Dedicated to classics and hits.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

For Whom the Bell Tolls (1941) by Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway at work.

Book Review
For Whom the Bell Tolls (1941)
 by Ernest Hemingway

   The idea that a novel might be ignored upon initial publication and revived years or decades later by a critical audience has been explored multiple times here.  The waxing and waning of artistic reputations over centuries is a concern very much at the heart of this project.  Less significant is the reverse situation:  A work which is a huge hit upon initial publication, garnering a huge popular and critical audience, only to suffer in later years in whole or in part BECAUSE of the size of the initial audience.

  For Whom the Bell Tolls seems like it might be a good example of this second situation.  For Whom the Bell Tolls sold out an initial print run of 75,000 in days, was selected as a "book of the month" selection at a time when that meant something, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.  Set during the height of the Spanish Civil War,  For Whom the Bell Tolls tells the story of Robert Jordan, a Spanish instructor from Montana who is serving as an irregular soldier in the mountainous area beyond Madrid, behind enemy lines.  His job is to blow up a bridge in support of a planned attack by Republican forces against the Fascists.

  For those unfamiliar with the facts of the Spanish civil war, the "sides" can be confusing. The Republican forces were a mix of traditional democrats, Socialists, Communists and Anarchists, with each faction contributing both regular and irregular forces.  Robert Jordan is a Communist, and the doubt he feels about his commitment to both the Republican and Communist cause is a major theme of this book.

  Technically, For Whom the Bell Tolls is an advance for Hemingway in several dimensions.  For the first time, he uses a kind of stream-of-consciousness narrative technique, letting the reader inside the head of Jordan.   Scenes of actual combat and gunplay are actually depicted.  His descriptions of battle carry a ring of authenticity.  If you compare the war scenes from For Whom the Bell Tolls to his earlier novel about World War I in northern Italy, Farewell to Arms, this book trumps that one.

 The only element of For Whom the Bell Tolls that hasn't aged well is the romantic plot between Jordan and Maria, a young woman freed by the Republican guerrillas after suffering a heinous violation at the hands of Fascist irregular forces (the phlangists).  Even by the standard of poorly drawn Hemingway female characters, Maria is weak, she barely seems to be more then a pair of pert breasts pressing against Jordan in his tent.  Better drawn are his pack of mountain gypsy guerrillas, though he chose to translate the Spanish "Tu" and "Usted" as "thee" and "thou" giving the dialogue an antiquated feel.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Show Review; Marina and the Diamonds, Christine and the Queens @ The North Park Observatory (FKA North Park Theater)

Marina of Marina and the Diamonds: She's Welsh!

Show Review:
Marina and the Diamonds, Christine and the Queens
@ The North Park Observatory (FKA North Park Theater)

    I confess that the sale of the North Park Theater to the people who own the Observatory in Orange County took me by surprise.  I hadn't even been to it before it changed hands.  My impression is that they had a stable ownership group and a booking agreement with Tim Mays.  Under those circumstances, why sell?  Of course the answer is likely simple and obvious, "Money."   Judging from some of the high profile gigs planned in the next several months: Passion Pit! Best Coast! Decemberists! they either kept the already booked shows or are able to get the same level of acts as Tim Mays. 

 I found the oppressive security impossible to ignore.  I try to eschew the whiny, nit picky type complaints that are the bane of on line reviews, but the sold out Marina and the Diamonds show was populated entirely by younger women under 21, LGBT's and people who were both under 21 AND LGBT.  And yet, I was at the show with someone who had a ball point pen confiscated at the door.  I counted something like 20 separate security guards working the crowd.  The only explanation I received was that the permit was up for modification as part of the balcony being re opened, so the venue wanted everything to go smoothly.

  And you know, I understand when security guards cop attitudes WHEN THE SITUATION REQUIRES it, but part of security is customer service, and the unsmiling, demeanor of the staff was totally out of synch with the warm, open style of the music and the fans.  I felt as if the venue was disrespecting the fans, honestly, like no one had given a thought what to expect from the nights audience.

  So there were four of us there, we were there to see openers Christine and the Queens and then Marina's make up artist and her producer boyfriend who has played in Deftones and is in the band Crosses with Chino for Deftones.  I felt like he and I were the only two straight guys in the place who weren't there with our daughters.   My entire preparation for the show consisted of reading Pitchfork's decent review of the new Marina and the Diamonds LP

  Arriving at the venue fifteen minutes before Christine and the Queens took the stage, I was literally the only man in the gender segregated frisking line- which is fucking ridiculous- particularly considering the show.   The main reason we were there to see Christine and the Queens is that she has sold upwards of 400,000 records in Europe, and I guess the idea is that she's looking to expand here audience in the United States, perhaps with the assistance of a US based representative. I don't know the details, because I'm not privy to the conversation, but the idea that this woman has sold 400,000 records in Europe intrigued me to say the least.
Christine of Christine and the Queens

  Christine and the Queens performed as a three piece, with songs that I understand had been translated from French into English for the occasion.  Unlike Marina, Christine had not played Coachella, but she had been in Austin for SXSW.   She performed with two musicians and two back up dancers, who I was told had been flown over from France as "part of the touring party."  Watching Christine open for Marina at the North Park Observatory was something like seeing Kasabian headline the San Diego outpost of the House of Blues last year; the experience of seeing an Artist used to playing for thousands play for hundreds.

 I was told that Marina had ordered her fans, via social media, to appreciate Christine and the reception she received was so unlike that normally accorded to opening acts that I thought people in the audience might have thought she was Marina (only an ignorant rube would have thought that, but there you are.)  Christine moved effortlessly between high energy dance pop and slower confessional dance pop.  The introduction of the two hunky French-African male dancers lent some real pop star energy to the performance.   Christine also sported a major league level stage prance, she was like a little elf capering back and forth across the stage.

  I could see Christine garnering a larger audience state side, but my opinion is that it would have to be on the back of a novelty radio hit, which would have to cross over between pop stations and adult contemporary.   She is fun though, and worth checking out if you have the opportunity.

  In between sets the conversation centered around Marina and her rise to prominence, with a general agreement that she had been able to motivate a legion of fans via savvy (and personal) use of social media.  Marina is now on LP 3 (FROOT is the name of the new record.)   She followed a path that has become very familiar in the internet era: Emerging from Welsh obscurity via the internet, releasing a well regarded debut LP in 2010 (on a major label), releasing a poorly regarded second LP in 2012 where she tried to be both Katy Perry and Lana Del Rey at once (and failing), followed by a "return to roots" 3rd LP (success/failure yet to be seen.)

  There is a no denying that she has a legion of devoted fans in the right demographic for pop superstardom, but after reviewing her career trajectory and her label affiliations, I would suspect that the issue is that there are not enough of said fans, and that Marina is what you call a "cult artist" existing somewhere in the middle of a Venn diagram where one circle is "pop stardom" and the other is "critical approval" and not really maxing out on either side.

  If you look at the top "similar artists" for Marina and the Diamonds on Last FM (Charli XCX, Natalia Kills, Azelia Banks, Lana Del Rey, Tove Lo and Sky Ferreria) you get an idea of both the challenge and potential for Marina in the marketplace for indie/pop divas. Charli XCX, Lana Del Rey and Tove Lo have radio hits AND major label support.  Natalia Kills, Azelia Banks and Sky Ferreria have an outsized grasp on the collective mind set of the internet.

  In that regard, the failure of her 2012 LP, with tracks produced by hit makers like Diplo and Dr. Luke, looks like a potentially career defining grasping for, and failing to grasp, the proverbial brass ring.  At the same time, the decent review for the new LP from Pitchfork seems to indicate the potential for some kind lasting presence.  The Coachella slot and rabid fans last night would seem to weigh in her favor.   My questions after the set last night is what, exactly is going on with radio promotion for whatever single they've picked off the new record?  Marina needs a radio hit or bust.  This is her third record.  Rabid teen fan girls and the LGBT crowd are a great start, but I'm positive she sees herself more in line with Charli, Lana and Tove Lo then with Azalia and Sky.
 My favorite songs in her set last night were those from that second LP, the fact that I was entirely unaware of this record's existence until last night is strong evidence that it was an abject failure in terms of breaking her to radio, because if any of her songs had made it, I would have heard them on the radio, because I listen to Top 40 radio all the time.   Why do two songs with Dr. Luke if you can't get either played on the radio?

  I also note that her t shirts were 30 bucks, and that she likely signed a 360 deal with Atlantic, so if you were to ask, "What are the real ramifications of signing a 360 deal with a major label?" a realistic answer would be, "Your concert t shirts will be thirty dollars and up."  Perhaps what is most curious about Marina is that she appears to have built an indie type audience from within the major label system, and perhaps it could be said that her ultimate success or failure will speak to the ability of the music industry to adapt and exploit the newest internet generated, self formed, pop starts.

  And all you Marina fans from last night! You are beautiful!  Don't let anyone tell you that you aren't amazing!


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