Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Book Review: Doctor Zhivago (1957) by Boris Pasternak

Doctor Zhivago, another Russian novel where you need a scorecard to keep track of the characters.
Book Review:
Doctor Zhivago (1957)
 by Boris Pasternak

   You can't talk Doctor Zhivago without talking about the Cold War. Banned by the Soviet government prior to publication, a manuscript was smuggled out of the country and published in Italy (in Italian) in 1957.   The United States picked up on "propaganda value" of Doctor Zhivago and this led to the CIA publishing a Russian edition and smuggling back into Russia.  In the west, Zhivago was nothing less than a sensation, with a Omar Sharif starring, David Lean directed film and many millions of copies sold.  In fact, the library version I checked out was an illustrated Readers Digest edition- color illustrations!

   As you can see from the above diagram, the number of characters and their interrelationships can be difficult to follow, and this is made worse by Pasternak's refusal to stick with a single name.   The action spans several generations and takes place between 1903 and the end of World War II.  Mainly though, the Russian Civil War takes center stage, as seen through the eyes of Yuri, a Doctor and a Zhivago and therefore the Doctor Zhivago of the title although he is literally never called Doctor Zhivago by anyone at any time for the entire book.

 Yuri flees Moscow at the onset of the civil war, only to be captured by Red Communist Partisans and forced to work as a Doctor.  Near the end of the war, he deserts, only to find that his wife has left to return to Moscow.   He then hooks up with the wife of a friend, and spends an additional several years in the sticks before returning to Moscow, where he lives as a semi-vagrant derelict.

  It is easy to see why the Soviet's refused to allow Doctor Zhivago to be published inside Russia.  The Civil War is a disaster for everyone, and what comes next, the runaway inflation and disastrous economic policies of the so-called N.E.P. or "new economic period" are arguably worse.    With the exception of the period Yuri spends as the Doctor-prisoner of the Partisan army, Doctor Zhivago is almost a moles-eye view of the Russian experience of the early 20th century.

  Pasternak does a great job conveying the experience of loneliness, confusion and alienation that many experienced at the hands of the totalitarian Russian regime.  While readers are spared some of the more graphic details of mass slaughter and state-sponsored terror, Pasternak makes sure that you know about it happening off camera.  Any potential for glamour or fetishization of the Russian Revolution is defeated by Pasternak's prose.

Show Review: waterstrider @ the Satellite Los Angeles

Show Review:
@ the Satellite Los Angeles

     Waterstrider, from Oakland California, is one of the initial crop of artists signed to 30th Century Records, the new Columbia hosted record label of Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton.  Waterstrider was in town last night to play for a crowd that consisted almost entirely of Columbia/Sony Music employees, employees of the William Morris Endeavor Agency and family members.   Sporting a six piece set up and prominently featuring a skilled congo drum player, waterstrider evoked something like chk-chk-chk influenced by a decade of Arcade Fire records.   Waterstrider are very much the project of front man/guitarist Nate Salman.

  I have to confess that I am impressed by the vision behind 30th Century Records: Signing hard working rock bands that are flying under the radar of the current blog-tastemaker set.  Almost every major label affiliated imprint that I've followed over the last decade of my involvement in independent music has involved poaching bands that have already drawn said attention, often with the support of a struggling indie label that has no other successful artists.  Two notable examples of this typical approach have been Harvest Records and Mom and Pop- both Warner Music affiliated.

  On the other hand, I don't envy the task that 30th Century Records has set itself.  Having personally seen the sales figures for better known rock bands over the past few years, I can testify that there is very little music in record sales for less known bands.  On the other hand, there seems to be a ton of money out there for syncs and a combination of that with touring and occasional private gigs seems to be enough to sustain younger artists.


Monday, December 07, 2015

Lucky Jim (1954) by Kingsley Amis

Maybe an Angry Young Man, but certainly a deft comic novel.
Book Review
Lucky Jim (1954)
 by Kingsley Amis

  If you like contemporary English comedy, whether in book, television or film, you like Lucky Jim, you just may not know it yet.  Lucky Jim is a primary text for understanding 20th century English comedy.   Early Kingsley Amis is either a prime example of the "Angry Young Man" genre of English literature OR a temporal associate with some similarities and more striking differences with the "Angry Young Man" genre of English literature.   I actually had a conversation about this subject last night with inclusive results, ("The Wikipedia page on Angry Young Men lists Amis in the first paragraph,"  "Yeah, but did you read the actual article, it says that he isn't really part of it.")

  Another example of "Angry Young Man" English literature is Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse, which of course was published in 1959.   Generally, "Angry Young Men" literature can be described as post World War II "kitchen sink" plots with a wry awareness of changes in contemporary society and the role of class and education for young men.   The gender part of the term is crucial, English literature was hardly at the forefront  of sponsoring diverse voices before the 1960s.
  Lucky Jim is also an academic novel, which is a genre that is barely emerging in the 1950s- I can think of John Barth- who published The Floating Opera- which is certainly also an academic novel, in the United States, in 1958.   The academic novel is still out there in contemporary English language fiction and also exists in the literature in other languages.  These novels concern themselves with the minutiae of individuals who work as professors or assistant professors. their lives and loves.  The academic location is like an update of the English Country House novel of the 19th century- a place where people have ample time and energy for ridiculous emotional shenanigans.


A Town Like Alice (1950) by Neil Shute

A Town Like Alice was both an international publishing and film hit, no doubt helped by the exotic locales and strong female protagonist.
Book Review
A Town Like Alice (1950)
 by Neil Shute

   Seems like the main difference between fiction and literature is that the former has happy endings and the latter has unhappy endings.  This wasn't always the case.  Much of 18th and 19th century canonical literature has "and they lived happily ever after" type endings.   Books ending with weddings, double weddings, a sudden inheritance, etc.  It's not until you get into Thomas Hardy that literature begins to get regular unhappy endings.

  By the mid-20th century, high literature is associated with either an unhappy ending, no ending at all, or endings that aren't really endings.  A Town Like Alice is a rare exception which earns its way into the canon with a realistic treatments of World War II horrors with a story about economic development in the "Wild West" of Australia. Both elements are wrapped in a narrator who embodies a typical English reader of this novel: A wealthy, older, lawyer who is in charge of managing a vexatious trust until she reaches the age of 35.  The use of a trust instrument as a narrative framing device evokes 19th century authors like Charles Dickens, and does legions to ground A Town Like Alice in the tradition of English literature while covering vibrant new territory (World War II in South East Asia, the development of Australia after World War II.)

  A Town Like Alice is a very English example of the expansion of the canon to include the nations of the English commonwealth: Australia, New Zealand, Southern Africa, the Caribbean. "British Literature" which is a term I use to categorize books written by people in places like Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Canada, I suppose, becomes a much larger and certainly a more vibrant territory.   Another canonical aspect of A Town Like Alice is the strong female heroine (she is no mere protagonist.)  While many novels used women who could be described as "strong and independent" as the main character, none of those women could write a horse 20 miles through the outback or survive life as a prisoner of Japan in Malaya during World War II.

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