relevance to the polyphonic explosion of viewpoints related to class and gender.   At least Oates, unlike Moore, avoids writing from a place of vested privilege.  

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Parable of the Blind (1986) by Gert Hofmann

Image result for the parable of the blind bruegel
The Parable of the Blind (painting)(1568) by Pieter Breugel, the book is based on imagined evets from 
Book Review
The Parable of the Blind (1986)
by Gert Hofmann

   The Parable of the Blind is a fun little novella about the (imagined) circumstances behind the painting of the same name, created in 1586 by Pieter Breugel.  The idea is that Breugel, unnamed in the book, paid to have models enact the painted scene, again and again, in the same way that one might imagine a Hollywood director having an actor do dozens of takes.  Here, the blind are stumbling into the river, a scene they repeated numerous times, as Breugel sits in his window and paints them.

   The rest of the book describes their attempts to get to the house of Breugel,  The Parable of the Blind is an impressionistic narrative, since the narrators, are blind beggars with no formal education.  To the extent it resembles anything else in literature, the closed comparison is Chaucer, call this "The Blind Beggars Tale."

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Anagrams (1986) by Lorrie Moore


Book Review
Anagrams (1986)
 by Lorrie Moore

   I wouldn't call Anagrams a core title on the 1001 Books list, one of the 708 books that have stayed through all editions of the 1001 Books list.  The editors of the 1001 Books list would call Anagrams a core title, because it is a core title on the 1001 Books list.  Moore is an author who has straddled the line between short stories and novels, balancing both with a career in Academia- thirty years at the University of Wisconsin and now at Vanderbilt University.   She is a professional academic, and Anagrams, her first novel, is a prime example of the genre of "professional academic literature."  It's a major trend, still on going, and it concerns itself with the lives of professional and would be professional academics, living and working on or near a university campus, and almost all of them white, from a middle or upper class background (though not happy about it) and straight.

  Brenna Carpenter, the primary protagonist in Anagrams, shares biographical details with the author- both worked as para-legals in New York, both worked in academia.  Moore is a precursor of the manic-pixie dream girl, though one might more appropriately call her a manic-depressive pixie dream girl.  She's quirky! She sleeps with students! She invents an imaginary daughter.  It's this last detail that, I think, is the crux of Anagrams.  The fact that her daughter is imaginary is stated once, baldly, as a fact, then for the rest of the book she might as well be real.  After the initial disclosure, Carpenter makes no reference to the fact that her daughter does not exist.

  Anagrams hasn't aged particularly well, except as a capsule of that mid 1980's, anti-yuppie, professional-academic sub-culture.  Despite the essentially sad subject matter, Moore maintains a light touch that harkens back to her personal history as a prize winner of short story contests from an early age.   The short story is really hard done by within the precincts of the 1001 Books list.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Extinction (1986) by Thomas Bernhard


Book Review
Extinction (1986)
 by Thomas Bernhard

   Within the precincts of the original 1001 Books list, Bernhard is a major 20th century German author, with six novels making the cut.  That number was reduced in half for the first revision in 2008.  Extinction, his last novel, survived the initial reduction, and that makes sense.  Extinction is by far Bernhard's longest work, and it serves as a kind of summation for his entire oeuvre.

  Loosely put, Bernhard's concern is to serve an indictment against the entire world, focused through his perspective as an Austrian national living in the aftermath of World War II.  Although the characters change, they all share a common narrative style: close, cramped, obsessively and repetitively teasing out all the potential consequences of a certain emotion or experience.   It's novelist as OCD sufferer,  While some of his works are divided into parts, chapters and paragraphs are non-existent.  Instead the reader - of any of his books - is forced to follow the narrator through pages and pages of densely written prose.

   Extinction is one of those novels that both infuriates and entralls.  Even though it is only 311 pages, Extinction took me weeks to read, because I could not keep my place.  Eventually I was forced to sit down and read it in 50 to 100 page gulps.  Every time I put Extinction down, upon resuming I would have to re-read the previous few pages.  Each page took me several minutes to read- unusual- since I usually read something more than one page a minute for a typical work of fiction (100 pages an hour).

  I've been bringing up Thomas Bernhard in casual conversation whenever possible- which is tough- but I've yet to find a single other person who has even heard of him.  He's worth checking out if only for that reason, since his books are widely translated and available.  The end of Extinction, where Bernhard tells his readers (via his narrator) that the only way to avoid the catastrophe of modernity is to "kill yourself before the millennium" rings eerily true in 2017.  Thomas Bernhard is not surprised by Donald Trump.  Nothing could be less surprising to him.

Blog Archive