Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (book review)

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
by James Hogg
edited with an Introduction and Notes by Ian Duncan
p. 1824
this edition 2010

   One of the aspects that I like about "classic literature" as a cultural product is it's sheer..."know-ability."  By "know-ability" I mean the HUGE volume of writing by different groups of intellectuals on the subject, both on individual works and "classic literature" as a group of artistic products.  An interested reader can wallow forever in the pools and eddies of the stream of writing issuing forth on, say, 19th century British literature.  Like all subjects of knowledge, classic literature has seen a logarithmic explosion of academic, quasi-academic and non-academic writing in the last 50 years, but the debate PRIOR to World War II is relatively easy to get a handle on: A set number of works, a set number of theories. 

   The real pleasure for me comes in reading a work that I had never heard about prior to reading.  One of the primary pleasures of intellectual pursuits is the joy of discovery: finding out something you didn't know before. It's a quiet, private pleasure that doesn't require a group for validation.  This was the case for me with James Hogg's  The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, originally published in 1824.  Private Memoirs is not quite the first serial killer novel, not quite the first historical novel, and certainly not the first novel of the Scottish literary boom of the early 19th century, but it was influenced by all of those literary trends and more besides.  Private Memoirs takes the form of two opposed narratives: One by an anonymous Editor, purporting to recount the same series of events the other narrative, the Private Memoirs and Confessions of the title.  The Justified Sinner in this case is Robert Wringhim, the bastard son of a Scottish Laird and his over-zealous religious wife.

   Wringhim is what you call a "serial killer" and his activity takes place against the background of what today we would call "psychotic episodes" and what they then called "being haunted by the Devil."  The Devil in this case is the affable "Gill-Martin."  He's a charmer, and a shape shifter, and maybe a figment of Wringhim's imagination, and maybe not.  The knowledge that this book was written in the early 1820s is interesting too contemplate. While Hogg was not drawing on terra incognita in his Gil Martin figure (Goethe's Faust had appeared in Scottish periodicals prior to this book being written, the overall combination of the doubling/visit by the devil/serial killer/scottish historical novel styles of 19th century literature is an intoxicating blend.  Private Memoirs doesn't go on for 500 pages, either- it's readable in a weekend afternoon.

 Before reading the book, I was surprised to read Ian Duncan's claim that this is now the most popular 19th century Scottish novel, but after finishing, it makes perfect sense.  Sharp, scary, funny and downright weird, Private Memoirs is a novel that holds up waaaayyyyyyyyy after it was published.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Oh, Pasadena: 12 HOURS IN PASADENA, CA.

Gamble HousePhotograph by Niels Wouters.

   Day two of our two day Memorial Day road trip took us back into the Los Angeles basin, over the Grapevine and into Pasadena, where we were to take the Gamble House tour.  The Gamble House was designed, and built by the brothers Charles and Henry Greene, generally considered to be the foremost representatives of the so-called "Craftsman" architecture movement in the early 20th century (the Gamble House itself was built in 1907.)  In my personal taste, I, along with my wife, have moved to  more modernist taste (big windows, large rooms, open spaces), from the period when we were Craftsmen enthusiasts, and the ways in which the Craftsman vision of living space differs from the modernist conception were well apparent during the Gamble House tour.

   There are many, many, many interesting observations to be made about all the sentences above, but "12 HOURS IN PASADENA" isn't really enough time- suffice it to say that you buy your tickets in the gift shop, 0-30 minutes in advance, and the tour takes a little more then one hour. Ladies: leave the spike heels and wedges at home or you will have to wear booties

   Pasadena is chock-a-block with Museums, making a day trip from anywhere in the Great So-Cal Metro an easy and rewarding treat.   Two museums that I didn't go to but would have, the Norton Simon Museum and Pasadena Museum of History are a five minute drive away.  I did get to see the Pasadena Museum of California Art ("PMCA")  The PMCA was located literally a block from our hotel, and featured to graffiti based exhibits.  It very much reminded me of the downtown San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art ("MOCA")  One of the exhibits had different artists "reimagine" letters of the alphabet graffiti style.  Another focused on the Clayton Brothers.  The only observation I have to make about this exhibit is that one of the works was described as being "On Loan From the personal collection of David Arquette and Courtney Cox."

  The final exhibit was a more straightforward graffiti exhibit involving the transition from wall art to "studio" art. It was a winner- should tour or will be touring I hope.  It was called: Street Cred: Graffiti Art From Concrete to Canvas, and it runs till September.  Worth checking out.  Read the hyper linked recap if you are down.

  The downtown Pasadena area is a  mixture of college town/yuppie shopping district/business district.  Within three blocks of one another you can see a legit art house flick at Laemmle Playhouse 7, unlock your frat boy Four Square badge at the Paseo Colorado,  or cash a check at the killer  modernist 60s Bank of America building:

Bank of America

  We stayed at the Westin, a clean, efficient business hotel with a great location and comfy rooms.  Ordering food on a day when they had three weddings going was probably a mistake, but for what it's worth, our super expensive bar appetizers sucked so bad it was embarrassing for the hotel.  We practically cringed.  We also embarrasingly ate at a California Pizza Kitchen- we didn't want to drive for dinner and the local choices were mall stalwarts like Yard House, ethnic restaurants with mediocre reputations and second-tier modern dining.  Pasadena is more about culture then nightlife.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Padre Hotel - Bakersfield

       My wife and I have a fondness for the second and third tier cities of America.   Many so-called cultured, sophisticated Americans will gladly spend days in rapture traipsing around in like cities in Western European countries (like Bruges, for example.) but disdain the American equivalents. I would argues that a city whose past glory lies in the 1950s is JUST AS INTERESTING as a city whose past glory lies in the 15th century.   Unfortunately I live in the far south-western corner of the United States, so such cities are few and far between .

    This weekend, I did happen to make it as far north as Bakersfield, CA.  My wife and I repeatedly marveled on the four hour (five hour with traffic) drive from San Diego that Bakersfield is actually equidistant between San Diego and San Francisco/Sacramento, making it a natural way station for a grueling one day drive.  We chose to stay at the Shertaon Four Points for reasons that my wife would be better equipped to explain (Here's a hint though.)  Arrival was about 3 PM, so we headed "downtown" to hit a thrift/vintage store my wife was particuarly excited about.  Across the street was the hotel pictured above, "The Padre Hotel."  According to newspaper stories, the Padre was re-vamped in 2010 by a San Diego based partnership including  Graham Downes and Bret Miller.

   The vintage store that got my wife so excited was In Your Wildest Dreams, a three level, 21 thousand square foot consignment shop containing everything from clothes, to furniture, to records.  In Your Wildest Dreams was not particularly cheap, but it was not what thrifters call "picked over" in the sense that SD/LA/SF area thrifters understand the term.  There was PUH-lenty to buy.  From my perspective, the books were poor, but the records, which looked to be the collection of a single guy, were well selected, with some nice represses that I would be stoked to see at a "new" record store.  In Your Wildest Dreams isn't the only thrift/vintage/consignment store in Bakersfield, but you don't have to go to another one unless you are looking for stuff to resell on Ebay.

  After "thrifting" we walked across the street and had a drink at the Brimstone Bar inside the lobby of the Padre Hotel.  My wife and I were both impressed by the quality of the remodeling, the architect clearly had an eye for maintaining some of the better aspects of the original design while updating by removing interior walls- creating a large lobby space that was subdivided into the bar, a cafe and the check in area.  Guests have the opportunity to walk up a central stair case to the rooms, giving the space a constant multi-dimensional flow of people.  The Brimstone Bar was about what you would expect from a would-be boutique hotel in Bakersfield: rough around the edges but satisfactory considering the location.  Were I to return, I would want to give this place a shot.

  Dinner was an easy choice: Buck Owens Crystal Palace, a combination Steak house/Hard Rock style museum and music venue started by the legendary country hit-maker in 1995.  Buck also owns a country radio station in town, which is located next door to the Crystal Palace.  Our dinner at the Crystal Palace was what we expected: A great delight for every sense EXCEPT taste.  I'm not complaining, but my advice if you go there is to have a snack at the Brimstone prior, order the smallest thing off the menu at Crystal Palace and "pre-drink": My Budweiser was something like 5.50, and while I'm happy to pay up, I wouldn't want to do extended drinking here.  The Museum aspect is incredible, with an actual emphasis on his individual hits with the various costumery he used to promote each hit filling the rest of the display cases.  Still, if you have one night in Bakersfield and miss this place, you a sucka.  Call ahead for a reservation and get there after 7:30 PM for the band.

  For a night cap/evening activity I would have preferred to check out a show at Jerry's Pizza, but that was not in the cards.  Instead we went to Guthrie's Alley Cat, which has a decent online reputation, a quirky location in an actual alley and a killer old-school neon sign that still lights up.  Inside it's a little too nice to be a "dive bar" in the sense that I understand the term, but it was a decent "bar" bar.  The bartender was amiable as were the locals- no attitudes here.

  On the ride back to the hotel we stopped at but did not eat at Dewar's Family Ice Cream and Candy Parlor a hundred year old, still FAMILY OWNED and adorable as all get-out.  Inside it was a Saturday night mob-scene, but the ice cream jocks looked like stone-cold assassins of serving ice-cream.  The old timey candy selection didn't get me wet, so to speak, but on the whole it's an amazing place- right across the street from Bakersfield High School.  Standing in the parking lot, the sun setting out on the plains of the Central Valley, I could close my eyes and imagine that I was still in the 50s.  It was a pleasant sensation.

  Give Bakersfield a shot.

Book Review: The Red and The Black by Stendahl

The Red and The Black
a new translation by Catherine Slater
with an introduction by Roger Pearson
Oxford World's Classics
p.  2009

   Published in 1831, Stendahl's, The Red And The Black was very much a novel "of the moment."  Upon it's original publication it even carried the subtitle "A Novel of 1830."  The Red and The Black is peppered with references to social and current events that were specific to the year 1830, and it is hard for a modern reader to grasp the shock that The Red and The Black was greeted with upon publication.

   Stendahl tells the story of Julien: A carpenter's son from the provinces of France who rises and falls from prominence in a series of events that should ring a bell with any fan of Romanticism.  Julien starts out as a tutor to the children of the local Mayor, bangs the Mayor's wife, goes off to a seminary, finds favor with the head Monk, gets a gig as the personal secretary to an aristocrat, bangs the daughter of his boss, and (spoiler alert) shoots the Mayor's wife after she exposes him to his boss as Julien is on the cusp of marrying the (pregnant) daughter of his boss, is tried for attempted murder, convicted and executed.

   That's the plot, and it comes off to the modern reader a tad melodramatic, but what sticks is the style of the writing.  Zola called The Red and the Black the first "modern novel" because of the way Stendahl was able to write from the perspective of all the main characters.  Stendahl also deploys a kind of floating narrator in a manner that is totally at odds with the showy, ostentatious "master narrators" of 18th century fiction.

   The Red and The Black is also notable in the way that Stendahl advances the narrative- he is closer to modern novelistic technique then any who come before him.  Stendahl writes as an author who is not merely familiar with novelistic convention (as it stood in the mid 1820s) but an author who is trying to introduce reader friendly improvements.  It makes for a pleasant and enjoyable read- far superior to other novels from the period.

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