Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, August 07, 2015

L'Arrêt de mort (Death Sentence) (1948) by Mauric Blanchot

Book Review L'Arrêt de mort (Death Sentence) (1948) by Maurice Blanchot What with World War II and all, it's a surprise that any books got written at all during the 1940s. Just numerically speaking, the 1940s are well underrepresented in the 1001 Books project, with maybe 35-40 titles all in, compared to twice that for the 1930s and 1920s. Few authors emerged during the 40s, meaning most of the representative from that decade in the 1001 Books project emerged in earlier decades: Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Raymond Chandler, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck. Maurice Blanchot is a clear outlier- he's more a literary theorist than a novelist, and he is best known for being a major influence on post-modern French theorist Jacques Derrida. I have a deep, deep antipathy for Derrida. Early on in my undergraduate studies I decided to eschew the study of literature for fear that I would have to take Derrida and his ilk seriously. Twenty years on, Derrida remains dominant within the graduate schools devoted to the humanities, much, I think, to the detriment of those students, teachers and the state of knowledge everywhere. Even though Death Sentence is short (80 pages) and uncomplicated, I can't really say what, if anything it is "about." There is a woman, she is dying from an incurable disease. The narrator is a man, he has relationships with more than one woman, the novel ends. It would have been nice to read an interpretive essay to explain the sequence of events. I would say that if you are in an existentialist phase high school, college or your early 20s, busting out this slim volume might win you cool points at the café.

Show Review: Tame Impala @ The Hollywood Forever Cemetery

Kevin Parker of Tame Impala.

Show Review:
Tame Impala
 @ The Hollywood Forever Cemetery

     Last night Tame Impala pulled into LA for the first night of a two night, sold out (3800 tickets a night at 40 dollars per ticket) stand at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.  When I was asked whether I'd like to attend, I expressed interest in seeing the venue, The Hollywood Forever Cemetery which is by all accounts one of those "Only in LA" places to see a show.  However, I left humming the Tame Impala tunes, impressed with a band whose rise is perhaps the most remarkable rock success story of this decade.

  Tame Impala is essentially the solo project of Australian Kevin Parker, who writes and arranges the music himself.  They are currently touring as a conventional rock five piece, though their live set veers from rock into a kind of Chemical Brothers style electronica.  Although Parker's stage presence ranges from dull to boring, the elaborate laser and light show that accompanies the set adequately compensates for the lack of physical energy.  Tame Impala's songs are almost impossibly catchy to the point of being simplistic, a trait which has probably helped them in their rise to alt rock radio levels of popularity.   A well-known producer who was at the show with me mentioned a lack of "pre-choruses,"  and I don't know what those are, but the crowd- wasn't there for musical complexity.

  I was prepared to write a review describing the venue as the star of the show, but I scrapped that take based on Tame Impala doing such a great job entertaining the audience.  Parker was obviously appreciative both of the crowd and the venue itself.  The Hollywood Forever Cemetery is indeed a one of a kind venue- Audience members pass through the front gate and walk through the cemetery itself to the back corner of the site, where there is an open field.  The crowds are kept well off the graves themselves, though the mausoleums surrounding the audience area were purpose lit in purple and red shades in tune with the rock show vibe. Fans are encourage to arrive early and bring picnic wares.  By the time Tame Impala took the stage (promptly at 830 PM) the crowd was well lubricated (but not rowdy) and the smell of premium California marijuana saturate the air.

  Starting with the single from their current record, they interspersed new cuts with old hits and the crowd was held in rapt attention.  Not me so much, but I certainly enjoyed the show- more so than many other rock shows I've been to in the past couple years.  Who can quarrel with Tame Impala (Kevin Parker)'s success?  Playing music that people like, being genuinely appreciative about the fact that people like the music- there really isn't more than that, or there shouldn't have to be.   Selling 7600 tickets at 40 bucks a pop ain't bad, neither.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

The Victim (1947) by Saul Bellow

Writer Saul Bellow was actually born in Quebec before moving with his parents to Chicago when he was a boy.  He won the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Pultizer Prize during his lifetime.

Book Review
The Victim (1947)
by Saul Bellow

  I practically breathed a sigh of relief when I picked up this book at the amazing used book shop, The Last Bookstore, in downtown Los Angeles.  Saul Bellow is actually an author who might actually come up in casual conversation, an author someone I might interact with will have actually heard of and even read. As much as I enjoy the solitary aspects of systematically reading 1001 novels in more or less chronological order, I'm anxious to catch up to the "present day."  In my mind, this is the period starting after World War II.  So The Victim may be the first book in the 1001 Books series to be close to contemporary American literature.  It' exciting time.  It's also telling that the period between classical Greece and Rome and the end of World War II accounts for less than half of the 1001 Books list.  Less than 40% of the titles, actually.  That means that every decade between the 1950s and today has an average of something like 75-80 books per decade.   But at least they are books that other people still read.

   Like the protagonists of many (all?) of his books, Asa Leventhal is a youngish-oldish Jewish guy from the East Coast.  He works at a trade magazine after surviving a hard scrabble, working class child hood.  His wife has to leave for an extended period, leaving him alone in the city.  Leventhal soon comes into contact with Kirby Allbee, a dissolute wasp who blames Leventhal for his decline and specifically for the loss of his job in publishing.  Allbee becomes a spectre, haunting Leventhal with recriminations and looking for his assistance.   Leventhal has to balance this with the illness of his brothers son- the brother being absent in Galveston, presumably working in oil.   Only 260 odd pages, The Victim is a quick read, and while I surmise that it is not one of the top three type Bellow titles, it is widely available in bookstores and makes for an easy read.

  One thought that occurred to me while reading The Victim is that it would pair well for fans of the now departed TV Show Mad Men- they aren't exactly alike, but there is some similarity with the interpersonal issues and the publishing house setting.

Eyeless in Gaza (1936) by Aldous Huxley

A young Aldous Huxley.  Eyeless in Gaza is supposed to be his most biographical novel, written after Brave New World was a smash hit.

Book Review
Eyeless in Gaza (1936)
 by Aldous Huxley

 I know plenty of people who "don't read reviews" because they don't want to "spoil" the movie/tv show/book etc, and I have to say, I just don't get it.  I actually like to know the plot before hand, because it helps me focus in on the art and craft of the work, rather than worrying if someone dies or whatever in the end.  If "not spoiling the plot" is important to you, you might as well be reading dime store romance novels.  To me, the plot is the least important thing because ultimately, every plot is predictable to a certain degree, it's the carrying out of the mechanics, the depiction of the scene and the characters, which are interesting- to me- anyway.

 Eyeless in Gaza is a portrait of disaffected well off English youth in the 30s.  The jacket copy on my Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition is laudatory ("An important book...without parallel in literature.") but I was not so impressed.  This book concerns the trials and tribulations of Anthony Beavis, a wealthy, upper-class socialite who experiences multiple crises of meanings in the non-chronologically arranged narrative.  The narrative is punctuated by incident: the suicide of a close friend, a love affair with a heroin addicted matron, an expedition to Mexico to assist a socialist revolution.  The lack of chronology makes the reader work, but there are no other modernist techniques in evidence, meaning that what is on the page is at least, understandable.

It's unclear why this book, along with close to 20 other portraits of upper-class English youth in the early 20th century would be one of the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.   The only difference between this book and many of the themes (and characters)of D.H. Lawrence is that Huxley isn't afraid to pointedly discuss sex and drug abuse. The authorial voice in Eyeless in Gaza is closer to the tone of post World War II literature in its explicit treatment of historically "controversial" subjects, but the social milieu is unquestionably pre World War II.  

 The over-all impression I received from this survey of pre-World War II English literature was that the English upper classes were perilously close to declaring moral bankruptcy at the onset of World War II.  This perspective is certainly colored by the querulous sort of people who write classic novels, but the impression is a strong one.  Perhaps the most extraordinary part of reading Eyeless in Gaza was actually laying hands on a paperback copy.  I had it "on hold" at the San Diego Public Library for a half year before I broke down and bought at a book store in Concord Massachusetts during summer vacation last year.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Chaco Revisited: New Research on the Prehistory of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico (Amerind Studies in Archaeology) by Carrie C. Heitman (Editor), Steve Plog (Editor)

The Chaco Canyon culture area of the four corners region of the American Southwest.

Book Review
Chaco Revisited: New Research on the Prehistory of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico
 (Amerind Studies in Archaeology)
 by Carrie C. Heitman (Editor), Steve Plog (Editor)
Published April 9th, 2015

  One of the vagaries of cross-cultural comparison is that they rise and fall independent of one another- during the early Middle Ages, the Middle East was at a peak, and Europe was a backwater.  In the 18th and 19th century, Europe had it all over everywhere else. This analysis can be extended to the "pre-historical" period in the New World, with the Aztecs, Maya and Incans regularly seeing inclusion in the "high vs. low" civilization peak discussion.  Less often included are the cultures of present day United States.

  These cultures have been handicapped by a variety of factors:  First, they had an early peak- sometime in the late middle ages, with 1000-1100 seeming to be a particular high point.  Second, they had a dramatic decline to the point where there were no surviving peoples who maintained the remnants of the earlier high point.  Third, none of them developed a written script.  Fourth, their major ruins were in a part of the continent (the American South West, Mid West and South East that was colonized later in the settlement period, meaning that what ruins did remain weren't fully "discovered" until the late 19th and early 20th century.

 Of the potential North American vanished cultures/civilizations that would head a short list for inclusion into the "great world civilizations" list, the Chaco Canyon/Anazasi of the four corners region of the American Southwest should take priority.  They left major ruins (albeit it in one of the most deserted areas of the American continent), they were way ahead of their time in their water management techniques and they appeared to have many survival techniques that helped them live in harmony with a harsh landscape.

 Chaco Revisited: New Research on the Prehistory of Chaco Canyon, is exactly what the title says it is, a collection of papers (apparently presented in 2010?) that summarize recent developments in the scholarship on Chaco Canyon.  Since each chapter has a different author, approach and focus area, Chaco Revisited doesn't have much cohesion, but it is useful for a reader who wants to learn more about the most up to date specialist scholarship in the area.

 Among the things I learned was that it was unlikely that the Chaco Canyon peoples spoke Uto-Aztecan, the most widely distributed language group in the American Southwest and Mexico.  It appears that the widespread supposition linking the Chaco Canyon culture with the "great" civilization of the Toltecs is born out in the trade goods found in grave site deposits and some of the cultural practices of the area.  It is unclear how many people lived in Chaco Canyon, whether they farmed there or whether they relied on outside sources of Maize (this book argues that they did farm in the canyon) and what languages they spoke.  The analysis which rules out Uto Aztecan is based on DNA analysis.

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