VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Arcadia (1992) by Jim Crace


Book Review
Arcadia (1992)
 by Jim Crace


      If you want to check the current relevance of a particular novel in American culture, check the Wikipedia entry.  If it doesn't have a page, that's a 0.  If it has a page that shows copious annotations over time, that is a ten.  Arcadia, without a Wikipedia page, scores a zero on the Wikipedia test.  Crace is an English author who hasn't quite made it to the point where American audiences pay attention.   I'm not particularly surprised, but I quite enjoyed Arcadia, which I can say of many of the selected works from the early 1990's that made their way onto the 1001 Books list.  This was a weak time for literature, and the taint of the high profile "artsy" movie version of many of these books makes me questions whether the title has been selected for literary merit or because the movie just makes the book too popular to ignore.

   Crace starts with a fairly straight forward Horatio Alger tale about Victor, a street urchin turned millionaire, living in an unnamed city that resembles London or New York, contemplating his existence as he turns 80.  He is assisted in his endeavors, which include dominating the supply chain and real estate of the Salt Market, by Rook, a grocer-labor activist turned fixer.   Rook has taken to feathering his nest with cash bribes from vendors which he calls, "pitch fees."

  Crace moves backwards and forwards in time, telling the story of Victor's unusual childhood, while focusing mostly on Rook as he prepares for Victor's 80th birthday party.  Events are set into action when Rook is exposed as a bribe taker and terminated from his position.  Immediately after, Victor decides to replace the market with "Arcadia" which is familiar to many in the guise of what we might call a "food hall."

   We are kept well apprised of the economic and political ramifications of the decision, and the action unfolds against the familiar backdrop of urban real estate development.

Black dogs (1992) by Ian McEwan


Book Review
Black Dogs (1992)
by Ian McEwan

  I guess everything with Ian McEwan is pre-Amsterdam vs. post-Amsterdam, Amsterdam being McEwan's 1998 smash hit, Booker prize winner.  Black Dogs was his second novel to be short listed for the Booker Prize.   Like many prize winning/prestige novelists working in the mid to late 20th century, there is a clear career trend of starting with shorter novels and graduating to longer novels.  Being allowed greater length and complexity is a privelge of authors with established track records, in the same way that pop artists who sell millions of copies can release double records.   Black Dogs is still prior to that period in the career of McEwan- it's not quite on par with the early work that earned him the nom de plume Ian Macabre, but it's not a sweeping meta-fictional historic epic, either.

  Rather, Black Dogs is about a pair of relationships and how they impact the narrator, an orphan seeking to delve deeper into the failed marriage of his wife's parents.  The events take place against the back drop of the fall of the Berlin wall in Germany, giving Black Dogs a temporal quality it would have otherwise lacked. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Hideous Kinky (1992) by Esther Freud


Book Review
Hideous Kinky (1992)
 by Esther Freud

   As the 1990's progress in the 1001 Books project, I begin to ask myself, at what point, exactly, does one become exhausted with depictions of white privilege?   For sure, every book written before the 1960's gets a free pass.  By the 1970's, the questions were being asked, but there was a deficit in replacement literature.  In 1992, when Hideous Kinky was published, Toni Morrison was a couple a years away from winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, and I was asking myself if this semi-autobiographical depiction of the early childhood of Sigmund Freud grand daughter Esther Freud in the wilds of boho Morocco, was really worth the admittedly minimal effort it takes to read.

  What really came to mind while I read Hideous Kinky was the antics of Ab Fab protagonists Patsy and Edina.  The Esther's character's mother seems to be a younger version of Edina.  Since the novel is written from the point of the daughter, there are no references to Freud's favorite patronage.  She is depicted living month to month on a remittance from her (presumably estranged) husband.

  I suppose the point is that this is an outrageous example of comically neglectful parenting, albeit well meaning and ultimately harmless to the children.  Like many of the "international best seller/film coming soon" books from this period, Hideous Kinky places privileged white people in unusual locations.

Oscar and Lucinda (1988) by Peter Cary


Book Review
Oscar and Lucinda (1988)
by Peter Cary

   The idea of describing a work of "serious' literature as, "An international best seller..film loved my millions..." was essentially unheard of up through the mid 1980's, but the emergence of film producers like Merchant-Ivory Productions an the Weinsteins ensured that any half way decent work of "serious"literature with a prize winning pedigree would be a solid candidate for a movie.  Oscar and Lucinda won the 1988 Booker Prize, and the Ralph Fiennes/Cate Blanchett movie followed almost immediately.

Oscar and Lucinda, like many 1001 Books participants from this period in time, is a variation on "historical meta fiction,"  set in England and Australia in the early part of the 20th century.  The nutshell of the plot, "Defrocked clergy man an wealthy female social outcast build a glass church and transport it through the Australian outback;"  gives a decent idea of the plot, but doesn't adequately describe the "meta" part of the historical fiction description.   The main "meta" aspect is an uncanny obsession with human psychology on the part of the narrator, giving a depth to the described events that would otherwise be lacking.

Oscar and Lucinda is also "about" the Anglican church in England and Australia in the early 20th century, gambling an the social mores of frontier society in Australia.  Carey proves his Booker Prize winning merit in the final hundred pages of the 576 page book (it reads much shorter), which is a legit page turning ending, more like something you'd expect from genre fiction, but with a twist, of course.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (1991) by Jung Chang


Book Review
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (1991)
 by Jung Chang

   The absence of titles from China on the first edition of the 1001 Books list is one of its greatest flaws.  Up to this point (the 1990's) the most memorable China-set novel on the 1001 Books list is Empire of the Sun, by J.G. Ballard, an Englishman.  At least Wild Swans is written by an author FROM China, even it was written in English, in England, after Jung Chang got out and never went back.  Although Wild Swans covers three generations, from the earliest part of the 20th century through the cultural revolution, the main attraction is Chang's description of the cultural revolution, details of which continue to be shrouded in mystery.

    Summarizing the cultural revolution isn't that difficult, basically, it was the largest country in the world turning into a Chinese version of Lord of the Flies.  Mao, worried about his power base, used children and teenagers to persecute his own officials, or "capitalist roaders" as they were called.  The victims of the cultural revolution were Mao's own loyal officials, the people in charge of implementing his revolution.  This came on top of his eradication of the capitalist/land owning class which preceded the cultural revolution.  Chang was the daughter of two upper level Chinese officials- both Mother and Father.

    She and her family aren't the most sympathetic types- but the chaos of early 20th century China makes the decision to enlist with the Communists seem like an easy choice to make.  After that- they were trapped.  Chang makes it clear how little even educated Chinese knew about the West in the 1960's and 1970's.  It is one hell of a wild ride.

Mao II (1991) by Don Delillo

Image result for mao II painting
Mao II print by Andy Warhol
Book Review
Mao II (1991)
by Don Delillo

  Before author Don Delillo entered into his brick-production period, he could write nimble little novels, and less nimble novels that were none the less under 300 pages.  Mao II, his tenth novel, shows him on the way to his "high Delillo" period of 100 page opening chapter set pieces set in baseball stadiums (Mao II opens with a Moonie "mass wedding" taking place in Yankee Stadium.");  but still not quite at the stage where his books are over 500 pages.

  Reclusive novelist Bill Gray is the center of Mao II.  Gray resembles a combination of J.D. Salinger (exclusiveness) and Ernest Hemingway (life style choices.)  Gray has been trying to finish his most recent book for decades, and his assistant, Scott, is worried because of what the completion and publication of his book will mean for their relationship, which can basically be expressed using the term "co dependency."

  After one hundred and fifty pages of hand wringing and existential angst, Gray gets roped into attempting to rescue a poet from a Marxist group of Lebanese rebels.   That's about it for the action.  Like many Delillo novels, it is the themes that the characters harp on in their quiet moments that provide the most lasting, memorable, moments.  Here, the effective theme is his prescient forecasting of a forthcoming "age of terror."  Spot on, that one. Good call.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Show Review: PRIESTS @ Ebell Club Highland Park


Image result for katie alice greer
PRIESTS Katie Alice Greer in a Merchandise music video.



Show Review:
PRIESTS
@ Ebell Club Highland Park
Los Angeles, CA.

  If you can watch a PRIESTS show and not feel nostalgia for a dissipated youth, then you have no heart or soul.  PRIESTS hail from the Washington DC area, and they, I think, would have to be one of the flagbearers for the post-punk sound commonly associated with Dischord.   It's a sound and era I'm well familiar with, having attended undergraduate at American University in Washington DC, the home of Dischord.   It is a DIY ethos, and one that greatly influenced my own involvement in the production and distribution of popular music.   I fear that while the ethos has very much shaped the anarchic chaos of post-Napster music business, the sound itself is more of a museum piece than a living, vital situation.  If you want an example, take a look at SAVAGES, a band that has more Facebook friends than monthly listeners on Spotify.  That is nuts.  So people like to SAY they like Savages, but they don't actually LISTEN to Savages, is what that statistic tells me.

  So the question is, can PRIESTS escape from that box? Maybe.  They are a tight band- hardly an overnight sensation with records going back to 2012.  They've hooked up with a highly reputable management company, which shows that they have some understanding of the larger game (although the manager they selected is very DIY friendly.  The live show was very good- lead singer Katie Alice Greer has Karen O type potential.  Less clear is whether they can/will settle down and, you know, write songs with melodies and bridges and stuff.  Not very punk, but kind of a deal breaker in terms of gaining wider acceptance.  Not that they care about that bullshit!  I know they don't!

    Look at the progression of Jen Clavin of Mika Miko and Bleached, from punk screamer to proto-blueswoman. I'd never been to the venue- the Ebell Club in Highland Park, nor heard of the promoter, "Sid the Cat" who had his own merch, including t shirts which said, "I hope people show up," which I thought was kind of amazing.   The Ebell Club is like an old (in terms of year established) club for old(in terms of age) women- mostly white from what I could see.  A take on the Moose Lodge, with a classier "classical" vibe.  The room was very warm and the sound was excellent, parking was easy, I would go back, and see another show by the same promoter.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Midnight Examiner (1989) by William Kotzwinkle


Book Review
Midnight Examiner (1989)
 by William Kotzwinkle

   It's hard to take seriously a writer whose greatest claim to fame is the novelization of the "E.T." movie, but that is the situation with Kotzwinkle, who hardly covers up the fact in his more traditional books- "writer of the best selling novel of 1982" his book jackets proclaim.   I double checked to make sure that it was a novelization, and that Kotzwinkle hadn't written the underlying story that the film was based upon.

  While it's not fair to call him "forgotten"- after all- he is still alive and has his own website, etc., it is fair to say that he is a surprise inclusion in the 1001 Books project.  Based on Midnight Examiner, I still can't explain it entirely- he writes firmly in the 1960's American tradition of "wowee zowee," that shows influence from comic books an pulp fiction.  Midnight Examiner is based on classic supermarket tabloids like Weekly World News, those that would simply fabricate a fantastic headline for the hell of it.

  As I read Midnight Examiner, it did occur to me that this era was relevant to our own era of "fake news," but I'm not sure anyone is around who is reading Kotzwinkle to care.  With his combination of quasi-serious fiction, genre fantasy/sci fi and popular novelizations of popular films, Kotzwinkle is kind of a real-life Kilgore Trout, the (fictional) muse of Kurt Vonnegut's many novels.

Typical (1991) by Padgett Powell


Book Review
Typical (1991)
by Padgett Powell

   Padgett Powell is typically known as a writer from the "new South" or Southern literary tradition.  This is a line of literature essentially established by William Faulkner en toto, and then echoed by excellent writers like Flannery O'Connor and Carson McCullers.  Traditionally, this school was called "Southern Gothic" to indicate a level of creepiness that seems to go hand-in-hand with all the writers mentioned above.

  Powell, on the other hand, is more of a surrealist/post-modernist in the Donald Barthelme tradition, and Typical, which was his first collection of short stories, bears little in common with the other writers from the South, call it "Southern post-modernism."   Many of the short stories contained in Typical have little to no plot or even incident, characters go unnamed, statements go unexplained, none of it really makes sense but all of the stories carry an unabashed southern vibe, which extends to the outre practice of a white author using the word "Nigger" in more than one of these stories.

  I would have liked to get more out of Typical, and I would consider returning to Powell and going deeper into his fiction, but Typical didn't do it for me.

Show Review: Chris Stapleton & Margo Price @ Amsoil Arena Duluth Minnesota



Show Review: Chris Stapleton & Margo Price
 @ Amsoil Arena
 Duluth Minnesota

  I circled this show on the calendar when it came out for two reasons:  It was the first show on the run of dates Margo Price is doing with Chris Stapleton and second, Amy has a college friend who lives in the magical, little-known part of the world called Bayfield, Wisconsin, gateway to the Apostle Islands.   The show was in Duluth, and Bayfield is about two hours away.  Also, it was in the first week of August, which is pretty much the only time I can imagine taking a chance on the weather of upper Minnesota and upper Wisconsin.

    Chris Stapleton is a man at the top of his game- dominating country music while existing largely outside the grosser aspects of it's public "bro-country" persona.  This is not to say that Stapleton is an outsider- he made his Nashville industry bones the old fashioned way: He wrote hits for assholes who didn't deserve them (not Adele).   He spent 14 years in the trenches before he got his shot and then he took it like a guy sitting in a deer blind 100  yards away takes down a prize buck with his sited hunting rifle.

  Although Stapleton himself was not in evidence back stage, you could see that he is a class act- mainly from the craft service buffet, created by an east-Nashvillian with an excellent reputation as a chef.  I also heard that he personally reached out prior to the tour to make sure that any concerns on behalf of the support act were taken care of.  If you know ANYTHING about how opening bands are treated on tour by the headliner, you will realize how rare it is that a headliner would do something like that.

  The Amsoil Arena is a college hockey arena for the local university, University of Minnesota, Duluth, who are a fixture at the NCAA "frozen four" college hockey tournament.  Like everything in built up parts of Minnesota, it was linked together by tunnels and sky-bridges to other buildings in the Duluth Cultural-Entertainment complex- we spent most of our night in the dressing room of another, smaller arena which must have preceded the current one.

   Margo Price's opening set was warmly received by the already full arena.  The show was not a sell out, but according to available information, an arena sell out at the Amsoil Arena in Duluth Minnesota is rare to non existent.   By comparison, the next show on the tour, at a casino complex outside of St. Louis, was a sell out at just under 20k.

  Margo had just released her new EP, Weakness, and I returned from the weekend to this article, castigating "all those responsible" for releasing the new EP.  (Saving Country Music: Quit Releasing Music Via the Short Form EP- with 49 comments)   So mis-guided, that particular take, which is critical of the "surprise EP"- and I just wanted to take the time to say that literally every argument in that post, while perhaps applicable to other artists, is not applicable to Margo Price.
  

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