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Friday, March 25, 2016

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner(1959) by Alan Sillitoe

Nottingham, Sillitoe's muse
Book Review
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner(1959)
by Alan Sillitoe

by Open Road Integrated Media
Release date April 16th, 2016
Amazon purchase page

    Even though the title story, and best known story, of this short story collection by Alan Sillitoe is set in an English Borstal set in the country side, every other story is set in Nottingham.  Nottingham was Sillitoe's muse, and the development of regional English fiction is one of the major developments in English literature during the 20th century, so in that regard The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is a critical text.

  The characters are marginal members of society, at best there are primary school teachers, at worst, drunken football fans who beat their wife after a tough loss at the pitch, old upholsterers plying young girls with money and treats out of sheer desperate loneliness, and a variety of variations on the working class factory worker.

   Nottingham has never captured the world imagination in the way of Manchester, their neighbor to the West.  I'm sure if Sillitoe was from Manchester and not Nottingham he would have a higher international profile. Here, he's mostly associated with the movie version of the title story, release in 1962.  That story, about a youthful offender who has been recruited to run long distance in some kind of intra prison race, most obviously evokes Borstal Boy by Brendan Behan, published in 1958.  At the same time the narrative format, a stream of consciousness occurring entirely inside the head of the runner  for most of the story, evokes Joyce and other early 20th century modernists.

  The other stories are more conventional, and they range from the truly dark (a young boy watches, and tries to help a neighbor commit suicide) to the merely sad (a man separates from his wife and she eventually returns to his wife to beg money from him.) to the troubling (a lonely man is accused of being pedophile because he strikes up a friendship with two young girls at a cafe.)

  For fans of English fiction, this volume is a must.  For people who are in to other kinds of 20th century realism, novels or films, this collection of short stories is a touchstone in terms of it's influence on subsequent artists.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Show Review: Margo Price and the Price Tags

Margo Price: Midwestern Farmer's Daughter out on Third Man Records tomorrow.

Show Review:
 Margo Price and the Price Tags and the Outlaw Country Revival
Hotel Cafe, Los Angeles, CA.

  I was sitting in a San Diego court house, waiting for a case to be called, when I saw this Rolling Stone article announcing her debut LP, Midwest Farmer's Daughter.  It was September  18th of last year.   Immediately I thought of my significant other, who has been into country music in a completely non-ironic way since the beginning of our relationship 2 plues years ago.  Including, trips to Nashville, religiously watching the ABC television show, Nashville and going to the Stagecoach festival after Coachella two years in a row.  So I saw that the record was coming out on Third Man Records, owned by Jack White, who is also a client of her boss.  

  And almost immediately I Facebook messaged her and asked, "What are you even doing if you aren't managing this artist?"  Not something I'd ever done before, but I felt it was warranted, if only because the record was being released on a label owned by another client of her own firm.  Also, there was the fact that it was the perfect time to jump on board with a new artist, because someone else (Third Man Records) had already made the call.  So of course she got the job, so to speak, and for the last six months I've watched the run-up to tomorrow's release date for Midwest Farmers Daughter.

 Let me tell you, it has been a privilege to watch both Third Man Records, and my girlfriend's management company work their magic.  I was emotionally invested in the outcome.  Seeing her perform last night, for the first time, at the Hotel Cafe in Hollywood, I experienced a deep sense of satisfaction in everything that had come to pass for Margo Price in the last six months, and a great sense of excitement about that which was to come.

  Margo Price is an appealing artist on a number levels, primarily as an artist who can "write 'em and sing 'em" as another critic said.   Considering that Midwest Farmer's Daughter is self-recorded and produced, at Sun Studios, places her squarely on the "indie" level of Dirty Beaches, Dum Dum Girls, Crocodiles, Best Coast, Wavves or any of the bands that I've written about here over the last several years.   Before Third Man Records picked up Midwest Farmer's Daughter, Margo Price was essentially a local music scenester.  She had had brushes with artists who had emerged (Sturgill Simpson), but had failed to attract any interest from artist development professionals in Nashville.  I think it is fair to observe that she had been overlooked and dismissed by the Country Music establishment in Nashville.

  And yet, despite the 100% DIY origins of Midwest Farmer's Daughter, the end product and accompanying live show defy any attempt to limit Margo Price as an "indie" artist.   Both her voice and song writing are fully mature.  Perhaps the song writing has not reached its full potential (this is a debut LP) but the voice I heard last night is ready to go now.  Like Top 40, Country Music Awards, Coachella, Stagecoach Festival ready to go right now.   So is the stage show.  Her backing bacd, The Price Tags, perform like seasoned touring veterans and have exactly zero of the problems with professionalism that are often associated with young break-out artists on there first twirl of the music industry merry-go-round.

  What I saw last night is an artist squarely within the Outlaw Country tradition in the best possible way, who is being managed by music industry insiders and being released by an artist owned independent label.  In other words, she is poised for the kind of breakout success that only comes around every few years.  I know that even before the record comes out, because I know what kind of offers she is getting for the live show (she's on Conan tonight if you are interested) and those offers mean that this record will get active promotion at least through the middle of next year.   She will get the chance to play the UK and Europe, if not Australia, within the touring cycle.  She will get a second a LP that is well financed.

  It's not clear if she will sell records.  Fingers crossed on that one, but I'd have to say just based on where she is in terms of social media demographics- 5000 Facebook friends- huge sales may be unrealistic.   But the upwards trajectory is firmly in place even before the release of the record, and low record sales, will, if anything, simply make what is yet to come look even more in comparison. For better or worse, record sales are only a piece of the pie.  In fact, their most important role for young artist these days is simply being good enough to attract continued investment and attention from the stake holders in their careers, the labels, managers, publishers, etc.

  More than anyone besides Margo Price, Third Man Records deserves credit for taking up a 100% local Nashville artist, and one who had essentially been denied by the powers that be, and securing her the attention she would have only gotten by virtue of being released by Third Man Records.  To take a chance on Margo Price defies the music industry "wisdom" that artists who stay within a local scene for too long a time are not worth investing in.

  I know this to be true because I myself wrestle with that very attitude, which to say, that I have totally succumbed to it in my own home markets of San Diego and Los Angeles.  Now if a band stays local for any length of time I take it as a sign that they are not worth paying attention to.  Sad, but true in my case, and obviously true for those who are firmly ensconced within the music industry.   Third Man has turned that wisdom on it's head, and they fully deserve to share in Margo's triumph.  The pairing is an example of what can go right between and artist and a label.

  In conclusion, I found Margo Price and the Price Tags show to be deeply satisfying.  She is fantastic life, and when she gets out there on the road you are going to want to see her songs performed live.  She is in capable hands on all professional levels, and you can be sure that if you are wondering if your time investment in getting to know Margo Price as an artist will be repaid, the answer is yes, with interest.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Book Review: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) by Alan Sillitoe

Image for Saturday Night and Sunday Morning
A young Albert Finney played Arthur Seaton in the film.
Book Review:
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958)
by Alan Sillitoe
Ebook Edition by Open Road Media, published April 19th, 2016
Purchase Kindle Edition on

  Previously unavailable as an Ebook, Alan Sillitoe's classic Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is being released on April 19th, 2016, along with his book of short stories, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.  Saturday Night and Sunday Morning comes with a short biography of the author by his wife, the poet Ruth Fainlight, as well as about a dozen photographs of Sillitoe at various times in his life.  Priced at 13.60 USD, it's a little on the steep side for a 200 page book, but the price is mitigated by the relative difficulty of finding a real world copy anywhere outside of a library.

  Although he (somewhat predictably) despised the label, Sillitoe is properly grouped with the Angry Young Men of 50's English literature.  These authors, as a group, gave a voice to young, working-class men who had previously been almost wholly excluded from the precincts of literature.  They also captured the nascent youth sub-cultures that would blossom in the early 1960's.  I believe that Saturday Night and Sunday Morning has the first description of the "Teddy Boy" culture in a novel, beating Absolute Beginners by Colin Macinnes by virtue of an earlier date of publication.

  The passage where Arthur describes his wardrobe is particularly memorable:

  "After a tea of sausages and tinned tomoatoes he sat by the fire smoking a cigarette.  Everyone was out at the pictures.  He stripped of his shirt and washed in the scullery, emerging to scrub himself dry with a rough towel before the fire.  Up in his bedroom he surveyed his row of suits, trousers, sports jackets, shirts, all suspended n colourful drapes and designs, good-quality tailor-mades, a couple of hundred quids' worth, a fabulous wardrobe of which he was proud because it had cost him so much labour.  For some reason he selected the fines suit of black and changed into it, fastening the pearl buttons of a white silk shirt and pulling on the trousers.  He picked up his wallet, then slipped lighter and cigarette case into an outside pocket.  The final item of Friday night ritual was to stand before the downstairs mirror and adjust his tie, comb his thick hair neatly back, and search out a clean handkerchief from the dresser draw.  Square-toed black shoes reflected a pink face when he bent down to see that no speck of dust was on them. Over his jacket he wore his twenty-guinea triumph, a thick three-quarter overcoat of Donegal tweed."

  This passage encapsulates the concern of working-class English youth with their look and style that would define twentieth century pop culture, not only in England and the British Isles, but also in American and Europe.  Arthur Seaton, the narrator and protagonist, works in a factory but fancies himself a dandy.   Most of the book concerns his almost aristocratic affairs with taken women.  He goes so far to seduce a pair of married sisters, and his joie de vivre causes him no end of trouble.   Publishing this as an ebook is a service to the reading public, and all those interests in the roots of 20th century popular culture should give Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe a whirl.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

V. (1963) by Thomas Pynchon

V. was Thomas Pynchon's first novel, published in 1963.
Book Review
V. (1963)
 by Thomas Pynchon

  I'd probably cite Thomas Pynchon as my favorite author, but now that I've made it all the way up to 1963 in the 1001 Books list, I'm beginning to question why.  None of his books, with the possible exception of Inherent Vice are what you would call "fun."   Most of them are a positive chore to read.  I think my fondness for Pynchon has more to do with my own self-image vs. any actual enjoyment I derive from any of his books.  I approached V. with a jaundiced eye.  V. was Pynchon's debut novel, and it made him an instant literary star, which was all the more remarkable considering his absolute refusal to engage in any of the elements of celebrity culture.

 As first novels go, V. was a fully realized vision and it contains many of the themes and topics that dominate Gravity's Rainbow, Pynchon's widely acknowledged masterpiece.  I read V. on my Kindle, and the features that allow you to press a character's name and see all mentions of said character in the book (called "X Ray") was very useful in keeping track of the wide range of characters, plot points, locations and movements forward and backward in time.

  Also useful was the Kindle feature that allows you to look up dictionary definitions, Wikipedia entries and translations likewise by simply pressing on the desired word or phrase.  Pynchon's books- all of them- are so dense with allusions and references that there is an entire cottage industry in secondary sources for his more well-known books.  With the features of the Kindle, such secondary sources are no longer required.

   The irony is that Pynchon was (of course) one of the last hold outs to allow publication of his books in an electronic format.  V. is "about" the search for a mysterious female figure that spans Africa, Europe and North America.  The major characters are Stencil, an English diplomat and his similarly named son; Benny Profane, an ex-Navy recruit who wallows in vintage 50s New York bohemia with his Whole Sick Crew.  He has various relationships with women and drifts from job to job, expressing a near constant lack of respect for normal society.

  Eventually all the characters end up in Malta- the point at which the two lines of the V meet, and nothing is resolved. Like many of Pynchon's books, it is little moments or specific chapters that stand out, rather than any over-arching plot.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys, dangerous woman.
Book Review
Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)
 by Jean Rhys

    Jean Rhys was out of print and living in obscurity in Cornwall, of all places, when an English actress made a plea over the BBC for any information about her whereabouts.  She wanted to do a radio version of one of Rhys's out of print novels from the 1920s, and no one could give her the rights.  Everyone, it turned out, just assumed that Rhys had died either during or immediately after World War II.   The subsequent radio version of her novel spurred new editions of her existing work, and it turned out that she had been working on a new novel since the late 1940's.

  That novel was Wide Sargasso Sea, written from the perspective of the "Mad Woman in the Attic" from Charlotte Bronte's book Jane Eyre.  Wide Sargasso Sea sat at the intersection of several hot trends in literature:  It was set in Jamaica and Dominica (Rhys' home was on Dominica, though she left as a teenager literally never to retunr),  it was, of course, written by a woman and it was about a character from another famous novel, making it as post-modern as post-modern gets.  Also, it was under one hundred fifty pages long.   Really just the perfect storm of characteristics to ensure that it would become one of the most read novels of the mid to late 20th century, and a staple text in undergraduate literature courses in England and America for the next fifty years.

  It's incredible because Rhys' novels in the 20s hardly been ignored.  It was more like the author herself chose to disappear.  That's all well and good, but for her to come back close to a half century later and drop Wide Sargasso Sea at the end of her life, well it's just an extraordinary second act, and unlike any that I can think of up to this point.  I guess, during her thirty years away from the spotlight she struggled with substance abuse.  It sounds like she was pretty desperately impoverished during that period.

  Rhys reminds me of Zora Neale Hurston, who was living in obscurity, cleaning hotel rooms at the end of her life, except that Rhys made it all the back, and wrote the biggest hit of her life.   

Things: A Story of the Sixties(1965) by George Perec

George Perec: A crazy coot!
Book Review
Things: A Story of the Sixties(1965)
 by George Perec

   Things: A Story of the Sixties is a well-regarded early post-modernist type book by French-Jewish author George Perec.  An initial English translation soon after the original French publication flopped, and the book was reintroduced to the English speaking world in 1990, with an entirely new publication.  Thus, for many decades, Things: A Story of the Sixties was widely famous almost everywhere but the English speaking world, and now it is a kind of minor classic- far better known in England, where some people actually read books in French, then here, where no one does.

  Things tells the story of a young couple, known only by their first names, who are something like early Yuppies- obsessed with materialism and status in post war Europe.  They live in Paris, they work as market researchers, they strive for an upper class life style.   Suddenly, they become dissatisfied and decamp to Morocco, where the woman gets a job as a French teacher and the man loafs around doing nothing.  Almost as suddenly, they abandon their North African adventure, and return to France where they both get jobs in the marketing field they left behind.

  Both Jerome and Slyvia are portrayed, if that is the right word, as existing without any kind of inner life, simultaneously repelled by society and yet fundamentally incapable of existing outside of it.   They are like mannequins, automatons or robots, and the book was received as a strident critique of the emerging consumer society which blossomed world wide in the mid 1960s.  In that way, the French edition published in 1965, was timely.  By the time the well distributed second English translation was released in 1990, 25 years had proved that Perec was sage in his description of a world obsessed with surface and status.

How It Is (1964) by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett: iconic avant garde figure of the 20th century.
Book Review
How It Is (1964)
 by Samuel Beckett

    Man, someone in the editorial staff had a penchant for Samuel Beckett when they made the initial 1001 Books list in 2006.  He got eight books on the first list- which has to make him in the top 10 in terms of times represented on that first list, up there with Dickens and J.M Coeteze, both of whom had 10 titles a piece in the 2006 edition.  By 2008 he was down to three books.  That would coincide with my own feelings about reading eight Beckett "novels."    They ascend steadily on a hill towards incomprehensibility, from the positively formulaic Murphy (also my favorite) to his esoteric and oft incomprehensible later work, including How It Is, first published in French 1961 and in an English translation in 1964.

  I think maybe the single most annoying fact about Samuel Beckett- bearing in mind the man is a Nobel Prize for Literature winner(1969) is how he wrote in French even though his native tongue was English.   That is everything that is wrong the avant garde in a nutshell.   I understand both why someone would make that choice, and why Beckett made that choice, but I still think it is almost unbearably pretentious.  I feel the same way about How It Is, which is often called a companion piece to The Unnameable (another Beckett title dropped from the 2008 revision to the 1001 Books list.)

  The Unnameable is "about" this nameless entity wallowing around in a hellish netherworld.  There are no plot points, no characters.  The book isn't "about" anything at all.  How It Is lacks even the "structure" of The Unnameable and is literally a 110 pages of two line sentences, which may or may not be the thoughts of an unidentified narrator who may or may not exist.  Unlike The Unnameable, there is literally nothing I could tell you about How It Is other than the bare description I provided above.

  And while I'm not mad about reading eight Beckett novels, I do frankly question whether a reader would ever want to read eight of them outside a graduate course on Beckett himself.  But still, Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969.  You look at the list of novelists who never got close to winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.  I guess you could say that Beckett was the ultimate avant-gardist between his experiments with prose structure, biographical links to James Joyce and his more prosaic early stuff (like Murphy, which I really did like.)

  There is no resolution to that argument, except to note that they did, in fact, remove five of his eight books from the list two years after making the list for the first time.   The mid century  garde has itself suffered in relevancy during the internet era.  Surrealism and Dada get a kind of life-time relevancy pass, but so many other strands of that energy seemed doomed to be consigned to the rubbish bin of history.

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