Dedicated to classics and hits.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

BECKONING DESERT

BOOK REVIEW

BECKONING DESERT: IMPRESSIONS OF THE SUNLIT LAND, ITS PEOPLE, ITS MIRACLES OLD AND NEW
BY EDWARD MADDIN AINSWORTH
PRENTICE HALL

  Have you ever had the experience of reading an old book and realizing like, half way through, that it is meant for school children, not adults?  I read this entire book about the Colorado Desert (it's in Southern California, named after the river, not the state.) without really getting that it was written for children, so I'll hold off on some of the gibes I was considering making.

   The fact is that it is hard to find books written about the Colorado Desert.  The Colorado is a portion of the larger Sonoran Desert, which encompasses much of Mexico and Southern Arizona.  The Colorado Desert is separate from the Mojave Desert, which is located to the north and encompasses the area traditionally known as "Death Valley."

  The author of this book is what you call an "old fashioned newspaper man" and it's quite obvious from his constant mentioning of the fact that he owned a vacation house in the city of Mecca on the North End of the Salton Sea in the 50s and 60s, and that he decided to write this book, probably earning himself a well deserved tax deduction for all the money he spent at his vacation house.  I especially enjoyed the chapter called "shit in my backyard."

 The Anecdotal style does not detract from the over-all merit of this book for being a font of information about a place that seems condemned to perpetual obscurity.  I'm not sure why, it's got all the elements: post-apocalyptic waste land, international border intrigue, interesting regional cuisine, a yearly music festival and plenty of nice spots to live, and yet it seems all we read about the area of the Colorado desert is how poor Imperial County is.  Boo on that.

Scotty's Castle in Death Valley, California

Scotty's Castle in Death Valley, California

  So my favorite chapter in this book actually concerned Scotty's Castle in Death Valley (Mojave desert)- it is pictured above.  Basically there was this eccentric mid Western millionaire who thought it would be fun to "create" this character of Death Valley Scotty who did wacky things like gamble with gold nuggets and hire a train to take him from LA to Chicago as fast as possible.  This millionaire guy built this mansion for himself, but led everyone to believe it was for this guy Scotty, but really Scotty lived in a shack out in back.  It's kind of a cool story, set in the desert.

Madame Bovary on Trial

BOOK REVIEW

MADAME BOVARY ON TRIAL
Dominick LaCapra
p. 1986
Cornell University Press

  Here are a couple of things I hate:

 1. Books that are supposed to be about one subject and then proceed to not talk at all about the purported topic.
 2.  Specialist debates in literary studies from the 1980s and 1990s.

  I imagine there was a time in the 1980s and 1990s when tenured literature professors in major American Universities must have felt pretty smug about themselves.  Using French theory as a vehicle, they, as a group, managed to go 20 plus years without writing a single thing interesting to any audience outside their own graduate students.  This "French turn" was not limited to literary studies, but the study of literature in the 80s and 90s is the illustration of the French turn in American academic prose "par excellance."

   I bought this book simply because the title seemed to promise a description of the events surrounding the actual trial that took place after Madame Bovary was published for the first time.   According to LaCapra it's an event that has been neglected in Flaubertian studies because of the believe that the prosecution was simply a vehicle to go after the magazine that published Madame Bovary.

   Unfortunately for me, LaCapra only devotes a chapter to the trial- not even including the fifty page transcript in this volume- and then spends the rest of the book summarizing the lengthy history of Bovarian criticism by authors such as Sartre et al.  This book is so 1980s that LaCapra uses Paul De Man's translation as his preferred English version Madame Bovary.  You have to know who Paul De Man is to get that point, but trust me- he is a classic 80s literary studies guy and, as it turned out, a Nazi collaborator.  Put that in your deconstructionist pipe and smoke it.

  This book shows it's age like a suburban Mom shopping at Forever 21.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

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Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais

Gargantua and Pantagruel:
The five books
by Francois Rabelais
translation by Jacques Le Clerq

   One of the foundational principles of this blog is that you can compare different types of work of art: paintings can be compared to novels can be compared to symphonies. All works of Art have an Artist and an Audience.  Some art forms have a longer history then others, especially where the attribution of specific works of art to specific artists is concerned.

  A benefit to looking at an art form with a longer history is simply that you have more examples of Artists, works of art and the reception of art by Audiences.  For me, the early history of the novel fascinates because the history goes back so looonngggg.  Take Gargantua and Pantagruel, originally published in the 16th century by Francois Rabelais.  Generally considered to be a forerunner of the Novel, Gargantua and Pantagruel is actually a five volume series about the father and son pair of giants: Gargantua is the father and Pantagruel is the son.

     Confusingly, the first volume Rabelais wrote is actually sequenced second in most modern editions.  The second volume written, the story of the father Giant, Gargantua is presented as the first volume.  It's somewhat analogous to the way the Star Wars movies were made.  The first and second volume were received with much acclaim and approbation- this being the 16th century, Rabelais was accused of heresy, had to flee France in fear for his life.

   Each volume is about 150 pages long, but the first two volumes are clearly superior to the last three.  Only the first two volumes: Pantagruel and Gargantua really, really stand the test of time.  The third volume is basically a philosophical discourse a la Plato about the merits of marriage, and volumes four and five are a loose parody/homage to Homer's Odyssey.

   What's most surprising about Rabelais is simply how DIRTY the jokes are. Rabelais def. puts Sade in context.  All five volumes contain enough shit jokes and sex references to make an 80s era Andrew Dice Clay blush in shame.

   Unfortunately for Rabelais' contemporary prospects as a popular, widely read author, the 16th century rears its hard-to-understand in page after page of references to scholastic method, ancient authority, latin metaphors and paragraphs of lists, lists, lists.   And although the entire five volumes runs something like 750 pages in length, a modern reader can get the drift by reading the second/first volume: Gargantua.  It's in this volume that you get the best bawdiness, the best satire of scholastic teaching methods, and a story line that most resembles the modern novel (specifically, something like Gulliver's Travels.)

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