Dedicated to classics and hits.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Thinking Reed (1936) by Rebecca West


Book Review
The Thinking Reed (1936)
 by Rebecca West

  Rebecca West was not just an author of fiction, she was, according to her Wikipedia entry, an important public intellectual who wrote criticism and non-fiction.  She has four books in the 1001 Books project: The Return of the Soldier (1918) and Harriet Hume (1928) are the two I've read.  If you are looking for similarities between the three works it would be strong heroine and a gradually expanding scope.  The Return of the Soldier is mostly an English country house novel,  Harriet Hume is a novel about London, and The Thinking Reed is a novel set in Europe, with a mixed cast of European, English and American expatriate characters.

  However, the book that The Thinking Reed most resembles is Tender is the Night (1934), published two years before The Thinking Reed and an obvious reference point and/or direct inspiration.  Both books dwell on the lives and loves of wealthy, floating Euro-Americans with a variety of real and imagined neuroses and ailments. If Tender is the Night is the "male" version of this narrative, The Thinking Reed is the female counter-part.  Like Tender is the Night it's hard not to read The Thinking Reed as containing a main character who resembles the author.

Monday, December 29, 2014

In Vanda's Room (2000) d.Pedro Costa

Vanda doing her thing in her room, In Vanda's Room (2000) by Portuguese director Pedro Costa.

Movie Review
In Vanda's Room (2000)
d.Pedro Costa
Criterion Collection #510

  I feel compelled to restate every so often that there is no higher/pretentious purpose to watching all the Criterion Collection movies and reading all 1001 Books to Read Before You Die. It's just something I do in my spare time. I don't spend much time on these posts either, thus the typos and general lack of attention, and I don't feel bad is only 15 people read a specific post.  Really, it just seems to me that in a world where we can get everything at any time it takes a little more than randomly casting about to see what tv series one is going to watch next on Netflix.  I will cop to being a fast reader- basically 100 pages an hour, so that is why it appears that I read "so much."

  It is not an exaggeration to say that my life prior to the streaming/free everything computer revolution was a constant search for new material to read, watch and listen to. If you didn't work, your choices were limited in terms of what books you could read, what films you could watch, and albums you could listen to. But people need to give examples of things to do beside binge watching all the tv shows of a sitcom in a weekend., or listening the Billboard 100 on free Spotify. So this blog is my idea about how to take advantage of being able to get anything anytime for free.  After all what does everyone do with their surfeit of leisure time?  Squander it, mostly.

  All that says, there were moments during In Vanda's Room, a 2 hour forty five minute movie shot on digital video about a bunch of Portuguese junkies, that triggered the above reflections about why I should even bother.  In Vanda's Room is an example of another recurring non-official category of the Criterion Collection, "Movies my 25 year old self would have been super excited about."  I'm not saying that my present day self might not also enjoy some of these films, but 25 year old would have been like, out in the street, at bars, telling people about In Vanda's Room.

  The two hour forty five minute length is all the more remarkable because Costa shot In Vanda's Room on digital video.  Most of the scenes are static shots of the interiors of the junkie squalor chic of the now demolished Lisbon/Lisboa slum, Fountainhas.  In Vanda's Room is actually the middle film in a trilogy which is set entirely in Fountainhas prior to demolition.  The apartment complex at the center of this film appears to be actually in the process of being demolished during the shooting of the film, multiplying the already strong Verite vibe lent by the simple scene set-ups and digital video contrast.   The Vanda of the title is a more-charming-than-most junkie and she is surrounded by a cast of characters who exist both inside and outside the titular room.

  According to the Criterion Collection cast list, all the characters play themselves, which makes me want to say that he actually made a movie using junkies.  Were they actors?  The ambiguity is what sets In Vanda's Room apart from other entries in the Junkie film oeuvre that use recognizable professional actors.  It's easy to see the choice to use non-actors in film as cutting across financial and artistic considerations.  It is obviously cheaper, particularly in a country with a small domestic film industry.  You can also argue that professional actors detract from other more artistically important aspects of the film, like the generation of mood and the mise en scene/composition. 

Friday, December 26, 2014

The World of the Scythians by Renate Rolle

Scythians- map of their territory

The World of the Scythians
 by Renate Rolle
p. 1980/English translation 1989
University of California Press

Example of Scythian art
   The World of Scythians is translated from the German, and approximately 80% of the cited texts are in Russian, and that is an accurate description of what is like to get good information about the Scythian people in English.  The Scythians inhabited what is today Ukraine- the southern portion, running down to the Black Sea.  During the pre-Classical and Classical period, they interacted with Greeks who set up colonies on the shore of the Black sea.   Lacking a written language, we only know about the Scythians from three sources:  Greek sources, Persian sources and archeology.  It is unknown what language the Scythians spoke and what their ethnic characteristics were, though Persian sources and a certain amount of common sense that the Scythians came from the Iranian branch of the Indo European family, and recent genetic studies point to a mixture of European and Asian populations.

  The archeology points firmly to Indo European roots, with the common characteristics of horse rearing and nomadic travelling in ample evidence.  Similarities between Scythians and "primitive" western Indo European groups like the Germanic and Celtic peoples abound in terms of artistic motifs and burial rites.  The Scythians are also notable for being the source of the Amazon women legend, which Rolle backs up with archeological finds, and being the earliest known users of Marijuana.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Flowers of St. Francis (1950) d. Roberto Rossellini


Movie Review
The Flowers of St. Francis (1950)
 d. Roberto Rossellini
Criterion Collection #293


   Merry Christmas!  I like to keep the blog dark on major holidays but writing about The Flowers of St. Francis on Christmas was irresistible.  While there are stylistic consistencies between Rossellini's better known Italian neo-realist trailblazers of the same period and this film, the thematic gap is likely to leave viewers double checking whether The Flowers of St. Francis is really a Rossellini picture.  There is no hint of world weary irony or cynicism in his portrayal of St. Francis, here simply Francis.  Rather the approach is classically hagiographical: a series of well known incidents from the works produced after his death by his followers.

   Franciscan monks famously take a vow of poverty, and The Flowers of St, Francis will certainly fill you in on the medieval back story as well as the various ways Francis proved himself to his followers, who are also the "Flowers" in the title (I think.)  Francis stands for peace, non-violence and kindness towards others.  In the accompanying Criterion Collection essay, the author mentions that in contemporaneous interviews Rossellini compared St. Francis to Gandhi as a way of making the case for the relevance of his film.

  Despite the ponderous and religious nature of the subject, the film possesses the quiet beauty of other Rossellini films, and by the end it becomes comparable to his other films and less the stylistic outlier that it at first appears to be.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Movie Review: The Tin Drum (1979) d. Volker Schlöndorff

David Bennett plays Oskar Matzerath in Volker Schlondorff's 1979 version of Gunter Grass' 1959 novel.


Movie Review:
The Tin Drum (1979)
d. Volker Schlöndorff
Criterion Collection #234

   The Tin Drum (1979) was German director Volker Schlöndorff biggest hit in America, where it won the 1979 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.   The Criterion Collection/Academy Award for Best Foreign Film is a good way to focus in on which films were really enjoyed by audiences upon initial release, vs. what the Criterion Collection Editorial board thinks is worthwhile (and available to them for release.)  Schlondorff was notable because all of his films were literary adaptations.  Unlike his movie version of Musil's Confusions of Young Torless,  The Tin Drum was a relatively recent book, released in 1959.
Gunter Grass was a member of the Polish ethnic minority of Kashubians, whose "territory" within present day Poland is marked on the map above.  The Tin Drum takes place in Danzig, east of Kashubia.

   The book The Tin Drum was controversial because it had a "light" treatment of the Nazi theme (while being critical/dismissive of the Nazi's themselves.) The complicated history that underlays the book and its reception by contemporary German language audiences is also informed by the recent episode where Grass revealed that he was "briefly" a member of the Waffen SS in his youth.  Even this fact is not as straight forward as it might appear.  Grass was a member of the Kushubian/Polish ethnic minority that is centered around the city of present day Gdansk in present day Poland.  The Tin Drum is mostly set in Danzig, which was a "German" city cut off from the rest of Germany, and with a population of Germans, Poles and Kashubians.

  The Kashubians have a history of being looked down upon by "Poles" and it isn't impossible to see why Kashubians would look towards Germany during the time when Grass was young.  In a sense though, it makes his membership in the SS worse, since he was basically a "foreign enlister" and the Nazis had no kindness for Slavs of whatever ethnicity.  

  The Tin Drum was also controversial upon initial release as a book because of the sexual content.  By the standards of foreign cinema of 1979, that material is not nearly as bold or transgressive, but it still packs a startling punch, and would be enough to send any child watching with family out of the room.

  I delayed watching The Tin Drum because I thought it might be (at two hours and forty five minutes) a slog, but I was pleasantly surprised.  Scholondorff's film moves along at an engaging clip, with plenty of sex and violence, making the selection by the Academy as Best Foreign Film understandable.
   

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

NIghtwood (1936) by Djuna Barnes

Djuna Barnes: author of Nightwood (1936)

Book Review
Nightwood (1936)
by Djuna Barnes

  Calling this book a "masterpiece" has to be special pleading. I'd go along with calling it a minor classic of early-mid twentieth century modernism, but T.S. Eliot's famous introduction to the American version of this novel rang false to me.  Barnes represents modernism, lesbianism and the avant garde of American AND Europe- she was from the north-east of the US, wrote in Berlin and settled in Greenwich Village, where she survived to the 80s.  Nightwood is her one hit, she has one other novel and a play and some poetry and that is about it.  Nightwood is loosely "about" a lesbian couple in Berlin, but the most memorable character is the itinerant gynecologist who has a postively Burroughsian quality (Burroughs was a Nightwood fan.)

Monday, December 22, 2014

The History of Archeology: An Introduction Edited by Paul Bahn



The History of Archeology:
An Introduction Edited by Paul Bahn
published February 10th, 2014
Routledge Press
BUY IT

  The History of Archeology: An Introduction is a succinct college textbook meant to give an undergraduate a brief introduction to the personalities and issues in world archeology. Broadly speaking, there are three main periods of archeology- the pre scientific heroic/amateur period, where excavations were undertaken in the pursuit of glorious, striking artifacts that were typically exported from their area of discovery to western museums and private collections.  This period started, basically, in the late 19th century and continued into the mid 20th century.
   
The second period was the spread of archeology as an academic discipline leading up to advances in radiocarbon dating of objects that destroyed the central archeological task of deciding when objects they found in the ground were actually used.

    The third period, roughly dating from the 60s, is a reaction to many of the "assumptions" of scientific archeology by scholars familiar with critical theory, leading to a cross-pollination between archeology and other disciplines, like climate studies and systems theory, to create a more "theoretical" archeology that looked beyond digging up villages and figuring out when people lived there.

   After a couple chapters detailing the origins of the first period of Archeology, The History of Archeology: An Introduction is composed of a series of chapters discussing archeology in each separate part of the world, with a distinct emphasis towards notable local archeologists and an explanation of their issues and concerns.   Each chapter concludes with a brief "Bringing It Up To Date" which mentions contemporary issues for each geographical area, and a chapter ending bibliography.

  Personally, I found the bibliography disappointing, with many of the listed sources being untranslated books from the chapter subject location.  I understand why the authors would do that, but it limits the ability of English language students to actually follow up on many of these subjects.  Several of the authors explicitly point out the works for a given area that HAVE been translated into English, which would seem to make this the exception rather than the rule.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Show Review: Ryan Adams @ The Wiltern Los Angeles, CA.

Ryan Adams


Show Review: Ryan Adams
 @ The Wiltern Los Angeles, CA.

    It is a stereotype of Southern California life that any discussion between two people there begins with a biblical style recounting of the driving route taken to get there, "I got on Fountain, then took the 101 South to the 10 West to the 405 and got off on Santa Monica Blvd.")  That experience is slowly being eclipsed by the Uber/Waze narrative, with the narrator discussing particulars of the driver (in the Uber scenario) or particular details of the route (for Waze) instead of just giving a blow-by-blow detailing of the route itself.   I'm more of a Waze guy than Uber, since I don't typically drink when I'm out, and driving to The Wiltern, located in the center of Los Angeles, from Silver Lake, located on the East side of Los Angeles, is kind of Waze proving ground because it's all surface streets.

  Since I started using Waze to drive to the area around the Wiltern  (Koreatown.) I've notice improvements.  For example, Waze used to have a nasty habit of popping you out onto an unregulated intersection from a side street- forcing perilous crossings and turns without the protection of a signal or stop sign.  I've noticed a firm decrease in this kind of behavior from Waze, now you tend to top out of side streets with signals regulating the intersection.

  By no means a fan of Ryan Adams, or even vaguely familiar with his catalog, I was none the less interested in seeing his live show.  He has an eccentric, unpredictable reputation particularly in the department of his live show and generally seems to embody the character of a capital R romantic artist down to his inner ear issues that give him problems with flash photography and stage lighting, to his Hollywood actress wife Mandy Moore who he won't talk about in interviews, to his robust lack of radio hits since the post 9/11 success of New York, New York.  He's positively a modern day Lord Byron or Percy Shelly.

  For all the drama, last nights show sounded about as unpredictable as a Beach Boys concert, with Adams reliably delivering a mix or classics and new jams with the cold blood of someone trying to demonstrate reliability to a larger audience of music industry and Hollywood types.  His new songs (identified to me by my girlfriend) were pleasing jammy country rock numbers and then the old songs featured new arrangements that typically included steel guitar and/or extended guitar solos.

  Mostly, it sounds like Ryan Adams has been smoking weed in the Hollywood hills and listening to Tom Petty and Eagles records, and it is hard to imagine that he has crafted a sound like that in any way other than it being a simple mirror of his inner life, so songs about heartbreak aside, it seems like Ryan Adams must be in a pretty good place emotionally.

  Currently ranking #389 on the Last.fm top 500 artist chart (without the plays attributable to Whiskeytown or Ryan Adams and the Cardinals), it isn't  hard to contemplate a Ryan Adams renaissance: sunset set times at major American and European festivals, tv appearances, etc.)  The new record did debut at #4 on the Billboard chart when it was released late this year.

  On the other hand, Ryan Adams has also been doing things like producing the last Fall Out Boy record and of course, Jenny Lewis' Voyager LP.  Lewis came out for a single song last night, but last week they did a joint show together, so that is firm evidence of Adams being invested in Lewis' career beyond making the record.  Producing a Fall Out Boy record is not something undertaken unless one has a clear sense of professionalism and presumably desire for a pay check.  Last nights workmanlike performance can perhaps be further interpreted of Adams desire to establish a reliable persona within the music industry, and undo his top line biography as a willfully eccentric and somewhat self destructive capital A artist.

Tender is the Night (1934) by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Zelda Fitzgerald, the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, was the obvious inspiration for Nicole Divers, the wife in Tender is the Night(1934.)  The character Nicole is institutionalized in Switzerland when Dick Divers meets her, Zelda Fitzgerald was institutionalized in Maryland while F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote Tender is the Night.


Book Review
Tender is the Night (1934)
by F. Scott Fitzgerald

  Tender is the Night is the story of the rise and fall of Dick Diver and his marriage and divorce from the fabulously young and fabulously "crazy" Nicole.  Generations of scholars have pointed to Tender is the Night as ALSO being about the rise and fall of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote Tender is the Night while his fabulously young and fabulously "crazy" wife Zelda Fitzgerald was institutionalized for schizophrenia for a couple years in the early 1930s.  I believe it is fair to observe that Tender is the Night hasn't aged particularly well for reasons to related its un-politically correct treatment of women and mental illness, but as a similarly aged male who has also experienced a divorce after a marriage of roughly a decade, it's hard for me to simply turn my back on this book and say, "Don't bother."

 After all, is F. Scott Fitzgerald not a major American novelist?  Whether you agree is likely to depend on how you feel about the role of hits in establishing an artistic legacy.  If you are OK with hits being the defining measure of artistic greatness, than The Great Gatsby is likely, by itself, to secure a spot of Fitzgerald in any canon of 20th century novelists.

  If however you are someone who champions the "avant garde" or likes high modernist authors like Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein, you would probably rank Fitzgerald as second class, and you might use Tender is the Night as Exhibit "A" in your argument, if you don't outright call him a "one hit wonder" and disregard him on those grounds alone.

  I'm not a huge fan of Gatsby personally, but I do adhere to the believe that hits define an artistic legacy, and that, coupled with the "relatability" of Dick Divers to my own personal experiences leave me inclined to recommend Tender is the Night to someone on the fence.   I don't believe Tender is the Night is a "taught" book, especially when you consider how popular The Great Gatsby is as a teachable text.  I'm not sure that modern woman reader would appreciate the frankly misogynistic OVERTONES of Dick Divers, he's like Mad Men's Don Draper without the wink and nod.

  Tender is the Night is a fun read, you won't be bored or challenged by the text, though the shift between narrator perspective gives it some feeling of modernism.  I think a sophisticated contemporary reader should possess the wherewithal to both acknowledge the retrograde attitudes about women and mental illness and appreciate the place and time of Tender is the Night (1934) as a work of art.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Maya of the Yucatan

The accessibility of Mayan sites basically runs in the opposite direction of the expansion of Maya civilization "out of the jungle" and to the North.


  An upcoming trip to the Yucatan has me all excited about the Maya ruins there.  I would say, quite honestly, that the odds of me hitting the Mexican state of Tabasco are about the same as the chances of me hitting the Guatemalan Highlands, so the Yucatan Maya are likely to be it.  The Yucatan Maya are a post-Classic civilization, with a heavy influence by the Mexica/Toltec.  Settlement of the area by pyramid building ambitious types started in the 8th-9th century AD.  Of the three major sites in the Yucatan: Chichen Itza, Mayapan and Uxmal, Mayapan is the most recent with abandonment taking place in the early 15th century, only a hundred years before contact.   Uxmal on the other hand flourished only briefly in the 1000's AD.

   The direct influence of Toltec immigrants seems mostly limited to the Chichen Itza site/polity.  Uxmal is in the style of the Chontal Maya who provided initial settlement of the Yucatan and Mayapan is the product of the existing culture of the Maya after the Toltec arrival.  Additionally, the Chontal Maya themselves came from a place where there were a mixture of settlements by Maya and Mexica.

  The fact that the Yucatan Maya are not a "pure" Mayan civilization is far outweighed by their accessibility.  There's nothing wrong with late period ruins if you are just a casual tourist.  The earlier ruins are, the less impressive and interesting they tend to be for a general audience member.  Both Uxmal and Mayapan have an advantage over Chichen Itza and Tulum in terms of not being totally overrun by tourists already.  The Eastern part of the Yucatan is the tourist nightmare of Cancun, a place I have no intention of visiting.  The western side is centered on the city of Merida, which is experiencing an increase of international awareness due to the efforts of a small group of wealth expatriates to attract attention.

   My experience with the situation vis a vis the Inca sights in the Sacred Valley is that the lesser known sites give as much OR more bang for the buck.  The only thing the better known sites have going for them is more assholes.  If you want to experience an ancient civilization, the less modernity you have surrounding you the better.

  Here are some of my other posts about the Mayans from the past of this blog:

Mayans, Toltecs and Aztecs (10/25/10)
What The Hell Happened To the Maya? (1/26/11)
Maya Resistance to Spanish Rule (9/29/11)
The Conquest of the Last Maya Kingdom (10/9/11)
2nd Take: Maya History and Religion  (2/13/12)

  I think I'm ready to see the ruins!

Book Review: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) by James Cain

Buddy, you are about to die.  Still from the early movie version of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), by James Cain.


Book Review:
 The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934)
by James Cain

  The Postman Always Rings Twice is popular in both book and movie form.  In book form it is most certainly "hard boiled" but it is not detective fiction, because there is no detective involved.  The Postman Always Rings Twice was shocking in its day, and actually got banned in Boston, and it was an immediate hit.   The hard boiled sex and violence mask a complicated moral universe and the minimalist scenery disguises a book that is very grounded in the Southern California environment of the Great Depression.  Frank Chambers, the narrator and central figure, is a classic drifter/hobo.  An interrogation between Chambers and the local district attorney sounds like the description of a classic hobo lifestyle.

  The Postman Always Rings Twice also touches of issues of class, race and gender- all the central issues of 20th century American life, wrapped in a thick blanket of tough guy talk and hottish sex.  I'm a little disappointed that Double Indemnity, the other classic James Cain hit, didn't make the 1001 Books list. Its absence seems clear evidence of an anti-American tendency within the 1001 Books project (understandable most if not all of the selectors are English authors and academics.)

Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Past by Daniel Richter

The site in present day Missouri called "Cahokia" is the largest pre-European settlement in North America.  The above illustration is based on a century plus of excavation.

Book Review
Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Past
by Daniel Richter
p. 2011
The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press

  Any attempt to write the pre-European history is faced with three major problems:

1.  Historical anti-Native bias by European scholars
2.  Lack of written records by pre-European North American civilizations.
3.  Decline of the major civilization centers prior to European "discovery" and the European induced epidemics that wiped out 9/10ths of Native populations prior to extensive contact.

   Which is different than saying that there were no pre-European major North American civilizations.  In Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Past, Daniel Richter draws together archaeological records, mythology and advances in understanding of non-European native culture to make a compelling case that there was really not much separating the Native power centers of Pueblo Bonito(four corners region) or Cahokia(Missouri) from their contemporary European counterparts of the late Middle Ages.

  He does this largely to make the case that there was not as much difference between Europeans and Native Americans in the period prior to contact as is typically supposed.  This is a thesis which flies in the face of popular "historians" like Jared Diamond, whose "Guns, Germs and Steel" does much to advance the opposite interpretation: That European civilizations were "destined to win."  Instead Richter advances a much more nuances thesis that relies heavy on the Early centuries of contact (1500-1700) and the numerous failure by Europeans to secure a place in North America.

  This is a major difference between the history of Central and South America, which it's central theme of European conquest of existing Native American civilizations like the Aztecs and Incans.  The Aztecs and Inca's may have "lost;" but we sure do know a lot about both of them. I think it's commensical to presume that there were North American analogue civilizations, especially since the history of both Aztecs AND Inca's conclusively links to prior civilizations who were extinguished prior to contact.   A common theme of "New World" history is the fragility of complex culture in the face of environmental factors, and in that way the more unknown sites of North America may have MORE to teach us about current events.

   Richter describes a Native North America that was familiar with the concepts of agricultural, government and trade, but also familiar with the "European" ideas of slavery and genocide.  The picture that Richter paints of the less known North American civilization centers that died out prior to European contact is not a hippy-peace lovefest.  The Chaco Canyon site  in the four corners area of the Western United States of America sounds very much like a place that had much in common with the Aztecs and their predecessors in Tenochtitlan.  Additionally the myths of North and South "match" in that the Aztecs speak of coming from the North and the present day Natives of the four corners region speak of post-dissolution groups heading to the south to "forget" the presumably hard times at the end of Chaco Canyon.

Richter makes the case that Chaco Canyon was a multi-ethnic accumulation with a distinct elite who managed to subjugate surrounding tribes and bring them into the geographic orbit of Chaco Canyon, while the center accumulated tribute.   It resembles the scenario in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament/Ancient Near Eastern history with "subject peoples" being enslaved by military conqueror civilizations.

  Similarly, Richter described a well settled Mississippi river valley with it's own power centers and subject peoples.  With both civilizations it seems like the "subject peoples" were just as happy to go out on their own, and winners and losers dispersed over the continent.  You can really see it if you look at the distribution of languages across North America PRIOR to European contact:
map of Pre-Contact North American language distribution
     This map shows the clear remnants of both western and eastern centers, with the Uto Aztecan language group dominating the West.  The Mid-West is dominated by the Siouan-Catawaban, with important areas located as far East as the Atlantic ocean. Caddoan and Muskogean appear to be intertwined with Siouan-Catawaban and the North East has a strong Iroquoian presence.  This all goes into the category of arguing that pre-Contact Native American history is "knowable" in a narrative sense, even if we don't have written records.  Looking at other better known civilizations in the immediate neighborhood and from "our" own European and Near Eastern experiences allows inferences to be made in the absence of direct evidence.

   Before the Revolution contines forward into the European contact period, but I found those portions less valuable since there have been many authors re-visiting the Colonial American period in recent decade.  Whereas his treatment of pre-Contact North American civilizations is an able synthesis of the available scholarly material.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Decline and Fall of Interest in William Faulkner


The Decline and Fall of Interest in William Faulkner

Book Review
Absalom, Absalom (1936)
by William Faulkner

    The Ngram above compares the frequency of mention for Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway.  Woolf, Faulkner and Joyce are all part of the literature of "high modernism" characterized by the abstraction of the form of the novel and the integration of challenging narrative techniques like stream of consciousness, shifts between narrators without signaling breaks in the text of the book, irregular punctuation and vocabulary and experimental grammar.

  The chart above clearly signals that Virginia Woolf is the most popular, likely due to her popularity of being "taught" to college and post-graduate scholars of fiction.  She has written several short novels, ideal for classroom teaching, and her status as a woman with relatively non-controversial subject matter (and highly controversial personal history) make her an ideal exponent of the principles of high modernism.

  Of the remaining three, Joyce has second place probably on the strength of the combination of legal notority of Ulysses and scholarly interest.  Hemingway and Faulkner share American nationality, but Faulkner employs a variation on the distinctive style of Woolf and Joyce, where Hemingway represents a non-experimental style.  The technical innovation of Woolf, Joyce and Faulkner limit their popular appeal.  Faulkner also carries the burden of being utterly unpolitical correct.

 Absalom, Absalom with a "use of the N word per paragraph" rate of something above 1.0, is exhibit A  the catalog of Faulkernian political incorrectness.  Like The Sound of the Fury- whose Quentin Compson is the narrator of Absalom, Absalom shifts back and forward in time and weaves between narrative perspectives with little more than chapter titles.  Modernist technique abounds, with Chapter VI featuring the current holder of the Guinness Book of World Records record for "longest sentence in a work of literature."

  Although Quentin Compson serves as the narrator, the story is about a friend of his grandfathers, a man named Thomas Sutpen, a son of West Virginia, who made his fortune in Haiti, married a woman with "Negro" blood unwittingly, fathered a son with her, abandoned her, moved to Mississippi, built a huge estate, had two children, saw his son from a first marriage attempt to marry his daughter from his second marriage and ends up murdered at the hands of a tenant whose 15 year old daughter he impregnates with the understanding that if she has a son he will marry her.

  Wikipedia describes the "genre" of Absalom, Absalom as "Southern Gothic" which is rather like calling the text of the Old Testament, "Biblical."  Yes, it's true that has all the elements that would come to characterize "southern gothic" but it's also a late classic of the high modernist period.   Like Woolf and Joyce (but not Hemingway) you don't just pick up a copy of Absalom, Absalom and read it while you are waiting for the bus.

  Most, and arguably all of the top texts of high modernist literature is difficult to imbibe.   At least Faulkner has healthy doses of incest and insanity. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

George Frideric Handel: A Life With Friends by Ellen T. Harris


This is a video of the Royal Choral Society performing the CHORUS from Handel's Messiah- the entire piece is more than 2 hours long.

Gerorge Frideric Handel: A Life With Friends
 by Ellen T. Harris
Published September 29th, 2014
W.W. Norton & Company
(BUY IT)


   George Frideric Handel is where the history of the modern music industry begins. Prior to Handel, skilled musicians worked for a specific ruler, the church or both.  Handel essentially created the figure of the musician as artistic celebrity, and he did this in the early and mid 18th century, long before others followed the same path.  Ellen T. Harris has written a Handel biography that, while not harping on the subject, certainly acknowledges the importance of Handel's market-place activity in explaining his long term significance to future listeners.

  This is not to say that Harris, a professor at MIT, lacks the musical chops to explain the stylistic innovations that Handel brought to audiences- quite the opposite.  Some of the most engaging portions of the book involve Harris explaining the specific effects and techniques that grabbed the attention of the audience. For example, Handel used dramatic pauses to heighten the impact of the following music.

  Today, Handel is best known for his soaring "Messiah."  Harris calls it the most important classical work of all time, and I'm inclined to agree, or simply defer, to her expertise.  I don't think there is a single man, woman or child living in modern conditions who hasn't heard, and been touched by the Hallelujah chorus of Handel's Messiah.  In her "Very Select Discography" after the end of the book, she recommends the recordings by Harmonia Mubdi (HMU 907505.52), Chamber Chorus of the University of California, Berkeley, Philharmonia Barogque Orchestra, Nicholas McGegan  (includes performances of many variants made by Handel.)

  Harris draws on the underutilized source of Handel's bank records to give a fuller account of the economic life of Handel.  In considering WHY Handel can be considered either the first or immediate precursor of Modern artist musicians, his financial independence from the patronage model of artistic contribution was critical.   His early career is marked by his struggle to free himself from dependence while remaining cognizant of the fact that such a relationship was the norm.  Here, Harris emphasizes the role that his time in Italy in convincing him that there was a new world of artistic freedom in England.

  The subtitle of "A Life With Friends" testifies to Harris' fascination with Handel's social milieu and I think it is clear from her strong academic background that she must be well advised of the interest in the role of social networks in the dissemination of ideas.   I thought that George Frideric Handel: A Life With Friends by Ellen T. Harris was an excellent work, and likely the go-to for a reader looking for a sophisticated take on Handel's biography, short on the "artist hero" romantic bull shit and long on interesting source material and sophisticated writing style.  

Friday, December 12, 2014

Cold Comfort Farm (1932) by Stella Gibbons

Kate Beckinsale played Flora Poste in the successful film version of Cold Comfort Farm (1932) by Stella Gibson



































      Book Review
Cold Comfort Farm (1932)
by Stella Gibbons

   In an era of literature saturated with satire, Cold Comfort Farm is a parody.  Gibbons was a professional journalist tasked with summarizing prior episodes from a Mary Webb serial in the periodical that was serializing Webbs work.  Webb was like the last representative of the gloomy Victorian romance typified by Thomas Hardy.  By Webb's time, the formula of the sad rural romance was popular enough to support both Webb and a parody- Cold Comfort Farm was an immediate popular success and its commercial popularity essentially ruined Gibbons later attempts to establish herself as a "serious" novelist.

  Although Mary Webb may have been the immediate target of Gibbons parody, any contemporary reader will be more reminded of Thomas Hardy- since no one reads Mary Webb today.  D.H. Lawrence, or rather his fans, are also a target but he is restricted to influencing one of the characters. Flora Poste herself and the basic structure of the plot reference the popular romantic rural genre of the time, but probably will remind the modern reader of Emma by Jane Austen, with Poste in the same vein of the self satisfied officious meddler in human affairs.

  Probably the most famous line in the entire book is Aunt Ada Dooms famous line, "I saw something nasty in the woodshed."  That phrase has entered English as a generic idiom for a hideous secret memory, though for the record the reader never learns what Aunt Doom actually saw in the woodshed, nor what terrible famous secret makes Flora's Aunt Judith feel compelled to host her after the untimely death of Poste's parents at the beginning of the novel.

  Unlike much of the satire from the early part of the 20th century, Cold Comfort Farm is genuinely funny, whether or not you have familiarity with the works being parodied.  The fact that it has survived even as the underlying books have faded from memory is the strongest argument in favor of Cold Comfort Farm  belonging in the 1001 Books Project/literary canon.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Muslim Conquest of Central Asia


This Map shows the path of the Muslim invasion of Central Asia.  The Muslim armies were led by Arabs and had Persian officer corps.  The state-lets of Central Asia had mostly Turkish overlords and Iranian related populations. The Muslim histories tend to discuss it as Arabs vs. Turks, but it was really mixed Arab/Persians vs. Turk/Iranians

The Muslim Conquest of Central Asia

Book Review
The Arab Conquests of Central Asia
by H.A.R. Gibb
originally published 1923
reprint by AMS Press 1970

   The Muslim invasion of Central Asia basically lasted from 645 A.D to 711 A.D.  The invading armies were led by Arabs from the Saudi peninsula but used officers and regular soldiers from Persia.  The situation in Central Asia prior to the invasion was muddled: basically a set of independent city state/oasis type polities who were being invaded and conquered by Turks prior to the invasion.  Some of the city states had maintained their Iranian leadership, but may have used Turkish mercenaries.  To the East, the Chinese were pressing north of the Central Asian city states, but they effectively cut off any potential help from Turks from the North.

  The invading Muslim armies gave people the basic, "Submit or die" pitch. The various city states resisted with various degrees of success.  The first phase of invasion was led by Qutayba, the Arab general from Medina.  Qutayba's conquests are summarized by Gibb:

1.  705 AD: The recovery o Lower Turkestan(Tukharistan in the text)
2.  From 706 AD- 709 AD: The conquest of Bukhara.
3.  From 710 to 712: Consolidation of Arab authority in the Oxus valley and its extension into Sughd.
4.  From 713 to 715: Expeditions into the Jaxarates provinces.

    Qutayba was killed by his own troops after he had an overly confident reaction to a change in power at the heart of Umayyad Empire.  It's fair to say that due to his roots in the movement (he was there at Medina) he thought he was bigger than the Empire at the End, and that was his downfall.  After his death there was a twenty five year period of retrenchment and counter attack from the Turkish princes of the area.

  The Turks went down eventually, then China lost interest in funding rebellion against the Arabs, and the situation settled down to the status quo that would be encountered by Genghis Khan and his invading armies almost 500 years later.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Handful of Dust (1934) by Evelyn Waugh

Kristin Scott Thomas as Brenda Last in a film version of A Handful of Dust (1934) by Evelyn Waugh

Book Review
A Handful of Dust (1934)
 by Evelyn Waugh

  A Handful of Dust is the third book by Evelyn Waugh in the 1001 Books Project, and the only one I would recommend to someone else to read. Neither Decline and Fall (1928) nor Vile Bodies (1930) made much of an impression on me.  In fact, prior to reading A Handful of Dust I had to go back and look at the wikipedia entries for both books so I could remember the plot details of each work.

 While still in the vein of light satire that he established as the overriding tone in the first two books, A Handful of Dust packs a heavier wallop, with a plot that includes infidelity, divorce, the tragic death of a young child, and protagonist Tony Last finding himself held captive in the Amazon rain forest by a deranged settler who forces him to endlessly re-read Charles Dickens out loud.  Last is an English country gentleman, married to the feckless Brenda.  In the early chapters of the book, Brenda embarks on a reckless affair with "idle parasite" John Beavers.  Like all of Waughs works so far, sympathetic characters are hard to find.

  Tony Last behaves as a passive non entity from first to...last.  His wife is inexplicably motivated to pursue a young man who seems to barely tolerate her.  Her young son, also named John, is killed by a kick to the head from a horse while she is away from their country home.  When she is told by a friend, her first thought is to thank god that it is her son, and not her lover, who is deceased.  AND THAT is all you need to know about the character of Brenda Last.

  After Brenda announces she is done with their marriage, Tony duly goes through the necessary arrangements that precede a divorce in post-World War I England, then backs out when he is informed that Brenda intends to ask for thousands a month in alimony.  He decamps for the Amazon on a whim with a professor who is searching for a lost city.  The trip is a nightmare, his companion dies, and he ends up essentially imprisoned by a deranged settler of English background.

  Brenda is left to her own devices and ends up both poor and apparently single, as the repulsive Beavers is unwilling to wed her without her ex husbands money.  It's a sad ending, and a sad novel. Unlike his first two books, A Handful of Dust is more directly based on his personal experience- his young wife left him, and he himself went to the Amazon, and I think that personal experience gives A Handful of Dust some depth compared to Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Revanche (2008) d. Götz Spielmann

Irina Potapenko plays Ukranian prostitute Tamara in Revanche (2008) directed by Gotz Spielmann

Movie Review
Revanche (2008)
d. Götz Spielmann
Criterion Collection #502

  It's not everyday you watch an Austrian film. Götz Spielmann has a smooth, international style that reminded me of Krzysztof Kieslowski and Atom Egoyan.  Revanche splits its time between the seedier precincts of an unnamed German speaking city and the bucolic country side of either Austria or Germany, and Spielmann seems equally drawn to both locales.  There are many, many, many contemplative shots of the landscape, typically with a single character in frame, staring off into the distance.  Call it Euro cinema, but it seems to happen where you have good cameras and technical staff a need to conserve and limit camera movement and fast cut editing for cost purposes.
Johannes Krisch plays Alex in Revanche (2008) directed by Gotz Spielmann
     Despite breaking no new ground in terms of look or feel, Revanche is compelling for the combination of elements: German crook looking for revenge or redemption, Ukrainian prostitutes, Polish gangsters, strip clubs, farm life are compelling and together.  What starts out as a crime caper gone wrong transforms into a very different film once Alex (actor Johannes Krisch) leaves the urban underworld for his fathers farm.

  The happy ending comes as a welcome surprise, and Revanche ends more like a Hollywood movie than a dour European art form.  Only released in 2008, I have to wonder if and when Gotz Spielmann will make it to Hollywood, and what they will have him do.  He is a film maker to watch.

Monday, December 08, 2014

New Release: The Struggle for Pakistan by Ayesha Jalal

This map shows the provinces of Pakistan: Punjab and Sindh are the big ones, and of course the Azad Kashmir area is controlled by India, not Pakistan,  Balochistan, Kyyber and the tribal zones (FATA) are the hinterlands.


New Release: Book Review
 The Struggle for Pakistan: A Muslim Homeland and Global Politics
 by Ayesha Jalal
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
Published September 16th, 2014
(BUY IT)

   Educated Americans probably know a few things about Pakistan: that it's a Muslim state, located in Asia, next to India, Bin Laden was hiding there.  If you are one of the few Americans who takes an active interest in South Asia, you might know a name or too: Bhutto, Musharraf, Zia.  You might know that they have nuclear weapons or that they've been engaged in a protracted border dispute with India over Kashmir for the past half century plus.  Beyond that...maybe some of the history behind the British partition of the sub-continent that led to the creation of Pakistan itself.  Beyond that, I'd bet nothing, unless you either trace your ancestry back to south Asia or have some kind of formal education about the region in your background.

 Considering the amount of tax dollars that we spend on Pakistan, and of course taking into account the proximity of Pakistan to Afghanistan, it seems like a succinct and critical history of Pakistan would be easy to find, but not so.   The Struggle for Pakistan is a readable 300 page history of Pakistan, written by a tenured American professor of history of Pakistani origin.  I'm assuming from her source material that she speaks Urdu.   And while The Struggle for Pakistan isn't a magisterial thousand page opus, it is readable and comprehensible to anyone with an interest and familiarity with the field of twentieth century history.

  It's clear that Ayesha Jalal has the perspective of a Western trained history professor but the background of someone who comes from Pakistan (and perhaps has ties to the liberal/intelligentsia class of the urban areas of Pakistan via friends and family?)  The main irony of Pakistan's existence, as Jalal renders perfectly clear (without being over judgmental) is that Pakistan was created as an explicitly Muslim state by liberal internationalists who were both Western educated and less religiously Muslim than culturally Muslim.  For these founders, Islam was a tool to be utilized to control an ill-educated, unruly, divided country with no other national tradition.

  The weakness of Islam as the organizing principle for a state that originally comprised today's Pakistan (West Pakistan) and Bangladesh (East Pakistan) is best illustrated by the succession of East Pakistan from West Pakistan in 1971.  This humiliating episode saw the Bengali speaking Muslims of East Pakistan simply walk away from West Pakistan with hardly a shot fired in anger. As told by Jalal, the period between 1947 and 1971 was anything but a nation of united Muslims singing kum ba ya around the campfire, rather the elites of Western Pakistan saw East Pakistan as a region of 'blacks' who needed to be controlled and brought to heel (despite East Pakistan having a larger population than West Pakistan.)

  Jalal is not a disciple of "bottom up" history and The Struggle for Pakistan is classic high political history.  With its roughly alternating periods of military dictatorship and civilian rule (with the Bhutto family making multiple and multi-generational appearances in the narrative) the history of Pakistan is admirably suited for this type of history, and by the end you will have a familiarity with all the leaders of Pakistan.
Mohammad Ali Jinnah is the George Washington of Pakistan, and is also like, more English than the English themselves.

  Mohammad Ali Jinnah plays the role of George Washington. He was Western oriented, a secularist, but totally instrumental in the creation of Pakistan itself.  Jalal makes the point that the decision to pursue a separate state meant that Jinnah strategically abandoned the close to half a billion Muslims who would be living inside the partitioned India.  This choice led to a great deal of heartache (and murder) in the days, weeks and months after the partition.
Ayub Khan was the first of several Pakistani military dictators. It's important to understand that the people of Pakistan had a dissprortiantely large role in the army of the Indian English state, and when Pakistan split they had a disproportionately large number of English trained, English educated military personnel.  Pakistan's identity as a military state came from that inherited English tradition, and manifested itself in a quasi-colonial attitude towards the Bengals in East Pakistan (Bangladesh.)

  The first military coup in Pakistan was in 1958 with Ayub Khan assuming control until 1969.  Ayub was succeeded by Yahya Khan, a Shia Muslim in a Sunni country, and Yahya Khan was deposed in 1971 after the dramatic military collapse in Eastern Pakistan.  He was succeeded by Zulifkar Ali Bhutto, a civilian, and a Western educated, socialist/liberal who also saw the political benefit in espousing adherence to Islamic principles as a way of generating popularity among the electorate.

  Bhutto was deposed in 1977 by General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq.  "Zia" as he was known, ruled until he died in a plane crash in 1988.  Like Bhutto, he was Western leaning and cognizant of the importance of using Sunni Islam as a unifying force in a fractious country.  Unlike Bhutto he was not a socialist, and more firmly oriented towards the West and used the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to cement Pakistan's status as a staunch Cold War ally of the United States.

  During the 70s and 80s, the Saudis exported their strict Wahhabi brand of Islam.  Strapped for cash, and welcoming foreign investment (and foreign aid), the Pakistani military allowed Saudi sponsored schools to take root inside Pakistan.  These schools trained the core of what would, in time, become both the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

  Jalal emphasizes points of continuity between the alternating civilian and military governments: Whichever elite that is in control has benefited financially from their time at the top.  There has been a near constant solicitation of foreign favor, whether it be from the West, the Middle East or China because of high expenditures of defense and low rates of effective tax collection.  Constantly being a position of weakness has the effect of creating a culture of belligerence within Pakistan, and this belligerence is cultivated by whichever elite is in power to distract people from its own incompetence.

  After Zia died, Pakistan flipped back to civilian control, with Nawar Sharif running the country as Prime Minister until 2001, when Pervez Musharraf led another military coup and stayed in power until 2008.  Since then it has been all democratic.  I was left with the distinct impression that the Government- military and civilian has done little but maintain a world class-ish military and enrich itself through graft for the last half century.  If they have done anything besides that, Jalal did not bring it up.  There is no discussion of infrastructure projects or economic development schemes.

 I couldn't tell you what Pakistan's largest important is, or what the second largest sector of their economy is after agriculture.  I know that they have one port city- Karachi- which sounds like a fun place to hang out.  The main provinces are Punjab and Sindh, with Baluchistan and Khyber as the hinterland and the North West territories being a lawless badlands.   The internal dynamic of Pakistan is Punjab as the "center" in terms of population and influence, Sindh as a junior partner and the rest of the territory as populations to be managed.  Baluchistan has been in a more or less constant state of rebellion since the beginning of Pakistan itself, and it is the case today. And the Northwest territories are probably the part that most Americans are familiar with because of the presence of the Taliban.

  Thus, Jalal's book will give you the central narrative of Pakistan's political history, but not much of  a take on the people or culture- the bottom so to speak.  Still, the omission of that material is what makes The Struggle for Pakistan interesting to a general audience, so it's hard to quibble.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1865) by Jule Verne

Brendan Fraser reads A Journey to the Center of the Earth in the 2008 movie A Journey to the Center of the Earth

Book Review
Journey to the Center of the Earth (1865)
by Jule Verne
Audiobook

  Not sure where my unwarranted prejudice against audiobooks came from.  The fact is that if you have a long period where you are driving or sitting on a train or plane, or exercising for over an hour, an audiobook is a good bet.  Audiobooks are subject to the same copyright laws as the underlying books- public domain books are also public domain audiobooks. Journey to the Center of the Earth makes for a good public domain audiobook because it's a science fiction genre piece, it isn't that long and there are dinosaurs and shit towards the end of the book.  Still, Journey to the Center of the Earth is a novel written in 1865, and the structure of the novel (and audiobook) is slow to accelerate and features chapters and chapters of staging: introducing the professor, getting them to Iceland, getting them down the volcano- the narrative doesn't really take off till they find the Lidenbrock Sea-  a giant underground ocean.

    Although Journey to the Center of the Earth was "scientific" in its day, the subsequent discovery that the Earth was not, in fact, hollow, or hollow-ish, diminished the strength of the underlying science and pushes the modern reader towards a reading that interprets Journey to the Center of the Earth as a fantasy.  The high point of the first half of Journey is Iceland as a location.  I think it's probably the first time that Iceland features as a setting in any novel.


Thursday, December 04, 2014

French Cancan (1955) d. Jean Renoir

French Cancan (1954) doesn't really score until the last ten minutes when Renoir gives up the full Cancan, in all its glorious 19th century bawdiness.  Splits! Garters! Underwear!
French Cancan (1955)
d. Jean Renoir
Criterion Collection #243

  This film could just as easily be called "The Moulin Rouge" because it is the story of the founding of that club, with impresario Henri Danglard as the roguish hero. Unlike the recent version, there is little singing, thought plenty of dancing.  Renoir doesn't give up the full French Cancan till the last scene, but when it comes, it is a DOOZY.  I might well suggest skipping the entire film and just watching the last 15 minutes for the resolution and triumphant dance scene.  The rest of the picture is above average melodrama with eye popping (for 1954) color visuals.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

To Have and Have Not (1937) by Ernest Hemingway


This Ngram compares the popularity of five Authors: Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.  This Ngram shows that although F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway were more famous, the less "famous" Modernists were actually more popular, particularly as the 20th century ended.

Book Review
To Have and Have Not (1937)
by Ernest Hemingway
Humphrey Bogart played Harry Morgan in the film version of To Have and Have Not (1937) by Ernest Hemingway.  The film changed several key plot points of the book, making it a poor "movie version" and more of it's own film than a faithful adaptation of the literary text


   As the above Ngram clearly demonstrates, Ernest Hemingway's ability to generate book sales and celebrity level attention from the media and audiences did not produce a level of long term popularity equal to that enjoyed by the high modernists: Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.   I would speculate that Ernest Hemingway, perhaps because of his immense popularity with the general public in the 1950s, was less read by literature graduate students in American University English departments, whereas James Joyce and Virginia Woolf were becoming firmly enshrined as fully "canonical" authors.

 Part of me thinks that this is ridiculous, a prejudice by academics against a popular author with a large general audience and respect among the critical community.  On the other hand, I can see where a scholar, could see his talents already in decline by To Have and Have Not, which is either a still-waters-run-deep indictment of the American Dream during the Great Depression or Hemingway's take on the hard boiled Detective novel, or both, or neither I suppose.

  One difference between Hemingway's Hard Boiled Cuban/Florida Keys locations and those of detective fiction mainstays like Hammett and Chandler is the tropical vibes. Another is the moral ambiguity of bootlegging, gun-running Harry Morgan.  Morgan is no private detective, quite the opposite of Hammett's continental operative or Philip Marlowe.   To Have and Have Not was pieced together by Hemingway writing a conclusory novella to two short story/novellas about the Harry Morgan character.   His prose is still bracing in 1937, but To Have and Have Not lacks the personality of his roman-a-clef-ish The Sun Also Rises(1926) and the Italian Front chronicle of A Farewell To Arms (1929.)  Sun and Farewell were career makers, and To Have and Have Not reads as the work of someone who is assured an Audience.  Not lazy, but not world beating. 

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Museum Review: The Avant-Garde Collection @ The Orange County Museum of Art

Chris Burden's assemblage work A Tale of Two Cities is one of the artworks displayed in the Avant Garde Collection exhibit at the Orange County Museum of Art, on until January 5th, 2015


Museum Review: The Avant-Garde Collection @
The Orange County Museum of Art
Exhibit runs through January 4th, 2015
(OFFICIAL SITE)


   I didn't have high expectations for the Orange County Museum of Art, which is figuratively if not literally in the parking lot of the Orange County Mega Mall Fashion Island.  I was pleasantly surprised by the content if not the theme of their current exhibition, The Avant-Garde Collection, which runs through January 4th 2015.  I don't typically get into issuing serious criticisms of the underlying logic behind the content of a museum exhibition, but calling a collection of modern art "the avant-garde collection" is akin to calling it "the art collection;" in other words, superfluous and obvious.
This is a photograph of Chris Burden's Metropolis, which is on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

  However the actual works on display were tip top, with my personal favorite being Chris Burden's 1981 room sized installation, A Tale of Two Cities.  Like his somewhat similar work at LACMA, Metropolis, A Tale of Two Cities can not fail to enchant the viewer with the scope and detail both equally pleasing to the eye and mind.

  Other highlights from this exhibit include a video of John Baldessari intoning Sol LeWitt's "rules for making art," a 8 panel Andy Warhol piece featuring Chairman Mao and a couple of very creepy doll centered works.  Does any museum goer in 2014 need to have the concept of "avant-garde" explained?  Hopefully not, but the works included make a short detour from the mall worth the trip.  It's an exhibit arguably worth a trip up from LA, probably not from San Diego.

  There was no permanent collection in site, so if you go the Orange County Museum of Art you are going to see the current exhibit.  They also have a nice looking space for performances.  No museum cafe or restaurant.  Parking was free and easy.

Book Review: Out of Africa (1934) by Isak Dinesen

Meryl Streep in Out of Africa, the 1985 film version of the 1934 book by Isak Dinesen.  A major difference between the film and movie is the strong love story in the film between Streep and Redford's character- which is absent from the book.


Book Review:
Out of Africa (1934)
by Isak Dinesen(Karen Blixen)

  I'm sure that 99/100 Americans think of the 1985 Robert Redford/Meryl Streep starring film when they hear the title of Out of Africa.  The central plot of the film: A passionate love affair between Redford's Denys, a big game hunter, and Streep's Karen is nowhere in the book, which isn't so much a novel as a memoir- an interesting memoir- of a woman who ran a coffee plantation in the Kenyan uplands prior to and after World War I.
Robert Redford played the love interest in the 1985 movie version of Out of Africa.

 The enduring popularity of this book is likely due to the great sensitivity and perception (and respect) that Dinesen/Blixen shows towards the landscape and people of Africa, even as she engaged in a prototypically imperialist endeavor. The world of Out of Africa is a gentle place, with none of the seething hatred and sprang up prior to and after independence.  True, Blixen is hardly looking for trouble- quite the opposite.  Her privileged status as a wealthy white woman, not a British subject (Blixen was Danish) meant that she had a sensitivity to injustice but didn't have to confront it on a daily basis.

  Those looking for a better understanding of modern day Kenya could do worse than starting here. While it would be unfair to call Kenya an unhistorical place, the coming of Europeans to the area was barely preceded by the entrance of Arab slave traders.  Blixen lives among a mix of Kikuyu's- the largest single ethnic group in Kenya, Somalis, who occupy a kind of "house servant" role within colonial Kenya, and the Masai, who live apart but nearby, since her coffee plantation is on the edge of their reserve.

 Dinesen/Blixen has much to say about the people, particularly her native servants.  Much of Out of Africa is split between the natives and her depiction of the land itself, with various European characters popping in and out.  Thought Blixen emigrated to Africa with her husband, they divorced while they were there and Blixen kept the coffee plantation.  Blixen downplays the uniqueness of her role as a single white female plantation owner in the middle of Africa in the early 20th century, but it's easy to read Out of the Africa as a kind of white-girl fantasy of mastery.

 But Out of Africa isn't fictional- and it doesn't even have the structure of a Novel, merely a series of vaguely linked anecdotes from her life in Africa.   So while the book is a romantic tale, it's not a romance, and there is no sex, so if you are looking for that based on the content of the film version, don't bother because it ain't there.
  

Monday, December 01, 2014

Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World

Artist's conception of Ancient Delphi, in watercolor.  If you look at this painting, first note the enclosing wall, which is an archeological fact and sets the dimensions of the shrine.  The area closest to the viewer, at the bottom of the enclosed shrine area, are "treasuries" built by various supplicants- mostly greek city-states from the Western Greco-Roman area.  In the top right corner, you see the older part of the shrine, with the temple on the way up the path to the sacred cave.  The area inside the wall in the top right hand corner are statues and other works of art dedicated to the shrine.  There is also a "stoa" tucked away on the right hand side.  The main building in the middle is the enclosed Shrine is the Temple of Apollo.
Top down view of the Delphic shrine with labeled buildings, mirroring the painting of Delphi above.  The actual original cave is off the map, to the top right side (i.e. up a mountain.)

Book Review
Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World
by Michael Scott
Princeton University Press, published March 10th, 2014
(BUY IT)


    I think all things being equal I'd rather blog about subjects in World History. World History is interesting, and it simply doesn't attract the kind of readers who are an embarrassment to humanity.  World History subjects are also popular with the Audience.  There are 8 tagged World History posts with greater than one thousand page views, and an additional 26 posts with more than 100 page views, meaning that over a third of the tagged World History posts (34/103.) Almost every single post has more than 50 page views, meaning that the average for the category is something like 125 views per tagged post.  Since my average readership for a new post is 20-40, this makes these posts 6 to 3 times more popular than non World History tagged posts.

  As a new release, Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World, was a priority, but I was also genuinely interested in the subject matter, being a fan of "single subject" Greco/Roman/Ancient World history books. These are the kind of subjects where one title can stay current for a half century, so I read Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World with the idea that I would never, ever have to read another book about an ancient Greek shrine.

  The main trend in books about the archeology of ancient Greece and the larger Mediterranean world is an increase in going deeper and looking farther afield for new material.   The bias of interest towards the "classic" period has corresponded to a surfeit of knowledge about that time and a deficit both before and after.  Delphi, in it's hey day, a period which started well before the dawn of classical Greek civilization and ended after the Christian era, was forgotten by the inhabitants by 1400 AD, when the first classical scholar arrived seeking the Delphi he had read about in Greek and Latin texts. After that, it was basically another 400 years before anyone came back, and archeological excavation has preceded fitfully through the 20th century.

  This means that "what we know" is a combination of classic text largely from hundreds of years AFTER the periods described therein, and archeology. I'm mentioning this because many of the customer reviews on Amazon.com libel Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World as either being too simple or not simple enough. Neither assessment is correct, Delphi is simply a work of synthesis with up to date sourcing from available material.  Thus, it reflects the strengths and weaknesses of that material.

 This book is resolutely anti-hocum-pocum, so that we get enough discussion of the proto-ritual, a virgin Sybil sitting in some kind of tripod type arrangement over a vent in a mountain cave where gas issues forth and inspires prophecy.  Later, this ritual would be mimicked but within the later constructed temple of Apollo.  The original cave mountain prophesying was supplanted by the later shrine shown above.

  The later history of Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World is likely to be interesting to readers only to the degree that they are interested by the "late classical period" prior to the fall of the Western Empire.   Under Roman rule, Delphi maintained some relevance in the way that Old World religious sites are appealing to New World followers, but innovation had long since ended.

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Thin Man (1934) by Dashiell Hammett


The Ngram embedded above compares the popularity of four Golden Age of Detective Fiction Mainstays: Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett

Book Review
The Thin Man (1934)
 by Dashiell Hammett

  The above Ngram has no surprises.  Agatha Christie, with her huge general audience, is first by a mile.  Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett both peaked in the mid 1980s, and Dorothy Sayers has remained flat since her glory days in the 1940s.  The Ngram chart for Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett probably reflects the ongoing canonization process in the United States, with a growth of secondary literature "filling up" during the 1980s and thereafter diminishing as there remains less to be said.

  Chandler's rebound since the early 1990s (vs. Hammett's flat line) probably reflects a revival of popular interest in Chandler as the true literary stylist of Detective fiction.  If you are looking for a point to distinguish between the collected work of Chandler and Hammett, The Thin Man, Hammett's succesful gentleman detective whose exploits were taken over by Hollywood, would be that point.

  Read back to back with Dorothy Sayers Lord Peter Wimsey gentleman Detective, it is hard not to draw a firm conclusion that Nick and Nora Charles were his attempt to move up in the market, and perhaps a calculated move to sell books. There is no shame in that game by the standards of pulp fiction, but it is a literature no-no.  Rampant success aside, The Thin Man degrades Hammett's authenticity in comparison to that of Chandler, who has no similar work.

  Another facet that jumps out about the Ngram is that Raymond Chandler started later and lower than the other three.  He remains in last place until 1960, when he passed Hammett (and stays more popular than Hammett from then on.)   The Thin Man was Hammett's last novel, although he didn't die until 1961 he didn't really write much between 1934 and his death, and no more novels.  Thus, the corpus of Hammett full length novels stops at five.  The only one not to make the 1001 Books project is The Dain Curse (1929).

   The Glass Key (1931), with its plot of urban politics, is the densest of the four.  The Maltese Falcon(1930) is the most enduring in terms of a general audience, likely because the film is such a classic.  However, I would recommend the other book- Red Harvest, which involves activity in a far Western mining town.  For me, Red Harvest was the most memorable- only because I've seen the film version of Maltese Falcon so many times that reading the underlying book felt duplicative.  Another appealing aspect of Red Harvest is that it stars his early, anonymous Detective "The Continental Op" and this use of the nameless protagonist almost seems like high literary modernism rather than a pulp fiction derived convention or lack of imagination.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Sincerity and Authenticity by Lionel Trilling

Lionel Trilling, professor and critic.


Book Review
Sincerity and Authenticity (The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures)
by Lionel Trilling
Published 1972
Harvard University Press

  This slim volume is a must read for anyone interested in literary criticism or aesthetics.  A half century after publication, the prose is still fresh and Trilling's arguments are still lucid.  In discussing the two terms of the title in a literary and philosophical context, he ranges across a half millennia of thought in several different national traditions (English, French, German.)

  Trilling argues that the concern with sincerity emerged as a priority in the 17th and 18th century alongside the development of Protestantism, as "plain spokenness" became a secular value, and Artists and thinkers turned against the flowery descriptives of court culture. The word sincere was first used in the 16th century, but in a physical sense, as a kind of synonym for "pure" or "unspoiled."  The motivation behind supporting sincere behavior stemmed from believing that individuals were responsible for living moral lives.

 A concern with authenticity developed later, as Artists and thinkers struggled with the influence of money on art.   In the original discussion, authenticity was compromised by the influence of money, pure and simple.  The emergence of authenticity as an aesthetic value is also tied to the rise of romanticism in the 18th century.  As a concept, authenticity is more challenging for the individual than sincerity.

 Sincerity simply requires one be honest and forthright in ones relations with others, don't lie, don't scheme, don't be duplicitous.  On the other hand, authenticity requires a kind of inner sincerity, and is less evident to an outside viewer. 

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