Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Last Days of Mankind (1922)by Karl Kraus

Book Review
The Last Days of Mankind (1922)
by Karl Kraus 
Abridged and Edited version, published 1974
Translated by Frederick Ungar

  This is an 800 page PLAY written by an Austrian Jewish writer who was an early "anti-war" thinker and generally part of the Viennian literary ferment that produced Freud, Schnitzler, Kafka and Zweig. Including it on a list of 1001 Books To Read Before You Die seems somewhat questionable, because I'm not sure an unabridged edition of this book exists in English.  If it is, no library in the greater San Diego area has it.

  What I was able to find was an abridged and edited version at the San Diego library, which appears to have spent 1991-2013 in storage before being brought back onto the shelves when the new downtown library opened AND according to the still present library check out card at the front of the book, it was checked out exactly once wit a due date of January 24th, 1975.   That means I am the only person to read this book in the 40 plus years since it was purchased by the San Diego County Library system.

  So I think calling The Last Days of Mankind "obscure" is an understatement.  That said, the 250 page version has much to recommend it.  The so-called "play" (which was written to be staged "on Mars" because it was epic in scope and number of characters) has the feel of sketch comedy, mixed with Hunter Thompson and William Burroughs.  In fact, I'm now curious to know if Burroughs may have actually read The Last Days of Mankind prior to writing Naked Lunch.

  Much of the prose was lifted, documentary style, from the Vienniese press, in the some way a modern Author might lift from Fox News.  The tone is satirical, and even through the translation many of the jokes about the senselessness and violence of War culture land their blows nearly a century and a continent away from their initial publication.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Museum Review: Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum in Nashville, Tenn.

This is the view that most pedestrians get of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum as they enter the building.

Museum Review:
 Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum
 in Nashville, Tenn.

  It's common to meet cosmopolitan, sophisticated avant garde types all over the globe will say something like "I like every kind of music, except Country." Usually if pressed, they will qualify their answer by defining Country as "Top 40 Country" with exceptions for sub-genre's like Outlaw Country (Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard) or Country Roots music (the soundtrack for O Brother Were Art Thou and Bluegrass) or even Alt-Country (Wilco, Gram Parsons.)  I've come to the conclusion that such willful ignorance (of which I myself am guilty of as much as anyone) is wrong-headed.

  Country music, or Country and Western or Hillbilly- whatever you want to call it- is a uniquely American musical idiom both in terms of artistry, culture and commerce.   Country music should hold particular interest for anyone who is interested in "Indie culture" since it is the original independent music.  The existence of Nashville today is a testament to the intersection of a few major 20th century trends intersecting in a specific place to create a "third coast" for the popular music industry, and the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum in Nashville masterfully relates that story.

 Word to the wise, the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum is NOT cheap- 25 bucks for a "regular" admission, more if you want an upgrade. It's not only "worth it" in terms of the value, but also because there are not a whole bunch of A-level tourist attractions in Nashville, so it's either this or.... You take the elevator up to the third floor and start with a typical museum type stroll through the roots/history of country music.  Almost every single item on display is a hit, and the use of sound is way above what you typically get in most museums. To me, the pre-history of Nashville is almost more interesting than Nashville itself, but I'd hardly expect the Country Music Hall of Fame to feel the same way.  The exhibits really get going in the rock/rockabilly era: Carl Perkins blue suede shoes, Elvis' gold Cadillac, etc.  It's clear that the official line from Country music is that 50s era rock is either part of or an outgrowth of Nashville country, which may be hard to square with anyone who knows anything about the actual history of rock and roll, but the viewer is inclined to forgive the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum its foibles in light of the majesty that it brings to bear on the subject.

  After ending with an exhibit heavy on the roll of television and radio in the rise of Nashville, the second floor is anchored by an excellent exhibit on The Bakersfield Sound, a Country scene that is most typically identified as being part of the "Outlaw Country" movement.  The main players are Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, and one of the revelations of the exhibit is that one woman, Bonnie Owens, married them both in succession.  I wasn't surprised to learn that many of the exhibits were supplied by Buck Owens' own Crystal Palace, a combination steak house/museum that is devoted to Buck Owens (who is the creator of the Bakersfield sound.)

  From there it's a hallway through to the present day, with various of waves of "neo-traditionalists" (which seems to be EVERY trend in Country music since the peak of Outlaw Country) competing with a risible Miranda Lambert exhibition (she's only 30 years old, the artifacts are "illustrated" by her tweets. Sample: OMG so happy to here today

  The book shop was actually a disappointing, I expected something more ambitious and instead it was strictly garden variety stuff.  More interesting is the Hatch Print shop that is down the hall of the lobby.  That is an interesting visit independent of the Hatch Prints displayed in the third floor hallway.

  There's not much going on in the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum neighborhood: It's literally sandwiched between the Bridgestone Arena (hockey) and a convention center.  The "Broadway" strip is a couple blocks away, but that is more of a night time destination.  While perhaps not a reason to come to Nashville by itself, the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum is a must if you are here for more than a night.

Cane (1923) by Jean Toomer

Author Jean Toomer: He's African American!

Book Review
Cane (1923)
by Jean Toomer

  It makes sense that the first significant African American novelist-writer wouldn't consider himself an African-American writer, and would be so upset by such a designation that he would move to France and turn to spiritualism, never writing another novel.  Jean Toomer is present on the 1001 Books To Read Before You Die list as the first African-American author.  Post Uncle Tom's Cabin, African American's were a central THEME in American literature, but typically as characters in the work of well meaning Whites.  The rise of African American authors, alongside other non-traditional literary voices, is one of the key occurrences in literature in the 20th century, so even as a one hit wonder, being first in time within that category is a significant achievement.

  The vehicle for the emergence of African American literature written by African Americans was the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was a multiple discipline artistic frisson that reached across music, studio arts (painting, sculpture) and literature.  In the area of literature, the Harlem Renaissance produced the first world famous African American novelists, short story writers, novelists and poets.

   Jean Toomer was the mixed-race or "Creole" son of an established Creole family from Georgia.  He moved to Washington DC as a child and was raised in a comfortable, middle-class neighborhood.  He studied at several colleges but graduated from none of them, eventually moving to New York, where he landed in 1919. In 1920, he returned to Washington DC to care for his ailing parents.  In 1921, he took a job as a school teacher in rural, African-American Georgia, where he was exposed to that culture for the first time.

 Cane is not a conventional novel, but rather a mix of short stories and poems. The characters are largely African Americans:  The only white character I remember is a deranged lover who is killed by an African American romantic rival via a slit throat.   Toomer is free with his use of the 'N' word and discusses sex frankly and without prudery.  The frequent dropping of the n bomb might be one reason this book is little read.  Another might be the non-standard format combination of poetry and prose.  Regardless of present popularity, it is the first significant work of literature by an African American in the period immediately prior to the Harlem Renaissance (which gave birth to MANY significant works of literature by African American authors.) so it is very much worth seeking out.

 Also, Cane is only 160 pages, so you can read it in a sitting.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Antic Hay (1923) by Aldous Huxley

Book Review
Antic Hay (1923)
by Aldous Huxley

  Antic Hay is like an English equivalent of a "Lost Generation" novel: over educated, under worked young people complaining about the meaningless-ness of life.  Fortunately, like Crome Yellow, Antic Hay is a satire of this culture, not a celebration.  In theory, Antic Hay is about Theodore Gumbril, son of an architect and erstwhile school teacher, who, at the beginning of the book, ups and leaves his stable job to develop his invention, a pair of "pneumatic pants" that contain an inflatable cushion to make sitting down on hard surfaces comfortable.

 Also like Crome Yellow, Antic Hay has little or no plot: Gumbril takes some meeting, chases some skirts and hangs out in the greater London area with other arty friends.  No one gets married, pregnant or loses an inheritance. Antic Hay successfully parodies the shallow/deep culture of 20s intellectuals- after the First World War exposed their transcendentalist/universalist ideas for being neither universal or transcendental, but before Existentialism gave intellectuals a mid twentieth century rallying call.  Gumbril and his ilk are bored, and excited about nothing at all.

For those more familiar with late 20th/early 21st century "Hipster" culture, Antic Hay will strike a resonant chord, and is worth a read for precisely that reason.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Crome Yellow (1921) by Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley: More than Brave New World.

Book Review
Crome Yellow (1921)
by Aldous Huxley

  If you are like me you equate Aldous Huxley with his 1931 dystopian fiction Brave New World, probably in high school, and are unaware that he has other books.  Crome Yellow was Huxley's first novel, and it is light years away from his better known work.    Crome Yellow is a country-house satire, about a group of early 20s avant gardists who gather in a country house to eat, talk and dance.  The main character is a would-be poet/novelist named Denis Stone. Stone is surrounded by a cast of characters who embody different aspects of the bohemian world of England in the early 1920s: The succesful writer who has grown rich off of glorified self help books, the empty headed spiritualist, the feckless libertine.   The fact that Crome Yellow was itself published in 1921 reveals that Huxley was very much on top of the trends that would come to define the 1920s avant garde.  His prose is stylish and still funny, and the stylistic panache far outweighs the almost absolute lack of plot or even incident.

  I would very much recommend Crome Yellow for those unfamiliar.  The libary bound edition I checked out from the San Diego Public Library clocked in at 305 pages with huge margins, making it readable in a couple hours.

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