Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, October 24, 2014

The First Bohemians by Vic Gatrell

William Hogarth's The Rake's Progress: HE ENDS UP INSANE WITH SYPHILLIS!

The First Bohemians: Life and Art in London's Golden Age
by Vic Gatrell
Penguin Publishing
October 3, 2013

  I'd imagine there is a rather limited audience for popular history type books about 18th century London, but the fact that The First Bohemians: Life and Art in London's Golden Age is out on Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin, speaks to Gatrell as both a prestige historian with cross-over potential and someone who writes history books that non-historians might care to read.
William Hogarth: The Harlot's Progress

  Here, the project seems to have been inspired for the increased availability of free digital versions of works by artists like Hogarth and Rowlandson, and indeed, The First Bohemians is as interesting for it's pictures and illustrations as it is for the text.  Although I understand the choice that was made for the title by the publisher, this book could just as easily and accurately been titled, 'The Artistic Community in 18th Century Covent Garden.
William Hogarth
  Covent Garden is of course the still in existence, but hugely changed neighborhood that lies north of "the Strand" and east of Leicester Square in 2014 London.  In the 18th century, this neighborhood was a dense melting pot, with a surfeit of bars, whores and artists. While the glorification of Bohemian type neighborhoods is common today, the Artists discussed in this volume have long awaited proper recognition. Perhaps their biggest crime was belonging to the relatively bawdy sensibility of the 18th century and therefore being out of touch with the more straight laced, refined sensibility of both the Victorian and Early Modern period.

  The severely White and Male dominated nature of the culture of this period counted against the 18th century Covent Garden art scene in the later part of the 20th century, and perhaps even accounts for a relative lack of attention to these Artists even as other "low" forms of visual art, like packaging, advertising and comics have been elevated via academic discourse.  To the extent that a book about a time and place (Covent Guardian in the 18th century,) the "main characters are the visual artists William Hogarth and Thomas Rowlandson.  Of the two, Hogarth remains familiar as one of the main representatives of 18th century English culture (and a great deal easier to 'read' than 800 page novels) while Rowlandson has only recently been rediscovered.

   Both Hogarth and Rowlandson gained their fortune creating original prints that were mass produced and sold at reasonable prices.   They were a key component of 18th century culture, which had yet to become fully literate. Both were known for their realism and attention to detail, even as they gained stature as satirists of contemporary mores. Gatrell is careful to situate Hogarth and Rowlandson which was, again, very heavy on drinking to excess and whoring.

  Certainly a must for anyone seeking a serious understanding of 18th century artistic culture in England- whether visual or written, and it's important to understand how the visual hugely influenced the written, and was referred to by the more remembered novels of the period.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933)by Gertrude Stein

Pablo Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein.

Book Review
The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933)
by Gertrude Stein

 Gertrude Stein's famous, epochal literary memoir about her life in Paris before, during and after World War I is another book where I was left asking myself how it was possible that I'd not read it before. Stein existed today as a kind of totemic figure for the early 20th century cultural avant garde/modernism, but I don't believe she is commonly read.  I know I've never heard any of her works from the 1001 Books Project: Three Lives, The Making of Americans and this one mentioned either inside a classroom or out.

  Coming from the East Bay of the San Francisco area, I was of course familiar with her famous quip about Oakland, that "There's no there, there."  Maybe that made people in the Bay Area a little hostile, or maybe it's because her significance is not really addressed by any of her works.  Three Lives is very much of the first novels that could be called Modern or Experimental Modernism, The Making of Americans hasn't really held up, and is perhaps a tad long, and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is a memoir, not a novel, and memoirs aren't typically read in literature classes in high school and college.

 That said, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas really wowed me. Gertrude Stein is someone that sociologist Randall Collins would call a "network star" or someone whose connections ensure the survival of her ideas after her death.  Although this is putatively an auto-biography of Stein's long time companion and lover, the author's by line and the book itself make it clear that it is in auto-biography of Stein written by Stein from the perspective of Toklas.

 Stein was important not only for her writing, but also for her patronage.  She was an earlier purchaser of Cezanne,  Pablo Picasso and Matisse.  Her older brother was a partner in these endeavors, and while Stein does go into her child hood and education, including time at Radcliffe and at John Hopkins Medical School, where she was apparently one class from  taking her degree.  It is unclear where her money comes from, but she is not someone who has to work for a living, and could afford to support herself and buy paintings and such without any source of income.

 During the war she had a Ford shipped over and became a driver, as did many Americans based on the number of World War I books written by Americans about their experiences as Ambulance drivers- ee Cummings and Hemingway to name two.  The action which takes place post-World War I is a bit of an anti-climax.  Hemingway makes a decent appearance, and Stein lives to see herself hailed as a genius at Oxford and Cambridge University- but not by the Atlantic Monthly, who in fine literary memoir form singles out for particular ire.

 Fashionable or not, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas is a must for anyone who thinks they understand 20th century modernism- for both painting, sculpture and literature.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist by Hazel V. Canby

Francis Harper, the first African American female novelist.

Book Review
Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist
by Hazel V. Canby
p. 1987
Oxford University Press

   Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist, traces the origins of novels written by African American authors prior to the breakthrough of Zora Hurston in the 1930s, and Alice Walker and Toni Morrison after that.   Two of the books discussed, Nella Larsen's Passing and Uncle Tom's Cabin (not written by an African-American) have been discussed here as part of the 1001 Books Project.  Others were wholly unfamiliar to me because they have failed to become "classics" and are therefore not taught or discussed with any regularity.

  Two major authors in this book with whom I was previously unacquainted are Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins.  Hopkins, in particular, wrote a great deal of fiction while she was editrix of a Boston-based African-American literary magazine in the first few years of the 20th century.  Harper's primary work is Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted (1892), generally called the first full length novel by an African-American female writer.  Hopkins wrote several novels, but three of these were only published in her magazine and never as stand alone editions.  Her stand alone novel was Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South (1900).

 Canby is particularly forceful in arguing for the canonical inclusion of Iola Leroy and Contending Forces.  She also advocates for Larsen's two 1001 Books inclusions: Passing and Quicksand.  It was in fact, those two novels which spurred me to read this book, to perhaps see if there were other "lost classics" out there.  Canby didn't quite convince me, but I'm sure that her analysis would come as a revelation to anyone interested in the field of African-American studies.

  Her prose is somewhat studded with the archaism's of late 20th century deconstructionist literary critics, always regrettable, but here the academic blah blah is outweighed by the usefulness of her discussion about these little known (to me) texts and authors,

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Nuraghe of Sardinia

This is an example of a Nuraghe, a Bronze age building found only on Sardinia, constructed by an unknown civilization in the 18th century B.C.

    Nuragic civilization is from 18th Century BC Sardinia.  They made the impressive Nuraghe buildings on Sardinia during this period.  Nuraghes are pretty impressive considering they were made in an "off the map" location in terms of ancient civilizations.
The interior of a Nuraghe, a bronze age building from an unknown civilization on Sardinia in the Mediterranean Sea.
  The central Mediterranean and Iberian peninsula are typically discounted in any discussion of Ancient Civilizations (before Greece and Rome) but the Nuraghe would seem to indicate that central Mediterranean was perhaps not the cultural backwater that it was considered to be a half century ago.

Drawing of a Nuraghe fort from the Italian island of Sardinia 

Museum Review: Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty @ The Japanese American Museum, Los Angeles, CA.

A larger than human Hello Kitty Pharaoh is the exit piece at the new museum exhibition, Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty at the Japanese American Museum in Los Angeles, CA between October 11th, 2014 and April 26th, 2015.

Museum Review:
Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty
 @ The Japanese American Museum, Los Angeles, CA.
October 11th, 2014 to April 26th, 2015

Hello Kitty has her own cat, on display at the museum exhibit Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty at the Japanese American Museum in Los Angeles, CA.

  You don't have to be a dedicated Hello! Kitty fan to dig Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty, now on exhibit at The Japanese American Museum in Los Angeles, CA; but you do need twenty bucks a person for admission.  For your twenty bucks you get an intense two level experience.  The bottom floor has a wide selection of Hello Kitty material from 40 years of Kitty, accompanied by some extremely mind blowing explantory text that reveals that Hello Kitty is NOT a cat, but rather a small girl, with a family (including a twin sister) and that she lives outside London, England.  She also has a pet cat, and the pet cat has a pet hamster AND OH MY GOD IT IS SO MIND BLOWING.
The infamous Hello Kitty vibrators, bravely on display as part of the museum exhibition, Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty at The Japanese American Museum in Los Angeles, CA.

   After the introduction to the family and back story, there is a room with some of the more industrial items: the Hello Kitty Humidifier, waffle maker, robot vacuum cleaner, and an actual "life size" talking robot.   There is a whole wall of Hello Kitty backpacks, and then a room dedicated to the roots revival of Hello Kitty wherein Sanrio started putting Kitty in more traditionally Japanese setting.

  Upstairs features a gallery of contemporary fine artists and their own take on the Hello Kitty look.  This section also includes some celebrity worn apparel and an enormous statue of Hello Kitty as an Egyptian Pharaoh (above.)  I wasn't overly impressed by the upstairs work, but I did appreciate the attempt to present Hello Kitty in an "adult" context in some of the works, and the display with the "adult" Hello Kitty products (including a Hello Kitty Hooters keyring and the INFAMOUS Hello Kitty vibrator.)

  If you are a non-obsessive looking for a reason to go, think about the relevance of Hello Kitty fan culture as a precursor to the "shipping" culture of the internet and the wider world of pop culture and 20th century international cultural transmission across continents.


The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892) by Arthur Conan Doyle

Robert Downey Junior most recently has portrayed Sherlock Holmes in the endless series of films about the character

Book Review
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)
 by Arthur Conan Doyle
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Sherlock Holmes in the recent BBC series, which has drawn fans in America
     This was the first audio book I've ever listened to, period.  I found it in Spotify, where you could play it as two five and half hour "songs."  I listened to it mostly when running, and otherwise while driving between San Diego and Los Angeles.  So it is an eleven hour time commitment, and it seems like it would be much faster to simply read the 12 short stories that comprise this volume.  The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is the classic single volume compilation of Conan Doyle's short stories, though they do not represent all of them- there were contemporary stories that were not selected for the book and there were the "return" stories, like The Hound of the Baskervilles.

   I would say that Sherlock Holmes is maybe the first biggest literary character to emerge out of English Literature in the 19th century: Frankenstein and Dracula would be the top two. Like those other two, Sherlock Holmes has long since become unmoored from the source material.  It's important to emphasis which 12 stories actually constitute the book, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes:

"A Scandal in Bohemia"; Client: The King of Bohemia
"The Adventure of the Red-Headed League"; Client: Jabez Wilson
"A Case of Identity"; Client: Mary Sutherland
"The Boscombe Valley Mystery"; Client: Alice Turner
"The Five Orange Pips"; Client: John Openshaw
"The Man with the Twisted Lip"; Client: Mrs. St. Clair
"The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle"; No client.
"The Adventure of the Speckled Band"; Client: Miss Helen Stoner
"The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb"; Client: Victor Hatherley
"The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor"; Client: Lord Robert St. Simon
"The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet"; Client: Alexander Holder
"The Adventure of the Copper Beeches"; Client: Violet Hunter

   There are other, unincluded short stories from the same time period, but they were not selected for this volume. Some themes do emerge: the theft of precious stones (The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle and the Beryl Coronet); noble clients (Noble Bachelor, A Scandal in Bohemia), and women in distress (Copper Beeches, Speckled Band, Twisted Lip, A Case of Identity.)  Although the enduring legacy has made Holmes a timeless figure, the original mysteries are interesting in terms of Holmes being simultaneously a "modern" figure, obsessed with the scientific method and the mysteries being quintessentially Victorian.  It is fair to observe that Holmes is a Victorian Hero, even though Conan Doyle was writing at the end or even beyond the end of that period, most of the mysteries are actually set several years in the past, with Watson being a veteran of the second Anglo Afghan war (ended 1870) and mentioning cases happening back in the 1880s. 

   Many of the edgier aspects Holmes character, his Cocaine usage, for example, are only mentioned in passing, his sex life not at all. 

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