Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Loving (novel)(1945) by Henry Green

Loving (novel)(1945)
by Henry Green

  I think Loving, the 1945 novel written by English novelist Henry Green, is his big hit.  The library copy is part of a single volume containing three novels by Green, Loving, Living (1929) and Party Going (1939).   Henry Green is what you call an "authors author," favored by those who write and read for a living.  For example, the introduction to this volume is written by John Updike, who claims that Green "taught him how to write."

 All of his books are quiet, well observed "slices of life" about English people, even this book, which is actually set in Ireland.  The staff of a castle owned by a member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, and the dialogue, variously between members of the staff and the staff and the resident family (mother, grandson, grandson's wife)- makes it clear that there is an "us" of protestant house and staff and the catholic "other."  The very slight plot is set into motion by the arrival of an insurance agent investigating a report of a missing ring.  The fact that the initials of his firm are "I.R.A" spur a lengthy discussion about the dangers of the native Irish to the house and its staff.

  Green manage to introduce larger issues about society within Loving that contribute to its enduring popularity.   It is the combining of larger issues within a smaller frame of personal relationships that makes him different from prior novelists.  One of the major literary trends of the mid to late 20th century is miniaturist, with novelists focusing intently on a very small field of action, with few characters and little plot.  Green is perhaps the first novelist to really work this area over the course of the career, and Loving is the best example of his technique, the work of a mature writer at the top of his game.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The War of the Gods (1985) by Jarich G. Oosten

Tuatha de Danann: Irish/Celtic Gods, an illustration

Book Review
The War of the Gods (1985)
 by Jarich G. Oosten

   Comparative indo european linguistics and mythology is a deep well. The Indo European languages: English, French, German, Slavic languages, Farsi, Hindi, all the other European languages that aren't basque.  Basically every major language that isn't East Asian, Semitic(Arabic, Hebrew) and Tamil (Southern India.)   Thus, there is some original language, often called "Proto Indo European" that describes a people whose descendants would make up a majority of the world's population in 2015.

  Unfortunately, this was a line of thought very much embraced by Hitler and the Nazi's in support of their disturbed ideology.  Hitler, the Nazi's and his favorite scholars identified the "master race" as Aryans.  Aryans actually did exist, it was the name that Vedic invaders gave themselves when they entered into India.

  Oosten takes the approach of stacking myths from several different cultures: Scandinavian, Roman, Irish and Hindi are particular favorites.   His thesis that there is some kind of proto war of the gods that spans across the different Indo European languages.  In These War of the Gods he attempts to identify different "structural elements," typically starting with the best attested example of the particular element and then bringing in additional examples from different civilizations.  This i isn't state of the art scholarship- and it is more interesting in terms of just seeing someone stack parallel mythos next to one another.

  Also, the elements themselves are interesting:
 The war of the gods itself:  Between two (or more) groups related by blood- he talks of "wive giving" and "wive taking groups," where a group of "new gods" displaces the "old god."  Here, the best example is the Scandinavian wars between the giants and gods and the war between the Aesir and the Vanir.
 The cycle of the mead: This is the story of a sacred beverage- best known from the "Soma" of Vedic myth, which is a holy, intoxicating beverage.  For western europeans, this became mead- a honeyed, fermented alcoholic beverage.  In the cycle of mean a god steals the sacred beverage from some keeper and then makes it available to the other gods.
  Oosten also compares the lesser known Irish myths regarding the battle of Mag Tured to the better known "history" of the Roman kings.  Oosten argues that in the former case, history has been turned to myth, and in the later, myth has been transformed into history.

  Without getting too heavy into the subject, any artist searching for deeper rhythms of human understanding should have some idea about these underlying myths that link disparate cultures.  These are ideas that resonate beyond an individual language/culture.  While not universal, they point towards a universality of mind among all humanity.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Ancient Central Andes by Jeffrey Quilter

The Lanzon is a temple complex that represents the best example of Chavin temple architecture.  The Chavin were a pre-Incan culture that dominated central Peru.  The site is called Chavin de Huantar.

Book Review
The Ancient Central Andes
by Jeffrey Quilter
Published December 21st, 2013

  It wasn't until I was physically IN Peru that I understood that ancient Peru is waaaaay more than just the Incas.  The Central Andes- which covers an area ranging from Ecuador to Chile covers the same amount of distance as the trip from London to Baghdad.  The geography ranges from the highest, driest desert in the world to tropical jungle, with everything in between.  The serious study of non-Incan central Andean cultures is firmly a 20th century concern, with an early period of indigenous, non-professional archeologists leading the charge, and western educated professional archeologists only showing up in recent years.

The so-called Chavin culture was an important pre-Incan civilization.
     Much of the work done in the last few decades has yet to be synthesized in a way that a non-professional can easily access, which means that The Ancient Central Andes by Jeffrey Quilter comes as a welcome addition to the Andean history shelf.  Placed in context, the Incans are merely the last flourishing of a common Weltanschauung, similar to the way that the Roman Empire was the heir to thousands of years of Mediterranean civilization.
One of the commonalities of the Central Andean cultures is sophisticated weaving.  The West only caught up in the 20h century.

   The interesting, unresolved questions about Central Andean civilization start at the beginning.  Did humans come to the region on foot or by boat?  The traditional view is that humans crossed a land bridge exposed by the smaller oceans of the last glacial maximum.  A newer perspective argues that humans made their way down the Pacific coast by boat.  Quilter seems to cautiously support this hypothesis, and the corollary hypothesis that Andean civilization spread from the sea to the mountains.

  Other scholars have argues that the first sophisticated cultures came either from a paradisaical "sweet spot" in southern Ecuador or from the Amazonian jungle.  Investigations continue but I think the sea travel hypothesis is a strong one.  One fact stood out in particular- the chile pepper- which is virtually synonymous with Mexico, actually comes from Peru.  This means that at some point someone got on a boat and took a chile pepper to Mexico.
This map shows the area controlled by the Tiwanaku and Huari, the two groups who immediately preceded the Incans.

  The major non-Incan civilizations, all named after the places they were discovered are the Chavin, the Moche, the Tiwanaku and the Wari.  The Tiwanaku and Wari immediately preceded the Incans.  Information about all four groups is still being pieced together.  Knowledge about the Wari has been especially slow in emerging because their capital was also near the capital of the violent Shining Path revolutionary group, and archeologists couldn't gain access for several decades.
Moche pottery contains several obscene motifs, a favorite being fellatio and another being anal sex.  Here, both figures are male.

   Taken in context, the Incans are less impressive, stone cutting and dynastic ambition aside.  The outline of a more-or-less common civilization emerges from the combination of archeology and history.   The high watermarks of the Chavin and Moche appear to be temple-based.  Presumably a temple based elite was able to form a loose polity.  Human sacrifice was common through out the various groups.  Weaving and pottery, corn and cocoa all characterized the larger Andean culture area.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Early Mainland Southeast Asia: From First Humans to Angkor by Charles Higham

The Khmer Empire was the major player in the South East Asia of the Middle Ages.  Their major rivals were the Cham, who mostly occupied the coast.

Book Review
Early Mainland Southeast Asia: From First Humans to Angkor
by Charles Higham
Published July 25th, 2014
by River Press Books

    South East Asia is one of those areas where investigations into early human history have been thwarted by a combination of circumstances including lack of interest, war and difficult terrain.  Fortunately, the 21st century have seen advances on all three fronts.  Most importantly the new technique of using "LIDAR" ground imaging technology to map areas covered by dense forest and jungle has been instrumental in advancing historical-archeological investigations in this area.
The Funan polity was an early proto-state centered in the Mekong delta area.

   The historical narrative surrounding South East Asia traditionally runs something like this: Stone age people living in the area were raised up from ignorance by Indian Sanskrit speaking traders and holy men, then Chinese traders and armies advanced from the North and this combination produced state-lets that eventually solidified into the Khmer empire, which lasted until the 14th century, after which the civilization of South East Asia was more or less "set."  

     Higham makes the (convincing) case that the existing civilization was more advanced than what historians have traditionally though.   Advances in metallurgy and agriculture were indigenous, not brought by Indian/Sanskrit speaking traders.  Rather, the Sanskritization of South East Asia was more likely the adoption of a state-centered ideology by a local elite, who adopted Sanskrit names and Indian methods to support early state building exercises in the area.

   The Chinese sent traders and armies south and most importantly, they sent writers who provide most of the factual early descriptions of this area.  In fact, any serious treatment of this period and place require that the author have a comprehensive grasp of Chinese historical documents AND archeological findings, typically written in Sanskrit.
Photograph of a "Negrito" woman from the Philippines
      South East Asia is also interesting from a pre-historical standpoint, as a major pathway for human migration.  Fun fact: African type people called "Negritos" by the locals still exist in South East Asia in remote hunter-gatherer societies, providing a modern link to a historical migration stretching back to Africa.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Metamorphoses (8 AD) by Ovid

Bernini's The Rape of Prosperina (commonly called "The Rape of Persephone" illustrates a scene from Greek and Roman mythology that Ovid narrates in his Metamorphoses.

Book Review
Metamorphoses (8 AD)
 by Ovid

  The pre-18th century section of the 1001 Books list seems more arbitrary then the rest of the time periods, perhaps because so few books were selected.  The Odyssey and the Iliad are absent, as is the Aeneid.   There are no Greek plays included, and Plato's The Republic doesn't make the cut.  Perhaps it is because the Editors assume that anyone interested in a list of "1001 Books to Read Before You Die" will have already read The Odyssey and that The Republic isn't "literary" enough to merit inclusion. 

  Metamorphoses is a late Roman period compilation of Greek and Roman mythos, with a nod to historical and current events.  It contains everything from creation myths, to tales of war and adventure between humans and centaurs, to familiar "Greek" myths like those of Hercules and Perseus, to retellings of The Odyssey, The Iliad AND The Aeneid.   There is a loose chronological path from pre-human times of the Gods, through mythological times featuring interactions between gods and men, to historic times and current events.   There is no framing narrative by the author, the stories are just lumped together in a series of "Books."
Titian's Death of Actaeon is a familiar tale from Metamorphoses, where Actaeon is turned into a stag because he saw the Goddess Diana naked.

  It's worth reproducing the Wikipedia description of each book, I found myself looking at it consistently so I could figure out what was going on in each story. (1)  As I was reading this book, I gradually became aware that Metamorphoses is one of those key documents that inform the imagination of hundreds of years worth of artistic inspiration.

  Metamorphoses was never "lost" and so it was there at the beginning of the Renaissance when people were looking for a new ascetic.  Metamorphoses would have been fashionable, as it were, and it would have been a foundational text for any printing press in terms of a book that the public would want to purchase.   Although written as a lengthy poem, the text is readable as prose.  In this regard the Librivox version was sub-optimal and was just read as prose, not poetry.  I'm sure I liked the prose version more than I would have liked a version which attempted to preserve the pentameter of the Latin. 

  You can use Metamorphoses as a kind of handbook for artistic inspiration and tony sounding cultural references- in this regard the special Wikipedia page just for the characters in Metamorphoses would be useful.  In fact, I think Metamorphoses is more of a one-stop shop for a book on Greek and Roman mythology, and in that way it's maybe more crucial than The Odyssey or The Iliad.

  • Book IThe Creation, the Ages of Mankind, the flood, Deucalion and Pyrrha, Apollo and Daphne, Io, Phaëton.
    • Book XIV – Scylla and Glaucus (cont.), the pilgrimage of Aeneas (cont.), the island of Circe, Picus and Canens, the triumph and apotheosis of Aeneas, Pomona and Vertumnus, legends of early Rome, the apotheosis of Romulus.

    Sunday, May 17, 2015

    Howards End (1910) by E.M. Forster

    Book Review
    Howards End (1910)
     by E.M. Forster

      Please note, there is no apostrophe in the title- that is a COMMON misconception.  I've been making my way through Howards End for months due to the fact that I've been reading it on my Kindle, and I actually lost my Kindle soon after I started, and I hardly use my Kindle anymore because I have run out of Public Domain books I can download for free on my Kindle  (most books published after 1915 are still under copyright, and therefore, not free.)

      Howards End continues to be a  "top 100 novels of all time" list perennial and I suppose this reflects both its continued popularity with the reading public, a plot that straddles the Victorian and Modern period, and a writing style that is unobtrusively sophisticated.  It says something about Forster as an author that his books can be read as "light" or subjected to the most searching analysis.  I think reading Forster in after reading late Victorian authors like Trollope or early Modernists like Henry James is a mistake, Forster is best enjoyed in isolation from his peers, as a kind of literary iceberg.

      This isn't because he is so different, quite the opposite.  Reading any of Forster's books can not but help to evoke his literary contemporaries, and some of the subtle pleasures of his work can be lost amidst the natural human instinct to compare like works of art.  If there is some aspect of Howards End (or any of Forster's hits) that is incredibly path breaking, I straight up missed it.  Finishing Howards End months after I'd finished the other books from this time period left me feeling nostalgic for simpler, pre-modernist literature, where men were rich, women were poor, and books were about marriage, property and families.

     In the 20th century, the literature of these types of concerns would expand to encompass the entire globe, but when Forster was writing, the intent focus on the concerns of the upper and upper middle classes of England and American was almost claustrophobic, and in this way Forster would be the last of the Anglo-American author to tread the grounds of his late-Victorian peers.  I'm reminded of William Faulkner's quote about Henry James, "Henry James was one of the nicest old ladies I've ever met."   Forster, a gay man who was not, in any sense of the word, "out."  Did not right about the physical passion that would obsess contemporaries like D.H. Lawrence.  His is the sexless world of the pre World War I Victorian aristocracy.   In Howards End, the half-German Schlegel sisters are his stand ins for the Bloomsbury group, and their sexuality is between unconvincing and non-existent.

       An illicit affair and illegitimate birth happens entirely off set.  Forster uses the birth to animate the end game of his inter generational story of marriage and property, but there is no physical passion on offer.  And clearly, this is something readers want and continue to want.

    Go Down, Moses (1942) by William Faulkner

    Book Review
    Go Down, Moses (1942)
    by William Faulkner

      Each Faulkner novel I read, I ask myself, "Do people still read William Faulkner OR WHAT?"  I've actually already done a post about the decline of interest in Faulkner between his high watermark in the early 1980s and today.  Specifically, in 1985, Ernest Hemingway surpassed Faulkner in terms of number of mentions in the English language, a phenomenon you can see clearly illustrated in the above Google Ngram.  Hemingway himself isn't exactly in vogue these days, so that shift in number of mentions is particularly telling. 

      My sense is that Faulkner has suffered because of the explicit themes of sex, violence and race relations which permeate his work.  His modernist prose style doesn't help, but the combination of the four factors makes him largely unreadable for High School students, vastly limiting his potential audience.  I can also see how his "white maleness" would make him an unpalatable subject for graduate students in literature, another huge potential audience.   Was Faulkner ever a popular, best selling author?  Certainly after he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1949, but  not before then, when his audience was confined to the literati.

      I've seen Go Down, Moses referred to as both a collection of short stories and a novel.  Initially, readers and reviewers read the collection of loosely connected chapters as a compilation of thematically similar short stories, but later readers have, rightly I think, argued that Go Down, Moses is actually a loosely structured novel.  In Go Down, Moses Faulkner concerns himself with the confused family history of the McCaslins.  The family has two branches, one black, one white.  The chapters move backwards and forwards and time, and rarely spell out for the reader the precise nature of the twisted family dynamics between the slaves and slave owners.

       Finally, after reading the unusually stylized Wikipedia entry for this book, I realized that the complication at the heart of Go Down, Moses is that of a white male slave owner having a child by a slave, and then having a child with that (female) daughter.  Hunting is also a major theme in here, with multiple stories dealing with the tracking and hunting of a wily old bear.  I guess they have bears in Mississippi?

    Wednesday, May 13, 2015

    How to Hire a Reputable Criminal Defense Lawyer/Attorney

    How to Hire a Reputable Criminal Defense Lawyer/Attorney
    by Scott Pactor
    Attorney at law

      I am Criminal Defense Lawyer.  I practice in Southern California, San Diego, Los Angeles, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Imperial.  I've managed to hold down a five star Yelp profile for several years, and because of that I get a lot of calls from people who have met with other lawyers.  By talking to them, I've learned some things, and I wanted to share them with other people who are thinking about hiring a criminal defense lawyer.

      The main trap that people fall into is hiring a "Center" or "Group."  These entities- I won't call them law offices, operate on the fringes of ethical behavior and they prey upon the fact that most people hiring a Criminal Defense Attorney are doing so for the first time, and will probably never do it again.   These places will often have generic sounding names that include something group and then the telling "Center" or "Group" (although I note some sophisticated examples of this practice are abandoning the center/group.)

      The way these places work is they hire SEO experts and online marketers to create an on-line advertising presence for their practice, let's call it "Pacific Law Center" to give a familiar example.  There is nothing wrong about using on-line advertising, I use on-line advertising- many ethical lawyers do.  However, typically what happens next is problematic.  After the initial contact, the potential client or "lead" talks not to a lawyer, but rather a non-lawyer whose purpose is to vet the client and set up a meeting with an actual attorney.

      These client screeners often come from a sales background.  They may masquerade as a legal secretary or para-legal, but they are not.  The purpose of these screeners is not to give people a fair and honest opinion about your situation, but to sell you.   Running an operation like I've described requires an operational budget far beyond that of a normal attorney's office, so they have every impetus to make false representations and do what I call selling false hope.

      Once a potential client has been vetted, the meeting with the actual lawyer typically involves a lot of selling of false hopes.  Promises like "I'll get the case dismissed;" or "You have nothing to worry about," are combined with probing questions about the resources available, and eventually a quoted price is given.  Prices are typically in line with market rates, but these operations are always looking for native potential clients willing to pay far in excess of what an average lawyer would charge.

       How can you avoid this fate?  First of all, you may want to skip talking to any entity that fits any of the following characteristics:
      1.  Has "Group" or "Center" in their name and is otherwise vague about which lawyer runs the practice.
     2.  Has you talk to a non-lawyer for longer then it takes to set up a phone call or meeting with a real lawyer.
    3.  Makes you fill out questionnaires that include questions designed to find out how much money you may have available.

      If you've already gone through that process and meet with a lawyer, you want to avoid sellers of false hope: lawyers who promise that they will make the case disappear.  I believe I speak on behalf of every single reputable lawyer I know, when I say that Criminal Defense Attorneys should not be in the business of selling false hope.

     Another warning sign is lawyers who give you the hard sell, want immediate payment, in exchange for doing something quickly that will "make the case go away." I've often heard people say that lawyers will promise to call the District Attorney before the case is filed and prevent it from being filled.  In my experience, this is almost 100% impossible and in all cases is an attempt to extract money from a client immediately.

      Finally, demanding to be paid the entire fee up front is not necessarily a problem, I know many lawyers who say that is their policy, but if it comes with other indicia mentioned above, it should be a red flag.

      Conversely, reputable lawyers will do things like talk to you for free on the phone, schedule a free in person consultation, talk reasonably about payment plans, and tell you if they're services aren't actually required or if they are too busy or otherwise engaged to handle your case.   If you have any questions, you can call me.

    Tuesday, May 12, 2015

    Dangling Man (1944) by Saul Bellow

    Book Review
    Dangling Man (1944)
    by Saul Bellow

     The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune 1915-1964, a very long (832 pages) first volume of a projected multi-volume biography of the author, was published on May 5th of this year.  So I'm sitting in my place in Echo Park with the Sunday edition of the New York Times, perusing the book review section, and bang- front page.  Meanwhile I'm half-way through his first novel, Dangling Man, and I've never read anything else by Bellow, and kind of feel like one of those people who doesn't read movie reviews if they are going to watch the movie (I'm not one of those people) because I don't know a thing about Saul Bellow, and I know I'm going to get a number of his books inside the 1001 Books Project, and I'd rather just read the books and learn the biography as I go. 

     Saul Bellow is one of those authors who I vaguely equate with my parents, seen on the shelves at the homes of friends growing up, but not someone that was discussed let alone read by myself or my peers.  I guess I would probably lump him in with Hemingway in a vague way- though I now know, after reading several books by Hemingway, that the comparison isn't that apt.  Dangling Man is about a guy who is waiting to be called up the draft- he is kind of an artist, unemployed.  It's written in diary form.  It is like many first novels written by Anglo-American authors stretching back a half century by 1944.   You get a strong sense of the author as a struggling young artist.

      The diary format is inexplicable, and I guess one just chalks it up to what they call "early days" in the entertainment industry.  What comes after, I suppose, must be undeniable and Dangling Man is pleasant enough.  A diary format though.  I mean, really.

    Monday, May 11, 2015

    The Razor's Edge (1941) by W. Somerset Maugham

    Bill Murray costumed as Larry Darrell, the pilot seeker at the hear of The Razor's Edge

    Book Review
    The Razor's Edge (1941)
     by W. Somerset Maugham

      Bill Murray agreed to do Ghostbusters for Paramount in exchange for them financing his passion-project movie version of this book.  The movie was a horrific critical AND commercial flop, setting Back Murray's attempt to become a "serious" actor by several decades.  The Razor's Edge is an early template for the 60s era seekers novels about young men from the West seeking wisdom of the East.  In the photograph above- a scene which is only described via hearsay (Darrell describing something to another narrator who describes it to the reader)- it is already possible to see how Hollywood would mess up a movie version.

      The straightforward "boy seeks wisdom" tale is complicated by Maugham imposing  himself as a "truthful" narrator of the events.   "Maugham" consciously applies his craft to the supposedly non-fiction events, moving stories he has heard in later years into their proper place for the sake of the chronological narrative.   Like all of Maugham's novels, The Razor's Edge is much cleverer than the reader would expect with layers of characters and unexpected plot points.

     Also notable in The Razor's Edge is the way Maugham draws American characters.  I can't remember seeing such space devoted to purely American "types" in any other novel not written by an American up until this point.  Mostly, the American characters seem to say "d'ya" instead of "do you" whatever their class and station in life.

     Like all of Maugham's books, The Razor's Edge is under three hundred page and acute and funny.  The American characters add interest for a potential American audience, which seems to be consistent.  The edition I checked out from the San Diego Public Library was a Vintage Books paperback published in 2003.

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