VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Castle of Crossed Destinies (1974) by Italo Calvino


The Castle of Crossed Destinies contains illustrations in the margins of various cards from the Marseilles Tarot deck,
Book Review
The Castle of Crossed Destinies (1974)
by Italo Calvino

  Italo Calvino had multiple phases in his career as a novelist.  His early work, represented by The Path to the Nest of Spiders, clearly echoes the fiction of Ernest Hemingway and the nascent Italian neo-realist movement.   In the mid 1960's, Calvino hooked up with Raymond Queneau and the Oulipo movement:  A group of writers concerned with experimental "restricted writing" techniques, where the authors had to adhere to one or more rules ("Don't use any "e's" in your book" is an example.)

   The Castle of Crossed Destinies features of a group of travelers who are all at an inn, which may be a deserted castle.  For unexplained reasons none of them can talk, and they are forced to rely on a pack of tarot cards to tell their respective stories.   The narrator sits at the table with the other guests, and the text takes the form of small illustrations of the cards being displayed by the inn guests, with the interpretations of the cards being the main body of text.

  After hearing the stories from the other guests, the narrator tells his own story, and then there is a portion where Calvino shows all the cards simultaneously and explains an incredibly complicated schematic where all the cards were being shown at the same time, not one at a time as the stories occur in the first portion of the book.  It's a lot to grok in one hundred and thirteen pages.  I could have used a supplementary text to explain in more detail.  Understanding The Castle of Crossed Destinies in the context of the artificial restrictions of Oulipo makes sense, since it is a novel where none of the characters can talk.
  

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Book Review: Ragtime (1975) by E.L Doctorow


Elizabeth Mcgovern In Ragtime Young
Elizabeth McGovern played original "It-Girl" Evelyn Nesbit in the Milos Forman film version of E.L. Doctorow's 1975 novel Ragtime.



Book Review:
Ragtime (1975)
by E.L Doctorow  

I quite enjoyed Ragtime, Doctorow's 1975 work of historical fiction.  Set largely in New York in the years prior to World War I, Doctorow blends a large cast of fictional and non-fictional characters in refreshing and novel fashion.   You've got J.P. Morgan, Harry Houdini, Evelyn Nesbit (America's first "It Girl."  Each of these historical figures have a sub-plot where they are treated in an irreverent fashion, blending factual history with a work of fiction.

   The major plot concerns a wealthy family living outside of New York.  They are referred to only by their family names, Father, Mother, Younger Brother.  The narrator at times appears to be a young son of the family, other times Doctorow adopts the third person.  The plot takes some time to develop, what with all the existential musings by Houdini and J.P. Morgan's obsession with the Egyptian pyramids and immortality.  

  Mother finds an abandoned African American infant in their spacious yard.  She save the child and agrees to shelter the child's mother, an African American servant with no family.  Coalhouse Walker, the child's father, eventually finds his way to the family, where he slowly courts the mother of his child.  All appears to be headed towards a happy resolution for the young couple, when Walker's Model T Ford is vandalized by some local firefighters, resentful at the figure of an African American motorist using their roads.

   Coalhouse becomes obsessed with obtaining justice for his vehicle, and when his fiance suffers an untimely death, he goes off the rails and launches a terrorist campaign against the men who have wronged him.  Doctorow covers an amazing amount of territory in roughly 300 pages.  It's a lesson in succinctness that might have been better observed by his succesors.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) by Maya Angelou


Book Review
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)
by Maya Angelou

  Maya Angelou actually wrote a seven volume autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first volume, covering her childhood up to the birth of her son.  Angelou led an incredible life but Caged Bird is the single work which defines her.  Angelou was never a novelist in the mode of the typical twentieth century writer.   Her writing ranged from journalism to poetry.  She also worked in entertainment and politics.  Angelou had a huge revival/canonization during the 1990's, when President Bill Clinton had her recite a poem at his first term inauguration.

  In 2016 she remains a staple of student reading and the Oprah crowd.  Although described as an autobiography, the level of narrative art and skill applied to the material makes I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings more like autobiographical fiction.   Like Toni Morrison's, The Bluest Eye, or Harper Lee in To  Kill A Mockingbird, Angelou makes use of an unsophisticated child narrator to describe some very adult events.

   The matter of fact depiction of Angelou's violation as an eight year old at the hands of her Mother's companion escapes being unbearable only because the Angelou-narrator child lacks the vocabulary to describe the events accurately.   Like The Bluest Eye, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is about children but it is not children's literature.   The Angelou narrator character manages to cover most of the United States as she is shuffled between both sets of grand parents and her separated parents.

  The action begins in rural Arkansas, moves to urban St. Louis, then switches between Los Angeles and San Francisco.  Part of the value of Caged Bird is Angelou's skilled depiction of these different areas and the relationship dynamics between blacks and whites, and within the black community. Towards the end, the Angelou narrator character goes so far as to become the first black employee of the San Francisco street car company, lowering a barrier before she was out of high school.

  As is made very clear, Angelou was no ordinary child, reading Dickens and Defoe before she was out of grade school.  And despite the rape, she writes about a life that was essentially free of hardship.  In Arkansas, her father's mother, who she calls Momma, is almost the sole member of the black bourgeois, running the only shop that sells to African-American's in that part of Arkansas.  In St. Louis, her mothers mother is an essentially white mulatto who serves as a ward boss and commands a gang of her three sons and their cronies.

  Only her father, working a series of menial jobs and living in a trailer in Southern California, would fail to meet normal standards of middle class existence.   For African American author writing about life in the early part of the 20th century, little conflict needs to be invented.  The mere description of day-to-day existence is harrowing enough, every moment fraught with tension, or at least the potential for tension.

  It's no wonder that Caged Bird is close to being required reading for students.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Book Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) by John Le Carré



Book Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
 (1974) by John Le Carré


    Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is Le Carré's fictionalization of the Kim Philby and the Cambridge Five spy ring:  Upper class Brits who were caught spying for the Soviets in the early 1960's.   Le Carré famously blamed Philby for betraying his identity to the Soviets and being directly responsible for his termination from the English intelligence service in 1964.

    Tinker is regarded as an enduring classic of the spy-espionage genre.  Le Carré is an excellent example of a writer who has emerged from a popular genre to obtain a level of critical acclaim commensurate with the second tier of novelists- those who combine popular and critical success but have failed to win one of the major literary prizes for "serious" literature: A Nobel Prize, a National Book Award, the Booker Prize.

   Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Le Carré's career is it's length.  He is still publishing new novels, and he has a very viable brand in popular culture.  Witness The Night Manager- based on a more recent novel- being in talk for Emmy nominations.  The key to longevity for Le Carré is that he was never exclusively concerned with the Cold War, rather, the Cold War was simply the setting for a set of themes having to do with morality and ethics in the modern world.

  The moral ambiguity central to most of his books is largely absent in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in favor of a more conventional bad guy who-dun-it scenario.   Still,  it's clear from the continued vitality of his work that he transcended his time and place.  You could say that the world has grown to be more like the world Le Carre portrayed forty years later than it was when his books were published.  

  The idea that the good guys and the bad guys are morally equivalent is more tenable after then it was during the Cold War.   Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the first of his series of three Karla novels- named after the Soviet spy master who, it is clear, the author admires. Karla makes an actual appearance in Tinker only briefly- held in captivity in India during a low point in his relationship with his own country.   Smiley, the protagonist and some-times narrator of Tinker, is shown to be quite the lesser man than Karla in their brief encounter- admitted by Smiley.  

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Book Review: High Rise (1974) by J.G. Ballard

High Rise got a movie version this year.  It was poorly received by critics and audience

Book Review:
High Rise (1974)
by J.G. Ballard

    High Rise is one of several J.G. Ballard titles to rise to "classic" status.  Ballard is best known for his dystopian sci fi and obsession with the intersection of consumer society, sex and death.   High Rise is one of a couple of classic distillations of this obsession that Ballard published in the mid 1970's- the other is Crash.    Ballard may have been the author who suffered the most between the initial edition of 1001 Books and the 2007 revision.  He starts out with seven titles in 2006, and by 2008 he is down to two titles:  Empire of the Sun and Crash.  

   Honestly, I was a little surprised that High Rise made it in the first place.  Not that I didn't enjoy reading High Rise- I've decided that Ballard is one of my favorite authors of this time period- but there is something a little too high concept about the plot of High Rise: What happens when the inhabitants of a brand new high rise turn against one another?  It's also fair to observe that the particular critique of modern life that Ballard is advancing in High Rise:  A concern with the isolation of individuals in block tower flats, isn't the same kind of hot button issue today (or in 2008) that it was in the early 1970's, when urban decay was very much the order of the day.

  There's also the fact that any human being familiar with the crack epidemic and its impact on huge public housing developments in the United States in the recent past will be only mildly shocked by the depredations that the white, upper class, inhabitants of this High Rise visit upon one another.  Call it fiction being outpaced by reality.   

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Dusklands (1974) by J.M. Coetzee

18th century engraving of the Hottentots, a major player in early white/African relations in Southern Africa
Book Review
Dusklands (1974)
by J.M. Coetzee

   There is a good argument that J.M. Coetzee is the single author who best represents the spirit of the original 2006 edition of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.   First, there are the total number of novels that he placed in the first edition: 10.  Second, there are the total number of novels that he lost in the initial 2008 revised edition: 5.   Thus, whatever impact the editors were going for in 2006 involved putting 10 Coetzee titles on their list, and two years later they decided that half his books weren't good enough to keep.   This is a ratio that is roughly in line with other authors who had four or more titles on the first list- they usually lose about half of them in the 2008 edition.

  Third, there are his characteristics as a writer- biographical and stylistic.  He writes in English, but he's not from England (South Africa), he employs techniques that can be easily characterized as "post-modern" but  his novels are never experimental.    Finally, he wrote in the last part of the twentieth century.   The 1001 Books list is strongly biased towards the 20th century, and the middle and end of that century in particular.   Just looking at the statistic generated by this blog- I'm at 546 titles.  Add about 50 titles for books that I'd already read and some pre-18th century titles I skipped- that gets it to 600.   Dusklands was published in 1974.   That means from roughly 1970 to the publication date of 2006, forty percent of the 1001 Books you need to read before you die were published.

  I'm positive there were some pragmatic reasons to cram so many titles from the near-past and actual present onto the list.  You want books that people can actually buy, you wants books that people have heard of and are interested in reading.   Books from the recent past and present are more interesting to the general reader than older books.  I understand why, but I suspect my own thousand novel list would reduce the number of contemporary works of fiction by about 100 to include some non-novels and works from the major religions.  I'm not religious, but it seems to me that books from the major world religions like the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Koran, etc. should be included.  They also left poetry entirely out of the project- which seems insane.  Also, no Shakespeare. And then I'd add in more books from the 19th century golden age of the novel.

  Dusklands was Coetzee's first published novel, and it's actually more like a pair of novellas which share a thematic link.  The first part deals with an American scientist working on a project about the Vietnam war for the government.  He goes nuts and stabs his infant son, winds up in an insane asylum.

  The second part, far more compelling, is a fictionalization of a "Heart of Darkness" style trek into the African veldt by a purported ancestor of Coetzee- at least they share the same name.  The second half, called The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee is recognizably a post-modern historical novel(la).  Coetzee is presented as a real historical figure, to the point of including a post-script with his contemporaneous declaration of the geographical discoveries of his expedition.    After staking out his claim as an early Dutch settler of the African interior, the Narrative takes place as Coetzee sets out to the north in search of elephants.

  Along the way, he encounters native tribesman- who still live independent lives, unsubjugated by western powers- and falls ill.   During his long convalescence, all his possessions are stolen, and when he recovers, his "slaves" abandon him to remain with the native village.  During his harrowing return home, his only remaining loyal servant dies fording a seasonal river, and he returns home alone.

   A year later, he returns with some soldiers and exacts his revenge.  That's the whole of the narrative, and it resembles The Heart of Darkness in more ways than one, but it's different, being written by an actual African in a way that has an actual connection with the people.  I'm not sure that Dusklands would have made the list if it had not been Coetzee's first published novel.  Specifically, the combination of the two disparate narratives seems more like the coupling of two separately written novellas then any grand plan.

  Personally, I'm very interested in narratives about colonialism and I think that is a common concern for anyone who reads literature.  It's impossible to put aside the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature, the two separate Booker wins, and the fact that he is one of a handful of serious authors who you can find in any airport book shop.  Finally, Dusklands is under 130 pages from start to finish, so the time commitment is minimal.

  J.M. Coetzee is an excellent example of a canonical author who is still active.  He actually has a book coming out next month, The Schooldays of Jesus.  The release of a new work by a living artist who has already obtained canonical status is the most significant event in the entire cultural industrial complex.  The reason these events are so important is because of the small number of living artists who have obtained canonical status while they are still active.

  For an author with a place in the canon, it is entirely fair to ask whether the new work is the best book the author has written, or better than his canonical works.   Any criticism of the existence of a specific canon ignores the fact that an artist obtaining canonical status for a specific work is the single best thing they can do for their career.  The canon is the blessed intersection between art and commerce and the question of which works for canonical artists is of high importance.
  

Book Review: The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1974) by Heinrich Böll



Book Review:
 The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1974)
 by Heinrich Böll


    Heinrich Böll won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972, so The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum came when the author was at the top of his game, so to speak.  Böll had impeccable anti-Nazi credentials, and in this way he was the right type of writer to help recover the German literary tradition from Nazism.  Like  Billiards at Half-Past Nine, Böll's first title to make it into the 1001 Books List, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum combines personal narrative with technical innovation and timely social issues.

 Here, Katharina Blum is a self-employed domestic from a troubled family, living in a small town in Western Germany.  She spends the night with a criminal being followed by the police, she helps him escape, and the police make her a subject of their investigation.  Then the newspapers get involved, and it is the conflict between the freedom of the press and it's impact on Ms. Blum that lies at the heart of this short novel/novella.

  For an American reader, the idea of a critique of the freedom of press almost sounds radical.  Germany, where pro-Nazi speech has been illegal since the end of World War II, is a much different society in that regard. Böll's Katharina Blum is an existential heroine in the mode of  French novels from the 1950's.   This combination of a trenchant critique of freedom of the press and a generally sympathetic attitude towards 70's leftist radicals in Germany may make modern readers uncomfortable.  On the other hand, you could say these attitudes of the German left from the 1970's are in vogue again, so maybe Katherina is due for a revival.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The Atrocity Exhibition (1970) by J.G. Ballard


Book Review
The Atrocity Exhibition (1970)
by J.G. Ballard

   The Atrocity Exhibition showcases the more experimental side of J.G. Ballard.  The book is comprised of a series of previously published short stories which are "linked" through overlapping sets of characters.   Calling each of the chapters a "short story" isn't very accurate, it's more like a series of thematically related prose experiments in the style of Burroughsian cut-up or the formal prose experiments of mid 20th century French authors like Bataille, Perec and Queneau.  There are also echoes of William Burroughs more coherent passages in Naked Lunch and Ballard's own pioneering dystopia's of the 1960;s.

  Many of the chapters echo the plot of Crash, which was published in 1972- the same years as Grove Press published The Atrocity Exhibition in the United States (the 1970 publication date is in the U.K.)  It's clear from the thematic similarity of his collected stories: obsessed with the relationship between sex, death and consumer culture, that Ballard had a recognizable aesthetic as early as the mid 1960's. Ballard may have been the first writer of speculative fiction to take an antagonistic stance towards the future chances of the human species. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Giles Goat-Boy (1965) by John Barth



Book Review
Giles Goat-Boy (1965)
by John Barth

  John Barth himself called Giles Goat-Boy the first "meta-fictional" novel.  A half-century later, it's hard to imagine anyone caring enough about which was the "first" meta-fictional novel to debate the claim.   Amazingly, Giles Goat-Boy was not just a critical but also a commercial success, i.e. best-seller list, mass-media coverage, book-of-the-month level marketing.  Today, that commercial success is hard to imagine.  I can only surmise it was a combination of several "right place, right time" factors having to do with the plot (an elaborate cold war allegory set on a fictional "campus" that took the place of the world), the style (learned in a way that was comprehensible to an college-level audience) and the novelty of some of the meta-fictional techniques to a mid 1960's American audience.

   Today, Giles Goat-Boy is hardly read, even by people who have read John Barth.  Having now read this 710 page book (in hardback) I can now safely opine that there are many reasons for Giles Goat-Boy having fallen out of favor with critical and popular audiences.  First, there is the heavy handed Cold War/Campus allegory which dominates the narrative.  You can't hope to follow the allegory without a thorough understanding of the struggle of East and West in the Cold War.   The relevance of this allegory in it's Cold War context is debatable two decades after the conclusion of the Cold War.

The second part of the allegory is the equation of the Campus of the novel with the entire world.  This is likely to appeal most to audiences that think that the culture of the university campus is the center of the cultural/intellectual world.  This attitude was wide-spread, and expanding in 1965, the year Giles Goat-Boy was published.  Today, that world of the university has much less universal appeal.

 Loosely put, Giles Goat-Boy is about the eponymous hero doing his Joseph Campbell Power of Myth style meta-quest towards spiritual and temporal power.  This takes the form of his progress from a human child literally raised by goats by a professor who has been banished from the main university to the role of the "Grand Tutor" a Christ-figure whose manifestation is a apocalypse triggering event for the world of the campus.

  Upon the way he does the typical thing a hero does in a Western hero quest: he has to solve impossible problems, have sex with a sister he doesn't know is his sister, meet his parents and suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune.  The villain in Giles Boat-Boy is an evil ENIAC style computer called WESCAC that may or may not be Giles father.   Perhaps the theme that provides the most enduring interest to a modern reader is the role of computers and technology as a force for evil.

  Writing before the computer era had properly begun, Barth correctly inferred the dehumanizing impact of turning over much of our decision making process over to machines.  It's a well traveled theme in 2016, but in 1965, not so much.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Show Review: Margo Price @ The Grammy Museum


Show Review: Margo Price
@ The Grammy Museum

  I go back with The Grammy Museum- my current girlfriend- Margo's manager (at Monotone Management)- and I went to The Grammy Museum on our second date.  That was in September of 2013.   Here we are, close to three years later, and I'm back.  Margo Price was playing the Grammy Museum of part of her well managed campaign to obtain a Grammy nomination this year.  I've learned quite a lot about the process of being nominated for a Grammy.  Basically, you hire a fixer to run your campaign- someone who has worked either directly at "The Academy" or has a long-term relationship as an outside contractor.

  You hire your fixer, then you need to jump through some hoops, which basically involve making yourself available for shows in the LA area, which are typically benefits for the Grammy MusicCares charity.  Basically, MusicCares is the front door to getting your artistic foot in the Grammy door.  The show last night was a combination interview followed by a  brief set with a three piece: piano, guitar and Margo playing acoustic guitar.  She was interviewed by Scott Goldman, who is a big deal with the MusicCares charity.

  The conversation was enlightening, I'd heard some of her material before, just based on reading all the interviews, but last night she shared additional details about the tough times and the more recent good times, including the curious concept of a manager who is paid a monthly retainer by the band.  After the four song set, she signed autographs in the gift shop for, like, an hour.  The crowd was a mix of fans and industry types.  There certainly is much to learn about the real music industry.  Despite all the complaining about the devastation wrought on physical music sales by technology, there is still plenty of money to be made in the creation and distribution of music.

   Andddd... one thing I've learned in the whole Margo Price come up is that really establishing yourself as a force as an artist, indie or major, requires cash money and people on the ground.  Incredible opportunities, for example, late night television, don't pay. Someone has to get you there and pay for everything.   Getting on the radio means interacting with the top office for each particularl chain of stations, of which there are very few.  That means you need a person who can get you inside and show you around.  We're talking, very legitimately, at 200, 300 thousand dollars and that is for someone who has a real organic success at the beginning.  I can't even imagine what it's like for manufactured pop stars- but I'd imagine millions of dollars.

  

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