VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Threepenny Novel (1934) by Bertolt Brecht


Book Review
Threepenny Novel (1934)
 by Bertolt Brecht

  Bertolt Brecht's canonical work is the Threepenny Opera, a musical that he co-wrote with Kurt Weill- most Americans know the Bobby Darin song, Mack the Knife- which originally appeared in the German language musical.  Threepenny Novel is most appropriately described as a sequel to Threepenny Opera, with the main characters appearing several years AFTER the events of Threepenny Opera.

  The low life criminals of Threepenny Opera have matured, in Threepenny Novel Jonathan Peachum, the beggar king owns a line of retail shops, as does Macheath (AKA Mack the Knife.)  Polly Peachum, winsome daughter of Jonathan Peachum, marries Macheath, a business competitor of her daughter, and all hell breaks lose in terms of plot.  Like many other novels of the 1930s, Brecht creates a portrait of "modern" capitalism which is simply crime by other means.  

 If you aren't clear on it going in, you will understand by the end that Brecht is no fan of consumer capitalism.  His critique is something like a literary equivalent of the writers of the Frankfurt school: that consumer capitalism is low.  Since the captains of industry in Threepenny Novel are literally the criminals of Threepenny Opera, Brecht does little to disguise his critique, and perhaps this explains the lack of interest from contemporary American readers.

Monday, February 23, 2015

At the Mountains of Madness (1936) by H.P. Lovecraft

Horror writer H.P. Lovecraft is best known for his "Cthulhu" mythos.  His novella At the Mountains of Madness essentially created the "ancient astronaut" genre of fantasy/crazy.



Book Review
At the Mountains of Madness (1936)
by H.P. Lovecraft

   H.P. Lovecraft is one of those authors where it's like, if you've never heard of the guy, you are probably better off, because the people who like H.P. Lovecraft are a bunch of creeps and weirdo's.  The Lovecraftian aesthetic of tentacles, aliens, mysticism and "Nameless horrors" continues to remain vibrant and has a real and vital influence on Hollywood sci fi and genre fiction.  Like many sci fi/fantasy titles on the 1001 Books list, Lovecraft is included for the strength of his vision, not as a master of the prose form.  

  As such, At the Mountains of Madness has both the good and bad of Lovecraft in its 100ish pages. Plot and character development are minimal, but his ability to integrate recent (as of the late 1920s) archeological discoveries and the breathtaking setting- Antarctica push this particular story out of the realm of normal sci fi fantasy and into something deeper. 

  Readers note- good luck finding a stand alone copy- look at his story collections, At the Mountains of Madness is typically included but not always. 

Friday, February 20, 2015

Murphy (1938) by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett as a student in the 1920s.


































Book Review
Murphy (1938)
by Samuel Beckett

  You can get away with calling Samuel Beckett either the "last of the modernists" or the "first of the post-modernists" in casual conversation, either assertion is easily buttressed by  Murphy, one of Beckett's few novels.  Published in 1938, the end of the modernist period, it contains a main character whose behavior is more in line with precepts of post modernism than any particular strain of modernism.  Murphy is equally obsessed with not working and conducting breathing and meditation exercises while tightly restrained in a chair.

 Beckett's prose technique is recognizably modernist or avant garde, but not excessively so. It's hard not to compare Murphy to novels written by James Joyce in their similar espousal of a low budget, pre-1960s concern with non-traditional brands of spirituality.  For example, Joyce's Ulysses is infused with multiple ruminations about Kabbalah.  Murphy has no explicit ideology, Samuel Beckett clearly did not want him to have any appreciable motivation.  At the end of Beckett, he is immolated in his "proper garrett" inside the insane asylum where he works.   The portion of the book where Beckett goes to work among the insane is the only part that could be considered to have "action."  The rest takes place mostly in the apartment of Beckett and his hooker girlfriend.

  The relationship of Beckett and James Joyce is no secret, occupying pride of place on Wikipedia for Samuel Beckett's "Early Works" heading.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Crocodiles, Best Coast Announce New LP's, Crocodiles/Spirit Club Play SD

Crocodiles, Best Coast Announce New LP's, Crocodiles/Spirit Club Play SD

Event Previews

Crocodiles
Colleen Green
@ Hideout, San Diego, CA.
March 2nd, 2015

Spirit Club
Other Bodies
Chill Pill
@ Hideout, San Diego, CA.
March 4th, 2015

Crocodiles- Cry Baby Demon MP3- STEREOGUM
Best Coast Album Announcement - PITCHFORK

  If it's March then it must be time to crank up the 2015 promotional cycle. If you aren't Beyonce, Drake or a no-one, you aren't releasing your record between December and February, so it's normal for albums to be announced in mid February, after President's Day Weekend.  Such was the case today with Crocodiles announcing their Boys LP(Zoo Music) and Best Coast announcing The Only Place (Harvest Records.)

  This is the first year in several that I've been personally uninvolved in putting out an LP.  Usually this time of year is spent making sure that the album is complete and ready to manufacture, and then lining up the promotional efforts and coordinating.  And, you know, writing checks.  I think if you look at Best Coast...any aesthetic claims aside, valid or not, they are bulletproof. The fact that the record is coming out on Harvest likely means that Best Coast paid for the record themselves, and will be dictating their terms to Harvest along traditional indie lines.  Harvest of course, is ultimately an outpost for a major label(Capitol), thus the "major label debut" language of some of the blog write-ups.

  I suspect this was not exactly a last second arrangements, but not something that involves multiple LPs.  Certainly, Best Coast will be looking for a strong presence on the Billboard Chart, and the major question with this record is where it will land after the first week of sales.  Putting the record out on Harvest essentially says that Best Coast is satisfied with the status quo and really who could blame them in that regard.

Crocodiles are releasing their record on their own label, Zoo Music, and doing a pledge drive to support promotional costs.  That aside, they have the groundwork in place for a credible release, pending audience reaction.  I think essentially,,, that audience size is the make or break issue for Crocodiles at this point.  If you look at bands, the ultimate, bald question is "How many zeros can they put after the "1" on a check.  For 95% plus of all music the answer is "no zeros."  Then you've got hundred dollar checks(three figures), which many local bands can make on a night.

  Then in the four figures, you've got bands that can credibly tour major markets in the US and release a record nationally and internationally, maybe get some kind of money from a sponsor or for an ad.    Bands that can generate 10,000 are the artistic middle class. Five figure bands could be making 10,000 in a year or 90,000 in a month.   Six figure bands are the level where someone (maybe not the artist) is making a living,  We're talking about bands that get million dollar advances, play theaters and festivals, and land major synchs on multiple occasions.

   And I'll tell you that one of the things that I can do is tell the difference between the five figure and six figure bands.  There are not that many of the six/sevens around period, you can basically name them all if you are familiar with whatever genre of music you are talking about.  The point being that bands that can't make it from four to five figures are dead or semi-professional.  Bands at the five figure level are having fun but not creating a life of financial freedom and bands at the six figure level are supporting an eco system around them and may or may not enjoy financial freedom depending on their potential arrangements.

   Two other bands mentioned above have records coming out, Colleen Green, who has another LP coming on Hardly Art/Sub Pop, got something like the traditional label treatment- flying out to Nashville to record in the studio of that band JEFFF the brotherhood.  Spirit Club is a vehicle for Nathan "Wavves" Williams younger brother, Joel "Kynan" Williams and local scene stalwart Andrew "Jeans Wilder" Caddick.  It is being released on Ghost Ramp records, which is Nathan's own label, and I'm generally interested to see how that pans out.

 Surely, the first week of March, with the celebration of a year at the Hide Out, will be a week among weeks locally.

Brighton Rock (1938) by Graham Greene


Book Review
Brighton Rock (1938)
by Graham Greene

   I'm two books deep into the Graham Greene oeuvre and I can already see why he is such a favorite of the 1001 Books editors: 1) English 2) Catholic 3) Had popular hits that combined genre work with "serious" subjects.   Both England Made Me and Brighton Rock have worked in genre areas: England Made Me is a proto-spy thriller and Brighton Rock more straight forward crime fiction.  I preferred the former to the latter.   Brighton Rock actually has a Catholic theme, with "Pinkie" Brown, the hero/anti hero/protagonist frequently referring to his own Catholic faith and that of others.

  The plot of Brighton Rock is straight forward: Pinkie kills a guy who kills his boss, and then he marries the only witness, a young waitress who is a willing accomplice in his scheme to prevent her from eventually testifying against him any potential court action.  It's a little thin, as crime thriller plots go, and there is something quintessentially Catholic about a gangster who MARRIES a woman simply to keep her from POSSIBLY testifying against him in a case that hasn't been initiated. The marriage assumes he will be charged with murder and need her to NOT testify.  That seems... to be a somewhat remote possibility during the entire book

   Mechanics aside, there is much to enjoy in Brighton Rock, particularly the setting and the inherent pleasure of an English crime novel set outside of London, which seems to be the location for most every English novel that doesn't take place "in the country."

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Of Mice and Men (1937) by John Steinbeck

James Franco as George and Chris O'Dowd as Lenny in the 2014 stage revival of Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, first published in 1937.

Book Review
Of Mice and Men (1937)
by John Steinbeck

  This last portion of the 1001 Books Project has felt a bit like a high school english class:  Of Mice and Men, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Burmese Days... the combination of Authors and titles is such that almost everyone with a junior college degree has read one of the three.  To be fair Burmese Days by George Orwell isn't one of this top hits, but Orwell is a monster of high school English class.  Of Mice and Men is clearly a book I should have read in school:  It's by a native Californian author, it is set in the Great Depression and it is barely 100 pages long- if even that.


Of Mice and Men was Steinbeck's first hit.  As the chronology of his life included in the back of the volume which contained it makes clear, Steinbeck went through a great deal of struggle both before and after fame.  Before, he lived in garrets, worked in warehouses and lived off of Daddy's money.  After, he cheated on his wife, got divorced and struggled with numerous physical and mental maladies.  He would go on to publish The Grapes of Wrath and win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

 Today he is considered the most famous inhabitant of the Monterey/Carmel/Pacific Grove/Salinas Central Coast area, with his own museum and numerous landmarks.  His description of Central Coast places like Tortilla Flats and Cannery Row have become synonymous with those places, as do his descriptions of Depression area farming life in the Central Valley.

  Of Mice and Men is located firmly inland in what sounds like the Northern reaches of the Central Valley.  The kind hearted George and slow witted Lenny are iconic literary figures.  My take is that the success of Of Mice and Men is tied to his depiction of a mentally challenged character with a level of insight and sensitivity that is new to literature.  He also generates enough atmosphere to keep attention despite the banal surroundings.  The timelessness of the fields being worked are given a sharp counter-point by the action sequences- flirting, fistfights and more.  The overall impact is to create a pleasing rhythm in spite of the awkward length.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) by Zora Neale Hurston


Book Review
Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
by Zora Neale Hurston

  Virtually forgotten by the 1960s, Their Eyes Were Watching God and the work of Zora Neale Hurston is a great example of a literary revival.  According to the afterword in the edition I read, near the end of her life Hurston was working as a maid in Florida, and she was buried in an unmarked grave, which Toni Morrison famously located.  Hurston is the acknowledged inspiration for Morrison.   Unlike most of the major works of the Harlem Renaissance, Their Eyes Were Watching God is written in vernacular and Janie Crawford is no tragic mulatto (she is mixed race, though.)

  Crawford's story is notable for a sophisticated rendering of the inner life of an unsophisticated heroine.  Huston, a student of Franz Boas (famous anthropologist) was sophisticated as any author in the 1930s, but Janie is not.  Despite an absence of formal education, Janie is a subtle, complicated character.  She demonstrates deep personal insight and the book basically has a happy ending.

   

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Burmese Days (1934) by George Orwell


Book Review
Burmese Days (1934)
by George Orwell

  George Orwell is a staple of English class from Junior High, where Animal Farm is a perennial, to High School, where 1984 is required reading, to college, where Homage to Catalonia, Down and Out in London and Paris and his short story Killing An Elephant are like as not to pop up in the general requirements for a B.A. degree.  Orwell is certainly not fashionable in post-graduate circles, quite the opposite, with his reputation suffering in the aftermath of the 1960s led revolution in voices outside the limited perspective of the entitled white male.   Although George Orwell made his reputation on books criticizing mid 20th century totalitarianism in ways that anticipate much of 20th and 21st century radical thought, he himself was a relentlessly bourgeois white male with issues related to women.

  This makes his more autobiographical novels, including Burmese Days, more of a chore and less appealing for the contemporary reader than his immortal hits.  BUT if you are someone who actually likes George Orwell and aren't just reading him because of a school assignment, it is more biographical works that really tell us about the Author.   Andddd man, he seems like he really had issues with women.  Burmese Days pivots on the relationship between John Flory, the Orwell figure, his Malaysian slave-prostitute and Elizabeth Lackersteen, a young English orphan (20 years old) who arrives in his remote Burmese village with the idea that she needs to find a husband and soon.

 Like the love interest in Keep the Aphrisdia Flying, Elizabeth Lackersteen is a confused figure whose inner life only appears as a reflection of the narrative of Flory.  In his more biographical novels, the love story takes second shift to the struggle between man and society.  In Burmese Days, his critique of the British Imperialist project is trenchant and insightful.  The lower level government employees and European representatives of Corporations doing business in the Teak forests of Burma are a surly and servile lot.

 Compared to their Burmese and Indian counterparts (Burma was a part of India under British rule), the English are one dimensional a-holes; all the depth is reserved for the fascinating native characters, Flory himself excepted.  Modern readers are likely to find Burmese Days troubling for repeated use of ethnic slurs and the casual use and disuse of a sex slave in the context of British Imperial rule.  

Monday, February 09, 2015

England Made Me (1935) by Graham Greene

 Book Review
England Made Me (1935)
by Graham Greene

    England Made Me is loosely based on the life of Swedish industrialist and con man Ivar Kreuger.  Kreuger invented several financial instruments (debentures, Class A and Class B shares) and became internationally famous before committing suicide in 1933.  Kreuger's legacy is somewhere between John Rockefeller and Bernie Madoff-  his confused Wikipedia entry is a testament to his mixed legacy.

    England Made Me, while not quite a spy novel in the way his later books were, is close to being a spy novel in terms of character and theme.  Set in inter-war Stockholm, with a shiftless English protagonist possessing some of the attributes that would later be associated with Secret Agents and Spies in 20th century fiction, I was waiting for Greene to shift into a higher gear that never came.  I suppose that is something that he developed later in his career, but England Made Me is still a suspenseful, atmospheric read, and at 200 or so pages this is a book you can digest during a morning commute on the train or on vacation.

Friday, February 06, 2015

The Man Without Qualities, Volume 1(1930) by Robert Musil


Book Review
The Man Without Qualities, Volume 1(1930)
 by Robert Musil

   The Man Without Qualities is two volumes, the first, 720 pages long, the second, over a thousand pages and unfinished.  Volume One consists of two books and volume two of a third book.  The Man Without Qualities is one of those books that haunts the precincts of 20th century literature enthusiasts, occupying a space somewhere between the "late realist classic symbolist" work of Thomas Mann and the stranger musings of Franz Kafka.  Unlike The Confusions of Young Torless (1906), which is an intimate portrayal of a high school age youth, The Man Without Qualities is a grand drama on the scale of The Magic Mountain, with equal parts character development and philosophical musings.

   I think the thoughts that cross the mind of anyone who has heard of The Man Without Qualities  and is considering reading it are first, do you have to read it at all? Second: Can you get away with only reading one volume?  For the latter question the answer is yes, one volume certainly does suffice.  The second volume revolves mostly around a sister who is not featured in the second volume at all, and the first volume ends on no kind of a cliff hanger.  As to the former question, I would say probably not.  Especially if you've read The Magic Mountain and other works of late realism.  While I finished The Man Without Qualities, Volume 1 satisfied, there were moments where Musil resembles nothing so more as an Austrian Anthony Trollope or Theodore Dreiser, flailing at the onset of modernity with a luddite mace.

   The pace of the narrative is glacial for the first six hundred pages, and only in the last hundred and twenty does the reader get anything resembling a spark: first the description by one character of her attempted seduction by her own father, and then the revelation that a critical character is motivated to be involved in the central charitable endeavor by his desire to access the "coal fields of Galacia." Although firmly a work of the twentieth century, with character who use automobiles and telephones, the tint of the 19th century "novel of ideas" is well ingrained The Man Without Qualities.

  I would say that if you are a reader nostalgic for 19th century fiction vs. 20th century, The Man Without Qualities is a must on the list.  Budget at least a month for the first volume and longer for the second.

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