Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Call It Sleep (1934) by Henry Roth

Author Henry Roth wrote Call It Sleep in 1934 and THAT WAS IT.

Book Review
Call It Sleep (1934)
by Henry Roth

  The 1934 publication date of Call It Sleep should come with an asterisk, because it wasn't until a mid 1960s revival that this modernist bildungsroman of the Jewish-American experience in the Bronx and Brooklyn was hailed as a classic.  Call It Sleep is also a famous 20th century one off- Roth didn't publish another novel for forty years. The main aspects of Call It Sleep to understand is that Roth was familiar with James Joyce and the tenets of literary modernism, in terms of utilizing stream of conscience narrative and the incorporation of non-standard English into his writing. For Roth, the other languages include Aramaic (the language of the Old Testament), Hebrew and Yiddish(Hebrew and German language spoken by many Jewish immigrants from Germany/Eastern Europe.)

  So, the narrative style (stream of consciousness) combines with multiple languages, all rendered phonetically in English, and it tells the important story of what it was like to grow up a Jewish-American immigrant in New York City in the early 20th century.  Perhaps Roth's biggest mistake was writing it so close to the time period depicted.  What read in the 1960s as a lost modernist classic may have read as a pale imitation of Joyce in 1934.  My sense is that Call It Sleep was probably favorably noticed upon publication but didn't permeate into the general population the way that the work of Hemingway and Fitzgerald did.

  I don't believe that Call It Sleep is widely read these days, certainly I'd never heard of it outside of the 1001 Books project, and I am a Jewish-American myself.  I would have expected my parents to have a copy, or for it to have been mentioned by a classmate in school in the context of books like The Basketball Diaries or Catcher in the Rye.  Henry Roth's status as a one hit wonder has also likely contributed to his general neglect as an Author.  I think some Authors obtain classic status with later works and then people go back and look at earlier books and elevate them, but if an Artist only has one major work, that project is impossible and there is no interplay between works.  This interplay between various works of a single Artist is something that can contribute to the maintenance of a larger audience years after publication.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Books and Their Readers in Eighteenth-Century England: New Essays by Isabel Rivers

Books and Their Readers in Eighteenth-Century England: New Essays
 edited by Isabel Rivers
p. 2003
Leicester University Press
A Continuum imprint

 Books and Their Readers in Eighteenth-Century England: New Essays should NOT be confused with the original Books and Their Reader in Eighteenth-Century England, published in 1982.  This volume revisits the same area of inquiry with the benefit of two decades of additional research.  This volume is a compilation of essays around the theme.  There are chapters on The Book Trades, The English Bible and its Reader in the Eighteenth Century, Theological Books from The Naked Gospel to Nemesis of Faith, The History Market in Eighteenth-Century England, Biographical Dictionaries and their Uses from Bayle to Chalmers, Review Journals and the Reading Public, Literary Scholarship and the Life of Editing and OF COURSE, The Production and Consumption of the Eighteenth-Century Poetic Miscellany.

  If a reader is actually looking for a discussion of any of the above subjects, Books and Their Readers is a must.  For a general reader, there isn't much there. Of the eight included essays, the only one with some general reader value is Review Journals and the Reading Public by Antonia Foster.  This essay gives a succinct summary of the origins of literary criticism, and anyone who writes or reads literary criticism or any of its descendants would do well to take the half hour it takes to read this brief essay.

  In Foster's telling, literary criticism was invented because of an upsurge in both titles available and readers.  This development happened in England, in the mid 18th century, although Foster does reference a French journal from the 16th century that inspired the English writers.  The origins of literary criticism are tied to publishers- several of the early critical journals were founded by publishers themselves.

  The original justification for literary criticism was to provide a guide to the public as to whether they should spend their money or not on a particular book.  When one considers the self-righteous path that criticism took into the 20th and 21st century, the financial/practical considerations which lay behind the origins of literary criticism are worth taking into account. bv

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Relative Popularity of Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf

The Relative Popularity of Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf
Book Review
The Waves (1931)
by Virginia Woolf

 That chart above tells you all you need to know about who the boss modernist novelist be. Virginia Woolf is tops over Gertrude Stein and James Joyce according to that there Ngram.  It wasn't always the case- as late as 1960, Stein was writing a decade long hot streak that started in the late 50s,  while Woolf was in a slump after her own period of popularity in the earlier 1950s.

         If we drill down to the period between 1930 and 1950, we see a sharp spike for Gertrude Stein between 1942 and 1944, while Woolf and Joyce both appear to be on a slower but still upward trajectory.

  Further along, the period between 1950 and 1980 is a crucial one for Virginia Woolf, with a take off point in 1970.

   Finally, between 1980 and 2000, nothing much changes, with all three writers maintaining their relative popularity in comparison to each other and absolute popularity.

    What do these graphs tell you about the Audience for each of the three authors: Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.  First, that as far as the popularity of each of the Authors in terms of mentions in the English language, the rise of all three is related to the expansion of university level English departments in the United States and England.   The period of growth and flux trickled off as the generation of students who preferred Virginia Woolf to Gertrude Stein and James Joyce moved into teaching positions and were able to select their own, Woolf heavy syllabus.  This is also a time when Woolf gained popularity with graduate level writing programs, creating a steady stream of Woolf fans who made their living writing book reviews, magazine articles and other works of fiction.

   What is clear is that all three Authors continued to gain new Audience members after they either stopped writing, died or both. It is also clear that the immediate audience for the work of all three authors was dwarfed by the Audience they obtained in the decades after they finished writing.  This probably points to the role of American undergraduate education in generating Audiences for "serious" Modernist writers, since the popular appeal of all three combined is essentially limited to Stein's The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.  Other than that one book you would be hard pressed to find anyone who casually reads Joyce, Stein or Woolf without some prior academic connection.

  I'm doing this bit about Modernists and their relative and absolute popularity because The Waves is a kind of high modernist apotheosis, both technically challenging AND "teachable" at fewer than 300 pages, making it a kind of Holy Grail for anyone trying to TEACH Virginia Woolf.  And I can certainly see where this one of those books that would make a big impression if it was the centerpiece of an undergraduate class on "Modern Literature."    But personally, all of Woolf's novels are a struggle, even the ones that don't have six  characters doing simultaneous stream of consciousness and conversational dialogue across the span of their entire lives without any "guiding" text whatever.

  The first couple Woolf novels I read I tried to take with me to Court and Jail in an attempt to read them casually, as I have done for many, many, many books in the 1001 Books Project.  That was a disaster, so now when I read a Virginia Woolf I have to be sitting down in a quiet room with NO distractions in order to "follow" the text.  The copy I read also contained fifty pages of end notes that basically explained all the allusions in the text, which you are liable to miss unless you are a classicist, a hundred year old English citizen or both.  There is also a twenty page introduction for which I am thankful, for without it, I greatly fear I would have been lost entirely.

  But yeah, unless you are a student, teacher, writer or professional narrative crafter in film, theater or what have you, how and why would you ever read The Waves, which is almost literally impossible to follow without foreknowledge of what happens- AND NOTHING HAPPENS.


Monday, October 27, 2014

The Age of the Vikings by Anders Winroth

The Age of the Vikings witnessed an enormous expansion of Scandinavian settlement around the edges of Europe and into Russian Asia.

Book Review
The Age of the Vikings
by Anders Winroth
Princeton University Press
Published September 7th, 2014

  This is a slim (320 pages including footnotes, index and bibliography) that gives an overview of "The Age of the Vikings" that incorporates recent discoveries in the fields of archeology and linguistics.  In archaeological terms this means incorporating what scholars in the field have learned about the health and causes of death of long dead Vikings. In linguistic terms it means incorporating the advances in reading Scandinavian runes.  Winroths works fits within the decades long project to rehabilitate the so-called "Dark Ages" in favor of a more balanced view that takes the positives with the negatives.

 In this case, the negatives are well known.  The Vikings are typically the darkest part of the dark ages, known for their violent depredations against Europeans and residents of the British Isles alike.  At the close of the Vikings age, they had spread colonies from North America  in the West to Russia in the East, and archeological digs have long established that the Vikings played an active role in trading with the Arab Caliphate, Central Asia and the Byzantine Empire.

  In defense of the Vikings, Winroth makes the valid point that the people who wrote about the Vikings were their most frequent victims: Christian Churches and Monasteries.  Obviously, literate monks and church men had a huge axe to grind with Vikings.  Winroth points out that the Vikings were not spectacularly violent when compared to their European contemporaries, their main difference is that they attacked using stealth tactics, and that they were unafraid to plunder churches.

   The newer translations of the long undeciphered Runes demonstrate a poetic tradition that tracks with larger trends in Indo European poetics, with internal rhyme schemes and complicated structures within individual stanzas. Winroth's main theme is that The Age of The Vikings began with SScandinaviabeing outside of "Europe" and ended with it becoming an acknowledged part of Europe with similar structures in government, religion and culture.  This included adopting central Monarchs in charge of proto-national states, and of course the Christian religion.

   Winroth also debunks at least one common misunderstanding- something that was actually prominently featured in the Vikings television show on the History Channel.  The notorious "Blood Eagle" punishment, which theoretically involved punching holes in the back of the victim and drawing out their lungs as "wings," is based on a long corrected mistranslation, and never existed in reality.  Too bad this book didn't come about before the first season, they could have edited that bit out or re-written it for greater accuracy.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Show Review: Broken Bells @ The Orpheum Theater Presented by Goldenvoice in Los Angeles, CA.

Broken Bells wrapping up their album promotional cycle for After the Disco by walking away from a space age type building in the California desert.

Show Review:
Broken Bells @ The Orpheum Theater
Presented by Goldenvoice
in Los Angeles, CA.

   Currently slotted at #304 in the list of top 500 artists on, Broken Bells pulled into LA for a two night stand at the Orpheum Theater near the end of their promotional cycle for their recent LP, After the Disco.  After a year of observation, I can safely say that the overriding value that characterizes Broken Bells and their art is dignity.  Dignity is in notably short supply within the music industry, whether you are a multi-platinum artist forced to clown and caper for the cameras on a reality television show, an artist selling hundreds or thousands of records forced to abandon any hope of making money actually selling their music to people other than Fortune 500 corporations for advertising jingles, or an unknown artist being asked to sign a five record deal with no advance from a label with no track record of market success.

  The impulse to essentially abandon ones moral and ethical compass in the face of the current conditions of the music industry seems almost irresistible, at least from my perspective of someone at the lower rungs of the ladder. Compromises are inevitable, and utter abandonment is perhaps the most seductively attractive position to take in 2014.  For if a multi national beer or soda company wants to pay an artist a half million dollars (or a hundred thousand) to use a recording in a national advertising campaign, how many are in a position to refuse?

  I'm sure if you asked Brian Burton or James Mercer directly, they would agree that they do not want to appear undignified.  Ultimately, this may be the reason that Broken Bells is the 300th biggest act in the world right now on instead of say, being the 150th biggest band.  A steadfast refusal to pander to the basest elements of popular culture is in effect a limitation on growth, since the largest artists all seem to have that dynamic of engagement with the celebrity-industrial complex on lock.

  Refusal to engage in clownish buffoonery aside, the actual music is memorable. I think Broken Bells are under engaged by music critics because of their (the music critics) bias towards ideas derived from romanticism and obsession with novelty derived from 20th century modernist precepts. One could plausibly make a comparison with the music of Broken Bells and the work of an Author like Charles Dickens, a popular success whose critical acclaim lagged multiple generations, only becoming fully canonized well into the 20th century.

  Certainly, seeing Broken Bells in a theater setting, with outstanding backing visuals and lighting, four piece backing vocals and horns, horns, horns is something of a best case scenario.  Also, the setting of the Orpheum Theater was memorable.  I've now been to the Orpheum three times, and the similar Ace Theater two blocks away.  Both theaters are great if you are sitting on the lower level, but the experience fades as you get into the middle and back of the balcony.  At the same time, it seems like the crowd is better in the balcony, and the people who sit on the lower level tend to be older and less enthusiastic.

  It was a successful conclusion to a well-exectued album promotional cycle, and I think it is fair to observe that there will be additional Broken Bells LPs in the future.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The First Bohemians by Vic Gatrell

William Hogarth's The Rake's Progress: HE ENDS UP INSANE WITH SYPHILLIS!

The First Bohemians: Life and Art in London's Golden Age
by Vic Gatrell
Penguin Publishing
October 3, 2013

  I'd imagine there is a rather limited audience for popular history type books about 18th century London, but the fact that The First Bohemians: Life and Art in London's Golden Age is out on Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin, speaks to Gatrell as both a prestige historian with cross-over potential and someone who writes history books that non-historians might care to read.
William Hogarth: The Harlot's Progress

  Here, the project seems to have been inspired for the increased availability of free digital versions of works by artists like Hogarth and Rowlandson, and indeed, The First Bohemians is as interesting for it's pictures and illustrations as it is for the text.  Although I understand the choice that was made for the title by the publisher, this book could just as easily and accurately been titled, 'The Artistic Community in 18th Century Covent Garden.
William Hogarth
  Covent Garden is of course the still in existence, but hugely changed neighborhood that lies north of "the Strand" and east of Leicester Square in 2014 London.  In the 18th century, this neighborhood was a dense melting pot, with a surfeit of bars, whores and artists. While the glorification of Bohemian type neighborhoods is common today, the Artists discussed in this volume have long awaited proper recognition. Perhaps their biggest crime was belonging to the relatively bawdy sensibility of the 18th century and therefore being out of touch with the more straight laced, refined sensibility of both the Victorian and Early Modern period.

  The severely White and Male dominated nature of the culture of this period counted against the 18th century Covent Garden art scene in the later part of the 20th century, and perhaps even accounts for a relative lack of attention to these Artists even as other "low" forms of visual art, like packaging, advertising and comics have been elevated via academic discourse.  To the extent that a book about a time and place (Covent Guardian in the 18th century,) the "main characters are the visual artists William Hogarth and Thomas Rowlandson.  Of the two, Hogarth remains familiar as one of the main representatives of 18th century English culture (and a great deal easier to 'read' than 800 page novels) while Rowlandson has only recently been rediscovered.

   Both Hogarth and Rowlandson gained their fortune creating original prints that were mass produced and sold at reasonable prices.   They were a key component of 18th century culture, which had yet to become fully literate. Both were known for their realism and attention to detail, even as they gained stature as satirists of contemporary mores. Gatrell is careful to situate Hogarth and Rowlandson which was, again, very heavy on drinking to excess and whoring.

  Certainly a must for anyone seeking a serious understanding of 18th century artistic culture in England- whether visual or written, and it's important to understand how the visual hugely influenced the written, and was referred to by the more remembered novels of the period.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933)by Gertrude Stein

Pablo Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein.

Book Review
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933)
by Gertrude Stein

 Gertrude Stein's famous, epochal literary memoir about her life in Paris before, during and after World War I is another book where I was left asking myself how it was possible that I'd not read it before. Stein existed today as a kind of totemic figure for the early 20th century cultural avant garde/modernism, but I don't believe she is commonly read.  I know I've never heard any of her works from the 1001 Books Project: Three Lives, The Making of Americans and this one mentioned either inside a classroom or out.

  Coming from the East Bay of the San Francisco area, I was of course familiar with her famous quip about Oakland, that "There's no there, there."  Maybe that made people in the Bay Area a little hostile, or maybe it's because her significance is not really addressed by any of her works.  Three Lives is very much of the first novels that could be called Modern or Experimental Modernism, The Making of Americans hasn't really held up, and is perhaps a tad long, and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is a memoir, not a novel, and memoirs aren't typically read in literature classes in high school and college.

 That said, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas really wowed me. Gertrude Stein is someone that sociologist Randall Collins would call a "network star" or someone whose connections ensure the survival of her ideas after her death.  Although this is putatively an auto-biography of Stein's long time companion and lover, the author's by line and the book itself make it clear that it is in auto-biography of Stein written by Stein from the perspective of Toklas.

 Stein was important not only for her writing, but also for her patronage.  She was an earlier purchaser of Cezanne,  Pablo Picasso and Matisse.  Her older brother was a partner in these endeavors, and while Stein does go into her child hood and education, including time at Radcliffe and at John Hopkins Medical School, where she was apparently one class from  taking her degree.  It is unclear where her money comes from, but she is not someone who has to work for a living, and could afford to support herself and buy paintings and such without any source of income.

 During the war she had a Ford shipped over and became a driver, as did many Americans based on the number of World War I books written by Americans about their experiences as Ambulance drivers- ee Cummings and Hemingway to name two.  The action which takes place post-World War I is a bit of an anti-climax.  Hemingway makes a decent appearance, and Stein lives to see herself hailed as a genius at Oxford and Cambridge University- but not by the Atlantic Monthly, who in fine literary memoir form singles out for particular ire.

 Fashionable or not, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is a must for anyone who thinks they understand 20th century modernism- for both painting, sculpture and literature.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist by Hazel V. Canby

Francis Harper, the first African American female novelist.

Book Review
Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist
by Hazel V. Canby
p. 1987
Oxford University Press

   Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist, traces the origins of novels written by African American authors prior to the breakthrough of Zora Hurston in the 1930s, and Alice Walker and Toni Morrison after that.   Two of the books discussed, Nella Larsen's Passing and Uncle Tom's Cabin (not written by an African-American) have been discussed here as part of the 1001 Books Project.  Others were wholly unfamiliar to me because they have failed to become "classics" and are therefore not taught or discussed with any regularity.

  Two major authors in this book with whom I was previously unacquainted are Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins.  Hopkins, in particular, wrote a great deal of fiction while she was editrix of a Boston-based African-American literary magazine in the first few years of the 20th century.  Harper's primary work is Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted (1892), generally called the first full length novel by an African-American female writer.  Hopkins wrote several novels, but three of these were only published in her magazine and never as stand alone editions.  Her stand alone novel was Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South (1900).

 Canby is particularly forceful in arguing for the canonical inclusion of Iola Leroy and Contending Forces.  She also advocates for Larsen's two 1001 Books inclusions: Passing and Quicksand.  It was in fact, those two novels which spurred me to read this book, to perhaps see if there were other "lost classics" out there.  Canby didn't quite convince me, but I'm sure that her analysis would come as a revelation to anyone interested in the field of African-American studies.

  Her prose is somewhat studded with the archaism's of late 20th century deconstructionist literary critics, always regrettable, but here the academic blah blah is outweighed by the usefulness of her discussion about these little known (to me) texts and authors,

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Scanners (1981) d. David Cronenberg

box art from the recent Criterion Collection edition of Scanners (1981), directed by David Cronenberg

Movie Review
Scanners (1981)
 d. David Cronenberg
Criterion Collection #712

  CLASSIC Cronenberg movie, came out in July 0n the Criterion Collection, fucking LOVE IT.  I've seen Scanners maybe a half dozen times at this point.  I am a BIG David Cronenberg fan, and I've seen many of his other films multiple times.  I've seen: Eastern Promises, in Cincinnati, eXistenz, in Washington DC, Crash I watched on the Left Bank in Paris, Naked Lunch, Dead Ringers, Videodrome, The Fly.  They are all more or less great movies, and any characterization of Cronenberg as a "horror" or genre director really misses the genius of his films.
box art from the Criterion Collection edition of Scanners, directed by David Cronenberg.

  For any serious Cronenberg watcher the early work of The Brood, Videodrome and Scanners is vital. All three are independent films with "B-movie" type descriptions, but all three transcend their budgetary limitations to create enduring works of art, which bear multiple re-watchings.  Scanners is, in terms of plot mechanics, a kind of espionage thriller with an overlay of the now familiar mixture of psychology and horror that now defines much of his work.

   The wooden performance of Stephen Lack as Cameron Lake, the main "Scanner" of the film, might at first be taken as a poor performance, but is later explained by plot details.  The plot involving a nefarious conspiracy between a quasi-governmental private corporation and evil Scanners is classic Cronenberg- even at the earliest stages.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Nuraghe of Sardinia

This is an example of a Nuraghe, a Bronze age building found only on Sardinia, constructed by an unknown civilization in the 18th century B.C.

    Nuragic civilization is from 18th Century BC Sardinia.  They made the impressive Nuraghe buildings on Sardinia during this period.  Nuraghes are pretty impressive considering they were made in an "off the map" location in terms of ancient civilizations.
The interior of a Nuraghe, a bronze age building from an unknown civilization on Sardinia in the Mediterranean Sea.
  The central Mediterranean and Iberian peninsula are typically discounted in any discussion of Ancient Civilizations (before Greece and Rome) but the Nuraghe would seem to indicate that central Mediterranean was perhaps not the cultural backwater that it was considered to be a half century ago.

Drawing of a Nuraghe fort from the Italian island of Sardinia 

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