Dedicated to classics and hits.

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 

Museum Review: Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty @ The Japanese American Museum, Los Angeles, CA.

A larger than human Hello Kitty Pharaoh is the exit piece at the new museum exhibition, Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty at the Japanese American Museum in Los Angeles, CA between October 11th, 2014 and April 26th, 2015.

Museum Review:
Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty
 @ The Japanese American Museum, Los Angeles, CA.
October 11th, 2014 to April 26th, 2015

Hello Kitty has her own cat, on display at the museum exhibit Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty at the Japanese American Museum in Los Angeles, CA.

  You don't have to be a dedicated Hello! Kitty fan to dig Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty, now on exhibit at The Japanese American Museum in Los Angeles, CA; but you do need twenty bucks a person for admission.  For your twenty bucks you get an intense two level experience.  The bottom floor has a wide selection of Hello Kitty material from 40 years of Kitty, accompanied by some extremely mind blowing explantory text that reveals that Hello Kitty is NOT a cat, but rather a small girl, with a family (including a twin sister) and that she lives outside London, England.  She also has a pet cat, and the pet cat has a pet hamster AND OH MY GOD IT IS SO MIND BLOWING.
The infamous Hello Kitty vibrators, bravely on display as part of the museum exhibition, Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty at The Japanese American Museum in Los Angeles, CA.

   After the introduction to the family and back story, there is a room with some of the more industrial items: the Hello Kitty Humidifier, waffle maker, robot vacuum cleaner, and an actual "life size" talking robot.   There is a whole wall of Hello Kitty backpacks, and then a room dedicated to the roots revival of Hello Kitty wherein Sanrio started putting Kitty in more traditionally Japanese setting.

  Upstairs features a gallery of contemporary fine artists and their own take on the Hello Kitty look.  This section also includes some celebrity worn apparel and an enormous statue of Hello Kitty as an Egyptian Pharaoh (above.)  I wasn't overly impressed by the upstairs work, but I did appreciate the attempt to present Hello Kitty in an "adult" context in some of the works, and the display with the "adult" Hello Kitty products (including a Hello Kitty Hooters keyring and the INFAMOUS Hello Kitty vibrator.)

  If you are a non-obsessive looking for a reason to go, think about the relevance of Hello Kitty fan culture as a precursor to the "shipping" culture of the internet and the wider world of pop culture and 20th century international cultural transmission across continents.


The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892) by Arthur Conan Doyle

Robert Downey Junior most recently has portrayed Sherlock Holmes in the endless series of films about the character

Book Review
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)
 by Arthur Conan Doyle
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Sherlock Holmes in the recent BBC series, which has drawn fans in America
     This was the first audio book I've ever listened to, period.  I found it in Spotify, where you could play it as two five and half hour "songs."  I listened to it mostly when running, and otherwise while driving between San Diego and Los Angeles.  So it is an eleven hour time commitment, and it seems like it would be much faster to simply read the 12 short stories that comprise this volume.  The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is the classic single volume compilation of Conan Doyle's short stories, though they do not represent all of them- there were contemporary stories that were not selected for the book and there were the "return" stories, like The Hound of the Baskervilles.

   I would say that Sherlock Holmes is maybe the first biggest literary character to emerge out of English Literature in the 19th century: Frankenstein and Dracula would be the top two. Like those other two, Sherlock Holmes has long since become unmoored from the source material.  It's important to emphasis which 12 stories actually constitute the book, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes:

"A Scandal in Bohemia"; Client: The King of Bohemia
"The Adventure of the Red-Headed League"; Client: Jabez Wilson
"A Case of Identity"; Client: Mary Sutherland
"The Boscombe Valley Mystery"; Client: Alice Turner
"The Five Orange Pips"; Client: John Openshaw
"The Man with the Twisted Lip"; Client: Mrs. St. Clair
"The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle"; No client.
"The Adventure of the Speckled Band"; Client: Miss Helen Stoner
"The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb"; Client: Victor Hatherley
"The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor"; Client: Lord Robert St. Simon
"The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet"; Client: Alexander Holder
"The Adventure of the Copper Beeches"; Client: Violet Hunter

   There are other, unincluded short stories from the same time period, but they were not selected for this volume. Some themes do emerge: the theft of precious stones (The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle and the Beryl Coronet); noble clients (Noble Bachelor, A Scandal in Bohemia), and women in distress (Copper Beeches, Speckled Band, Twisted Lip, A Case of Identity.)  Although the enduring legacy has made Holmes a timeless figure, the original mysteries are interesting in terms of Holmes being simultaneously a "modern" figure, obsessed with the scientific method and the mysteries being quintessentially Victorian.  It is fair to observe that Holmes is a Victorian Hero, even though Conan Doyle was writing at the end or even beyond the end of that period, most of the mysteries are actually set several years in the past, with Watson being a veteran of the second Anglo Afghan war (ended 1870) and mentioning cases happening back in the 1880s. 

   Many of the edgier aspects Holmes character, his Cocaine usage, for example, are only mentioned in passing, his sex life not at all. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Story of Chess Records (1998)by John Collis

Leonard Chess

Book Review
The Story of Chess Records (1998)
by John Collis
Bloomsbury Publishing

   A few years back I read the excellent book, Record Makers and Record Breakers: Voices of Independent Rock n' Roll Pioneers by John Broven (University of Illinois Press, 2009.)  That review has garnered a surprising number of page views, 1719 to date, putting it in the top 20 or so posts of all times in terms of views.  I remember at the time thinking I should review more books about classic rock and roll labels from the 50s and 60s, but there is a lot of expensive, mediocre material out there, and I basically abandoned the area until recently, when I revisited some of my Amazon Wish List titles from that time period, and found The Story of Chess Records on the shelf at the San Diego Central Library.
Muddy Waters

   The most recent piece of culture that focused on "the Chess Records story" was the thinly veiled Cadillac Records, with Adrien Brody as Leonard Chess, which literally was the Chess Records story under a different name.  Today Chess Records is known for three things:

1.  The label that broke Muddy Waters and played a huge part on the pre-rock and roll era with their Chicago area "electric blues" records.
2.  The label that, along with Sun Records and Modern Records, essentially invented rock and roll, with Chuck Berry being the stand out artist.
3. Ripping off their artists by not paying appropriate royalties.

  I'm sympathetic to Leonard Chess on the payment of royalties- as I've pointed out on this blog before, very often successful artists end up subsidizing the less successful artists simply because of the limited resources of most independent labels- robbing Peter to pay Paul, or to pay for the manufacture and distribution of Paul's records, more like.

 Muddy Waters isn't my taste, and neither are his noted English imitators like the Rolling Stones, but it is interesting how the Stones managed to revive interest in Waters, a forgotten man in the music business prior to the British Invasion by a series of bands who worshipped the Blues.
Chuck Berry
   Chuck Berry, on the other hand, was an interesting dude, but since this is the Story of Chess Records and not the story of Chuck Berry, the reader gets very few deals of Berry's very interesting personal life.

   On the balance, the most interesting part of this book are the numerous rare photographs and gig posters that immerse the reader in the look and feel of the glory days of 1950s-1960s independent music.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Testament of Youth (1933) by Vera Brittain

Cheryl Campbell as Vera Brittain in the 1979 BBC2 mini-series version of Testament of Youth.

Book Review
Testament of Youth (1933)
by Vera Brittain

  This is the first volume of Vera Brittain's three volume auto-biography, covering the period between 1900-1925.  Notably, it gives a first hand account of Brittain's work as a nurse during World War I, where she was stationed during some of the heaviest fighting.  She lost her fiance, brother and cousin in the course of the fighting, and her memoir is also significant in terms of her experience as a woman who began pursuing her degree at Oxford University even before the start of World War I.

  In addition to the vital first hand testimony about the horrors of war, Brittain conveys the actual change in mindset among the young before and after the war.  This shift in attitude, which is often described in terms of "the Lost Generation" is well represented by Brittain both in terms of her material and her position as a well-to-do early feminist living in London after the war.

  I think any reader facing the prospect on whether to engage a 650 page auto-biography about a World War I nurse is going to ask him or herself whether the time investment is "worth it."  I would yes, for the female perspective, for the value of Brittain as an insider the post World War I English literary scene (she wouldn't call herself that.)  Can one really read too much about World War I?  Testament of Youth, published a full fifteen years AFTER the cessesation of hostilities, is still grappling with questions that remained unresolved for decades afterwards.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Invention of Tradition (1983) Edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger

The modern kilt was an early 18th century invention, by an Englishman no less.

Book Review
The Invention of Tradition
 Edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger
Canto Edition 1992
Cambridge University Press
book cover showing how the highland "Scots" dressed in the 16th century.
      I watched the recent independence vote in Scotland with interest (I was pro-Union, anti-Independence) and it was a good cue to revisit my Amazon Wish List Titles and read The Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hosbawm and Terence Ranger, which contains a key chapter on the explicit English involvement of many of the trappings of so-called Scottish Nationhood in the 18th century.  The chapter in question is called The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland, and it concerns the integration of a previously Irish/Celtic highland ethnicity into the greater Scottish nation.  And although I don't normally take the approach on this blog of presenting lengthy recapitulations/descriptions of the material I've read, I think it is worth abandoning that habit where The Invention of Tradition is concerned, since the Scottish vote is so recent in memory, and since the "Yes" votes are like an echo of the 18th century creation of the Scottish national tradition, which itself intimately involved the English, also involved the relegation of a brother Celtic culture in favor of the Scottish identity, and, I would argue, would tend to show up the very idea of an independent Scotland as an example of "false consciousness," or at the very least a manipulation of the sentiments of the less educated by a local elite with much at stake in terms of personal gain.

   Hugh Trevor-Roper, the author of the Highland Tradition of Scotland chapter starts with the state of play before the invention of a highland culture,

      "Before the later years of the seventeenth century, the Highlanders of Scotland did not form a distinct people.  They were simply the overflow of Ireland.  On that broken and inhospitable coast, in that archipelago of islands large and small, the sea unites rather than divides and from the late fifth century, when the Scots of Ulster landed in Argyll, until the mid-eighteenth century, when it was 'opened up' after the Jacobite revolts, the West of Scotland, cut off by mountains from the East, was always linked rather to Ireland than to the Saxon Lowlands.  Racially and culturally, it was a colony of Ireland."

   You can't get more explicit than that.  Further:

   "Being a cultural dependency of Ireland under the 'foreign', and somewhat ineffective, rule of the Scottish crown, the Highlands and Islands of Scotland were culturally depressed.  Their literature, such as it was, was a crude echo of Irish literature."

   Trevor-Roper describes a three step process: the cultural revolt against Ireland, the artificial creation of new Highland tradition and finally, the offering to and adoption of these new traditions by the people concerned.    This first part is very much part of the story of the Novel and 18th century British literature, specifically the famous Ossian forgery that created a fake epic poetic history of native Highland Scots.  The fact that the Ossian epic was eventually exposed was no matter, for it got the ball rolling and eventually led to the pioneering work of Sir Walter Scott, a Scot with strong English ties, who blew the door wide open on the so-called Scottish highland tradition and essentially created a national mythology out of whole-cloth.

  This literary invention was matched by the creation of the Highland tartan by Thomas Rawlinson, a member of well established English Quaker family.  In 1727, he made an agreement with a local Scottish chieftain to lease a wooded area and operate a furnace to create charcoal for industrial operations on the north of England.  While he was there, he became interested in the Scottish costume as it related to the efficiency of his own workers, who wore a "belted plaid" that was inconvenient for work in and around the furnace.  He used an English tailor to create the "felid beg," phlbeg, or "small kilt", which was achieved by separating the skirt from the plaid and converting it into a distinct garment, with pleats already sewn.  Rawlinison himself wore this new garment, and his example was followed by his Scottish associate, Ian MacDonnell of Glengarry.  After that, the clansmen, as always, obediently followed their chief and was promptly adopted by the rest of Highland Scotland.

  This transmission of an invented tradition from top of the social scale to bottom is repeated in many of the others chapters in this book.  Everywhere, the motivation is to inspire nationalist fervor in populations who previously lacked such an attitude.   Considering the detrimental impact of Nationalism on the course of history in the last several hundred years, it is important to understand the role tradition plays in supporting the acts of political and economic elites, and the way such traditions are consciously  created by those elites for a variety of purposes, benign and otherwise.

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