VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Troubles (1970) by J.G. Farrell


Book Review
Troubles (1970)
 by J.G. Farrell

  J.G. Farrell is a tantalizing "what-if" of 20th century literature, a noted novelist who died very young leaving behind three novels.  Two of them won the Booker Prize.  Troubles won the so-called "Lost" Booker, awarded in 2010 in recognition of a change in the rules that omitted novels published during the calendar year of 1970.   The Siege of Krishnapur won in 1972.  Both books are part of his Empire trilogy, which are linked thematically to the subject of the British Empire and its impact on characters struggling to maintain the periphery.

  Troubles, the first book in the trilogy, covers Farrell's home turf of Ireland, and specifically the plight of the Anglo-Irish landowners during the Irish War for Independence between 1919 and 1922. Englishman Major Brendan Archer, called "Major" throughout the book, returns from active duty on the Western Front of World War I with a mild case of post-traumatic stress disorder and vague promises to a "fiance" who is located in a decrepit resort hotel owned by her Anglo-Irish father on the west coast of Ireland.  This hotel, the Majestic, is itself a memorable character, and the decline of the hotel grows in importance as the initial set-up, between the Major and his sick fiance, recedes into the distance mid way through the first act.

  Troubles is both funny and wise. It embraces enough of the conventions of the British country house novel to make the reader comfortable, but subverts those expectations with a sophisticated critique of English imperial ambition, embodied here by Edward Spencer, owner of the Majestic and proud subject of the crown.  Spencer is a monster, but he is a sympathetic monster who is constrained by the traditions he has internalized. 

Show Review: Americana Music Festival & Conference 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee


The Octagon, a civil war type memorial






































Show Review: Americana Music Festival & Conference 2016
 in Nashville, Tennessee


   It was back in 2014 when I began to fuck with country music, and by extension, Nashville.  Among my formative experiences in that area was a May, 2014 trip to Nashville as a tourist.  I stayed in east Nashville, ate at some quality restaurants, went to Robert's Western World, visited the Country Music Hall of Fame.  I was impressed by the combination of surface and depth in the music industry there.  You didn't just have the hipsters of East Nashville, you had the publishers on publisher's row.   You didn't just have the touristy bars of the Broadway strip, you had the measured tones of quality museum speak in the Country Music Hall of Fame.  The Ryman Auditorium, historic home of the Grand Ole Opry, is a perfect example of the strengths of Nashville.  Although it no longer hosts the Grand Ole Opry, it has remained as a tour-able site during the day and a classic venue, host to all types of bands and genres, in the evening.
exhibit from Octagon Hall in Kentucky


  In 2014, I went on the tour.  Last week, I returned to the Ryman Auditorium to watch the Americana Honors and Awards Show.  The Americana Honors and Awards Show is the highlight of the larger Americana Music Festival & Conference, which started in 2000.  The Americana Music Festival & Conference is impressive, and although I've never actually attended SXSW, I nodded sagely in agreement when others called it a "low energy south by southwest."   Sounded apt to me.  I was there last week because of Margo Price.   I'm not professionally involved, but my girlfriend manages her (she is an employee of Monotone Music, owned by Ian Montone.)  The rumor was that Price was in line to win the 2016 Americana Honors and Awards Show award for Breakthrough Artist.

Margo Price playing Joey by Concrete Blonde with Shovel and Rope


  I don't fetishize awards, heaven knows, but the rise of Margo Price is an incredible story for anyone with an interest in independent music, irrespective of genre.   Margo Price labored for years in a way familiar to musicians in fifty local music scenes across the country,  She worked odd jobs, went through a succession of "managers," did shitty van tours where she played for bar staff.  She also got married and had a kid, which is well beyond the experience of any local musician types I've met.  The ones I know just give up when they have a kid.

Bonnie Raitt at the Ryman Auditorium during the 2016 Americana Honors and Awards


  Margo Price did win the 2016 award for Breakthrough Artist at the Americana Honors and Awards Show, so that was an obvious highlight.  It was a parade of highlights, truth be told.  Performers included up and comers like Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, the Milk Carton Kids and John Moreland and  lifetime honorees like Billie Bragg, Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris.  Jason Isbell showed up to play a song and collect two awards.  Chris Stapleton walked in at the last minute to pick up his award for artist of the year.   George Strait and Bob Weir showed up because they wanted to and had a project to promote.
Behind the scenes at Third Man Records


  The rest of the week was a blur of free drinks and corporate events.  The major focus was a collaboration between Third Man Records and the Luck Reunion folks from Texas.  They rented out a house, complete with bar b que and cocktails, and had Margo Price and Shovel & Rope (and other artists on different days) compose a song together and then play it for the people who were hanging out at the house.   Then, on Saturday Night, they took over the concert hall at the Nashville Palace where both acts played live and did their collaborations.  Ironically, the most memorable song I heard this week was the Concrete Blonde cover of Joey  cooked up as the b-side to the song they performed together.

   The temparature all week was in excess of 90 degrees.  It severely limited by day time activity, and forced me to abandon an earlier plan of aggressively walking the city.  I was again impressed by Nashville. I highly recommend a visit.
   

Monday, September 19, 2016

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1972) by Hunter S. Thompson

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Johnny Depp plauyed Rauol Duke in the movie version of Fear and Loathing Las Vegas
Book Review
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1972)
 by Hunter S. Thompson

   My high school and college self really loved Hunter S. Thompson.  Not just Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but Hell's Angels, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 1972 and even the Rum Diaries.   Thompson represents the end of the 1960's counter-culture.  One of the most prescient sequences in modern fiction is the scene in this book where Raoul  Duke and Dr. Gonzo attend the annual conference of Drug Prosecutors and Police- capturing a moment at the very beginning of the decades long "War Against Drugs."   Thompson is actually capturing the moment, in his own words, where the "high-tide" of the 1960's counter culture smashed against the shore and the tide began to recede back into the ocean.

   If you consider that Thompson published Hell's Angels in 1966, two years before the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, you can make the claim that he was one of the first non-beats to fully appreciate the San Francisco "scene."  Thompson clearly refers to his own attendance at the acid tests held by the Merry Pranksters, and he cites Kesey in the text of Fear and Loathing.  Re-reading Fear and Loathing also made me consider the important role that magazine journalism, particularly Rolling Stone played in the development of the new journalism that Thompson epitomized. 

The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test (1968) by Tom Wolfe

The Furthur bus that Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters rode across the United States
Book Review
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968)
by Tom Wolfe

   The "new journalism" of the 1960's involved non-fiction, long form journalism written from the perspective of a participant.  In that way, it resembled the canons of fiction, particularly those of the novel, and thus "new journalism" was the origin of the larger field of "creative non fiction," where writers of non-fiction do their best to emulate the stylistic concerns of novelists.   The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test is one of the first AND the most popular example of this genre, and it is also, in my mind, the single best book about the origins of the west-coast hippie movement of the 1960's.

  It's also a book best read in the early stages of high school, which is when I read it for the first time.  This book, alongside On the Road by Jack Kerouac, Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, were the four titles that defined the counter-culture of the mid 20th century.  It's worth pointing out that only The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was actually published during the 1960's.  It's actually possible to read all four books in chronological order and maintain a narrative consistency.

  On the Road features thinly veiled versions of William Burroughs and Neal Cassady.  Naked Lunch was written by Burroughs during the time portrayed in On the Road.  The Electric Kool-Aid Acid test has Neal Cassady as a major characters, and relies on work done by Hunter S. Thompson.  Feart and Loathing in Las Vegas is essentially the death of all the dreams put forward in the previous three books.

  The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test tells the tale of Ken Kesey, successful novelist, and his Merry Pranksters, a group of young people (and an older Neal Cassady) who saw themselves as apostles for a religion centered around intake of drugs (Weed and LSD in particular) and a loosely defined spiritualism which incorporated lessons learned from earlier 20th century authors like Herman Hesse and Aldous Huxley.  Those looking for the positives and negatives of this fussy approach to awakening the spirit need go no further than the figure of Kesey himself, who was clearly the Christ figure (and financial sponsor) of this particular movement.

  Kesey was from rural Oregon, son of a well-off builder, who had made his way south after graduating from college to take an MFA (I think) in creative writing at Stanford.  There, he took a succession of odd jobs to pay his way, one of which involved being a test subject for hallucinogenic drugs.  He was smitten by LSD and sought to spread awareness by example.  Eventually, he and the pranksters came up with the ideas of "acid tests" where revelers would take acid and groove to the music of the band that would eventually be called The Grateful Dead.

   As much as my adolescent self was enthralled, as an adult I now see the deep flaws in their vision, not the least of which was Kesey's cowardly flight from prosecution into the wilds of Mexico.  He eventually makes his peace with the law by renouncing acid experimentation and retiring from public life after serving a short jail sentence, revealing himself to be more bourgeois than revolutionary.


Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Godfather (1969) by Mario Puzo

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Marlon Brando played The Godfather Vito Corelone in the hugely succesful movie version of the book.  Author Mario Puz co-wrote the script, and the finished film bears a remarkable resemblance to the novel.
Book Review
The Godfather (1969)
 by Mario Puzo

   If you grew up after the movie version of The Godfather, you might be forgiven for not knowing that it was even based on a book of the same name, by author Mario Puzo.  The book has maintained some amount of popularity as the source material for the insanely popular film series.  Perhaps the most surprising experience I derived from reading The Godfather is how little of the text DIDN'T make it into the film.   Indeed, never have I read the source material for a movie I've seen multiple times and spotted fewer changes between book and film.  I can't think of a single subplot that didn't make it from book to film with the exception of the story of the bridesmaid who is seen in the film banging Sonny at his sister's wedding.  In the movie, that's all she gets- in the book, she becomes Sonny's mistress, moves to Las Vegas to work in a Corleone casino after Sonny is gunned down, and even undergoes vaginal reconstruction in Los Angeles.

   The Godfather, the book, covers the time in the film from the story of young Vito Corelone, to the initiation of the movement of the Corelone family from New York to Las Vegas.  Puzo, a "serious" writer of literature before he published this book, famously wrote The Godfather to make a hit, and it is clear from every element of the book: plot and style.  Puzo's populist intent is clear on the combination of sex and violence with what amounts to an organizational description of the rise of Italian-American organized crime.  Unless you are a historian of crime, The Godfather IS the mafia.  Much of what our culture "knows" about the Mafia: The five families, the mixture of secrecy and flamboyant violence and the mixture of "American" values with the Sicilian "Omerta"(the law of silence), these all come direct from The Godfather and no where else.

    The Godfather is not one of the best written novels of all time, but it is one of the top 10 stories of the 20th century.  It is universally known to the point where even people who have never seen the film or read the book can quote from it in casual conversation, "I made him an offer he can't refuse."  One aspect of that line that the book makes clearer than the film is that the ultimate offer one can't refuse is to be murdered by The Godfather.
   

Friday, September 16, 2016

On the Road (1957) by Jack Kerouac

My senior year book page, featuring the Jack Kerouac quote, published in 1994


































Book Review
On the Road (1957)
 by Jack Kerouac

  For my senior year high school yearbook, each student got an entire page to lay out a combination of pictures and text.  The year is 1994.  My photograph is a picture of me in a Nirvana t-shirt, which I wore fully as a shirt meant to "symbolize" the place and time I went to high school.  The major quote on the page is from On the Road, the familiar refrain of, “[...]the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars," which, even in 1994 I'm sure I used as a symbol of my high school experience, having long since finished with any kind of inspirational/emulative feeling I may have obtained from my first reading of Jack Kerouac's On the Road while in high school.

  Kerouac was never my favorite Beat (William Burroughs) and he wasn't even a strong second.  To the extent that Beat culture had been fully co-opted by "mainstream" culture between 1957 and 1994, On the Road by Jack Kerouac was the primary example, Exhibit "A" as it were.   Reading it in 2016 is an experience for me of reflecting on almost 30 years of intellectual exploration.  The popularity of On the Road is no mystery.  Kerouac turned out a perfect synthesis of middle-of-the-road literary technique (stream of consciousness) with a well plotted tale about a coterie of disaffected artist/criminal/bohemian's who just happened to be the most culturally influential group of American writers for that time.  Although fictionalized Carlos Marx (Allen Ginsburg) and Old Bull Lee (William Burroughs) are impossible to mistake.  Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) is an historic character, and he pops up not just at the center of On the Road, but also as a major part of the Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, where he literally drove the bus that carried the Merry Pranksters across the country.

  On the Road, like all great roman a clef's, is a memorable mix of personal experience and carefully crafted illusion.  Thus, the Dean Moriarity/Neal Cassady character, a classic manic-depressive drug addict type, is portrayed as all manic, no depression.  The benzedrine tabs that fueled Kerouac himself and undoubtedly played a huge role in Dean Moriarty's day-to-day existence are excluded almost entirely.

  Minimizing aside, I went through a substantial "Beat period" in high school and extending in to my early college years.  It was easy enough, living in the San Francisco Bay Area through the end of high school.  The divorced father of my high school crush was a Southern California academic with a legit connection to the 1950's beat poetry scene, he gave me a hand copied poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti when I was dating his daughter.   I took the train into San Francisco from the East Bay suburbs and would sit, by myself, in the upstairs room of the City Lights Book Store in North Park.  I would buy a book, go to Cafe Treiste, have a cappuccino and then walk the streets of North Park, squinting and trying to imagine life there during the period of this book.

  The major surprise of reading On the Road in 2016 is how much material there is about the other places Sal Paradise (Kerouac) travels.  The Denver of Neal Cassady is well represented.  New Orleans in and around the time William Burroughs was in residence and even Los Angeles, which gets a memorable cameo mid book.


Saturday, September 10, 2016

Catch-22 (1961) by Joseph Heller


Book Review
Catch-22 (1961)
 by Joseph Heller

  In recent months I've grown troubled by the number of 1960's classics that I've omitted from the 1001 Books project simply because I'd already read them.  The absences are really noticeable beginning in the 1960's, and beginning, in fact, with Catch-22, published in 1961 and almost certainly the first "adult" book I read as a 12 or 13 year old.   The title as used in the book refers to the idea that an American bomber crew member can't be relieved from flying missions unless he's crazy, but that any bomber crew member who doesn't want to fly anymore missions is sane.  

   Since publication and ensuing popularity, Catch-22 has expanded to mean any situation which is formally described as a "double bind."  Although set during World War II, the publication date and popularity with college students very much meant that Catch-22 was often discussed in terms of the Vietnam War.  Like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which was published one year later, Catch-22 helped to define the anti-state critique of the 1960's counter culture.

  Both Cuckoo's Nest (the insane asylum) and Catch-22 (army) developed a critique of large institutions as dehumanizing and irrational. Both featured hero-protagonist's whose heroism came from their own rational/irrational resistance to the inhumanity of the institutional forces arrayed against them.  Less can be said for Joseph Heller, who has essentially wound up as a one-hit wonder and second tier talent.

  Still though, you can't take Catch-22 away for him.  It's a perennial on "top 100" book lists of the century.    

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Humboldt's Gift (1975) by Saul Bellow

Image result for young saul bellow
Did Saul Bellow ever look young?
Book Review
Humboldt's Gift (1975)
 by Saul Bellow


    Humboldt's Gift is the last of Bellow's seven titles on the first 1001 Books list from 2006.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1976, and was a component of Bellow being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1975.  It is fictionalized roman a clef about Bellow(Charles Citrine in the book) and his mentor, famous poet-intellectual Delmore Schwartz(Von Humboldt Fleischer.)  Although written in the first person with Citrine as narrator, Humboldt's Gift skips back and forward through time.  It covers, in no specific order, Citrine's present as a washed-up though wealthy writer and public intellectual, beset on all sides by difficulties financial and emotional, Citrine's past, including the development of his relationship with Von Humboldt Fleischer and the experiences of Fleischer, focusing mostly on his descent into madness and penury.

  It is an intoxicating mix.  No wonder it was received with such adulation, and coming at the end of a string of critically and financially successful novels.  Humboldt's Gift has mostly been analyzed as a commentary on the tug of war between art and commerce, but in my reading I thought he had alot of say about celebrity culture, nascent in 1975, but fully established today.   Citrine, in the book, is a wealthy intellectual who is surviving on past achievements.  His obsession with sexual gratification and status symbols mirrors the obsessions of the last half century of celebrity culture.

  Like the films of the Coen brothers,   also functions as an off-the-cuff history lesson about the intellectual culture of the United States between the Great Depression and the early 1970's.  Humboldt/Schwartz is a classic forgotten intellectual hero, and most of the novel dealing directly with his experience focuses on the impact of an artist who has outlived his usefulness to the larger culture. 

The Collector (1963) by John Fowles


Book Review
The Collector  (1963)
by John Fowles

  Only now am I facing up to the fact that I need to go back and read the books in the 1001 Books project which I previously skipped because I'd already read them.   Sure, it's an abstract question, whether I can complete the 1001 Books project without rereading previously read books.  Before the 1960's it was an insignificant group of books, mostly books I'd read as school assignments.  However, once the 1960's started, I was in very familiar grounds.  There are perhaps 15-20 titles in the 1960's section which I'd not only read before, but were actual important books in my development.

  The Collector is the first book I've reread as part of this project where I was actually disturbed that my adolescent self found said book "important."  The story of The Collector is the now familiar tale of a suddenly wealthy middle aged man (via winning the weekly English football pool) who decides to kidnap a young, female art student who he has long obsessed over.  The story then alternates between his perspective and hers, hers being revealed in the form of a journal written during her captivity.

  The fact that Fowles omits the grosser sexual elements of a May/December kidnapping does little to mitigate the creepiness of The Collector.   Bearing in mind that my adolescent self really enjoyed reading The Collector, I ended up with a lesser opinion of that adolescent me.   

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Book Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest (1962) by Ken Kesey


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Jack Nicholson famously depicted Randle Patrick McMurphy in the movie version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Book Review:
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962)
by Ken Kesey

 The success of the movie version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, with Jack Nicholson doing an unforgettable star-turn as Randle Patrick McMurphy, has eclipsed the success of the novel.  That's a shame, because the novel is a real hum dinger, and only 310 pages.  The movie was released in 1975, directed by Milos Forman, and it likely cemented the story of Cuckoo's Nest as a narrative cemented deep inside our collective American psyche.

  Unlike Sometimes a Great Notion, with a plot centered on the travails of a gyppo family loggers in rural Oregon, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has a story that could be set anywhere in America in the early 60's.  The novel was shaped by Kesey's experience working the night shift of the mental hospital in Menlo Park, California- which is in the vicinity of Stanford University.  Kesey wasn't the first writer to make hay out of an experience working in a mental hospital- see Samuel Beckett and Murphy, but the sensibility of McMurphy presages the anti-authoritrian counter culture of the 1960's, and in fact, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was one of the touchstone books of that period.

  Nurse Ratched, with her insane obsession with control over her inmates, stands in for the larger conspiracy of the government and big business against the individual.  In the book, the narrator, the Chief, as he's called, describes this combination of forces as "the Combine."  One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest might have been the first novel to distill this hypothesis that all the forces in society stood arrayed against the free man.

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