Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, April 22, 2016

West of Eden: An American Place (2016) by Jean Stein

Ed Ruscha: Back of Hollywood, this is the cover image from Jean Stein's West of Eden: An Ameican Place.
Book Review
West of Eden: An American Place (2016)
 by Jean Stein
Published February 9th, 2016
Random House

  Jean Stein is the daughter of Jules Stein, the founder of a talent agency that turned into M.C.A., on of the world's largest entertainment conglomerates.  She also wrote Edie, about the Warhol Factory super-star.  Stein was raced in and among the families described in West of Eden: An American Place, about the ruling class in 20th century.   Her family is actually the last of the five families discussed.  The others include the Doheny's, Jack Warner, David O. Selzinick and Stein's own father.   West of Eden takes the form of an oral history, so if you are looking for by-the-book, footnoted history, you are in the wrong face.  Stein's prose is simply gossip with a literary bent, but her sources, including friends like Joan Didion, Gore Vidal and "anyone who is anyone" from the cream of Los Angeles society give her an unquestionable air of authority.
  In 2016 it's hard to imagine anyone being shocked by the foilibles of early 20th century Angeleno plutocrats, but the material has an amazing Chinatown/Raymond Chandler appeal, realer than any fictional counterparts (and there are many.)

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Man with the Compound Eyes (2014) by Wu Ming-Yi

Book review
The Man with the Compound Eyes (2014)
by Wu Ming-Yi

      What about contemporary literature?  I'm getting there.  A notable absence from the 1001 Books list is anything originally written in Chinese.  The Man with the Compound Eyes was Yi's first work of fiction translated into English, but he's been writing fiction and non-fiction in Chinese for fifteen years.   Yi is from Taiwan, and The Man with the Compound Eyes is memorably set on the East coast of Taiwan, a region little known in the West.  Eastern coastal Taiwan is populated by a mix of Taiwanaiese born Han Chinese and different Taiwanese aboriginal peoples.  Specifically, the Amis and Bunun both figure prominently.

   Located someplace between Latin American style magical realism and futuristic speculative fiction, the plot combines intercultural romance, the disastrous consequences of climate change on coastal communities and the great "trash vortex" in the Pacific ocean.  The translation by Darryl Sterk does an excellent job of maintaining the idiomatic characteristics of Yi's text.

   The heart of The Man with the Compound Eyes, like great many novels, tells the story human emotions in some interesting place.  The eastern coast of Taiwan is interesting as a setting, as are the various speculative/science fiction/magical realism touches.  It all combines in memorable fashion.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1963) by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

This map shows the widespread distribution of prisoners in Soviet Russia
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1963)
 by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

   I believe One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was the first "adult" book I ever read on my own, or close to it.  I can still remember the paperback cover in my hand.  The Cold War is a living example of how recent important historical events can rapidly recede in important when more recent historical events create a new framework for looking at that history.  Although Russia remains a frequent topic of conversation, Communism, with it's peculiar institutions, has functionally vanished from the world.   Most people, if they have an thoughts about Communism, use late stage, pre collapse Communism as their reference point.  This perspective eclipses the decades between the end of World War II and the late 1980's, when Communism was an existential threat to the west.

  Solzhenitsyn was an icon of this period, a victim of Stalinist era insanity, he was exiled to series of prison camps and exile within the vast expanses of Soviet era Central Asia.   One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is his hit.  It tells of a single day in the life of the titular hero, who is called Shukov, at a Russian prison camp.  The day in question is a winter's day, and the experience of being a prisoner, with all the inferior treatment that entails, in a Russian prison camp in the dead of winter sums up the take away the reader gets from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

   It's hard not to compare One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to Survival in Auschwitz, the Holocaust memoir written by Primo Levi.   There is no doubt that the Stalinist era camps, while insanely horrific, were a step below the Nazi death camps.  Although Stalin murdered with genocidal flair, there was no Soviet equivalent to the trucking of millions of victims to an industrially sized gas chamber.  Another difference between Nazi and Soviet Concentration camps was the principle that Soviet camps had a goal of "re-education."  The Nazi camps were simply punitive.

  The totalitarian prison camp experience is one of the defining moments of 20th century history.  It's something that future generations will look back on with horror, even as different and newer horrors replace it in contemporary experience.    As a young reader I remember being horrified by the Communist aspect of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.  Today, I see it as much more universal work, not limited to Communist prison camps but rather serving as an excellent example for the global phenomenon of the concentration/prison camp.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

In Watermelon Sugar (1968) by Richard Brautigan

This picture of Brautigan and Hilda Hoffman was included on the cover of the original book.
Book Review
In Watermelon Sugar (1968)
by Richard Brautigan

  In Watermelon Sugar is a controversial selection for Richard Brautigan on the 1001 Books list.  He is best known for his 1967 novel, Trout Fishing in America, which maintains a certain status as a fair representative of the literature of the peak hippie period in the late 1960's.   Trout Fishing in America did not make the 1001 Books list, but In Watermelon Sugar did.  In Watermelon is like a combination of Beckett and Heinlein, with one foot in the world of the avant garde and the other in genre fiction.  It is difficult to summarize In Watermelon Sugar, it may be a story about people living in a post-apocalyptic world that only partially remembers our present.  It could also be a parallel universe, or another place and time entirely.

   The concrete details that are provided appear to function according to surreal or dream logic, the world is made of watermelon sugar, which is made at a factory in different colors.  Talking tigers came and killed and ate the narrators parents, but also helped him with his math problems.   There is no other way to read these details without thinking about dada or surrealism, both of which were major points of interest for the San Francisco beat culture Brautigan was firmly ensconced in when he wrote In Watermelon Sugar.

  Brautigan's explicit identification with the later stages of the Beat literary movement in San Francisco have perhaps hurt his long-term reputation, but Trout Fishing in America maintains it's popularity with certain audiences for American literature.   In Watermelon has less iconic status but it is likely more "out there."

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Revolt of the Hereros by John M. Bridgman

Book Review
The Revolt of the Hereros (1981)
by John M. Bridgman

  The Herero revolt and subsequent genocide by the Germans in the early 20th century is an important part of the fictional universe constructed across all of his novels.   In Gravity's Rainbow, the Schwarzkommando are a troupe of African born rocket technicians, survivors of the 1904 Holocaust.

  An index for Gravity's Rainbow shows many references to these fictional World War II troops:

74-75; German: "blackcommand"; black rocket troops; credibillity of, 92; 112;found out about a week before V.E. Day 276; Slothrop runs into two dozen on train to Nordhausen, 286; Hitler's failed plan to create Nazi empire in black Africa, training troops in Südwest, 287; "They have a plan. . .I think it's rockets" 288; "we're DPs like everybody else" 288; Herero rocket troops assembling a rocket for one last stand, 326; "it is their time, their space" 326; their mandala is the five positions of the launching switch for A4, 361; digging up A4 in Berlin, 361; "mba-kayere" (I am passed over), 362; why they seek the Rocket, 362, 563; growing away from SS and their power becoming information and expertise, 427; in their own space, 519; Herero village arranged like a mandala, 563; must be stopped before they fire the Rocket, 565; "they have their rocket all assembled at last" 673; the trek to the firing site of the 00001, 726; 12 children at a "children's resort" (Zwölfkinder means "12 children" in German--GET IT?), 725

  In V., Pynchon's first novel, the chapters detailing the abuse of the Herero at the hand's of the Germans, prior to the genocide, is embodied by the character of Sarah, who is raped and debased by the callous German soldiers to the point of killing herself.  The graphic subject matter of this portion of V. is the most arresting part of the entire novel, and his return to the subject in Gravity' Rainbow shows how deeply the real genocide was deeply embedded in his fictional universe at a time when (as is the case today) the facts of the genocide are little known.

    The long and the short of the story is that the Hereros revolted against German colonial rule for the same reasons that many exploited people's revolt- they were losing their land and their property.  After a string of early successes, they retreated some distance from the German troops.  The Germans dispatched General Von Botha, who mustered his forces and almost entirely encircled the some 80,000 Herero, which included women, children and elderly and a similar amount of cattle.  Lacking the forces to completely encircle the group, Von Botha left an escape root to the desert.  The Germans allowed the Herero to escape into the desert, but then prevented their return by setting up a series of outposts on the fringe of the desert and publicizing that they would kill any who returned.

      I think part of Pynchon's intention is to demonstrate that genocide wasn't specific to the Holocaust of the Jews, and was in fact an important part of Western culture prior to that point.

The Cubs and Other Stories (1967) by Mario Vargas Llosa

The Miraflores of Lima neighborhood runs along the shore, atop a cliff above the ocean.
Book Review
The Cubs and Other Stories (1967)
by Mario Vargas Llosa

   Mario Vargas Llosa won his Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010.  Before and after that point he occupied a position as one of Latin America's premier public intellectuals, publishing both fiction and non-fiction, and doing things like running for President of Peru (as a conservative, no less.)   The Cubs and Other Stories is only book of short fiction available in English.  The characters are young men living in the wealthy Lima neighborhood of Miraflores, long before the decades long civil was with the Shining Path and other marxist guerillas tour the country apart.

  Llosa's Miraflores is hardly idyllic.   His young men are well off enough to not have money figure as their primary concern.   They wrestle with questions of masculinity and identity that blends Faulkerian narrative techniques with characters who evoke Italian neo-realism.  Vargas Llosa had six titles on the 2006 1001 Books list.  He lost three in the 2008 revision, including this one.  I wouldn't argue with that decision.  I'm sure the only reason The Cubs is on the list in the first place is because it is the "first" Vargas Llosa book you can read in English.

Show Review: Coachella 2016

Chris Stapleton was the most revelatory performance at Coachella in 2016
Coachella Arts & Music Festival 2016, weekend one
Bands Reviewed:  The Kills, Underworld, Run the Jewels, Pete Yorn, Autolux, Chris Stapleton

  There are at least five different Coachella festivals in 2016:  There is the general population non campers festival, the general population campers festival, the VIP festival, the Artists festival and the secret celebrity festival centered on the special celebrity RV lot.  At this point, I would be hard pressed to make a case for attending minus an Artist level wrist band.  At no point did I spend more than five minutes outside in general population, in a thwarted attempt to see James Murphy's Despacio sound system.

  For me the most interesting interaction is between the Artist level wristband and the special VIP/celebrity RV lot.  There is a path between the RV lot and the artist village that you essentially have to walk on, unless you are so high up that you get driven from point to point.  The most rarified real estate of all is the headliner only artist area behind the main stage of Coachella.  Even the highest level of general wristband is not sufficient to get you in there, you need the artist specific wrist band that grants you access to that area.  There is also a special wrist band for people who are affiliated with the Polo Club, I saw that wrist band on the wrist of a co-worker of my date/reason I was there.

  The most important thing to understand about Coachella from a business perspective is that it sells out instantly, long before any artists have been announced.  In a practical sense, it mean that Goldenvoice/AEG can book whomever the fuck the want to book. This is most notable amongst the bands/artists chosen at the bottom of the bill.

    Just to take a random "classic" Coachella bottom of the line-up snapshot, let's look at 2007.  In 2007, the bottom of the bill included, Amy Winehouse and David Guetta (Friday), Girl Talk, Pharoe Monch, Justice, the Fratellis, Andrew Bird, Ratatat, the Avett Brothers, Grizzly Bear and the Coup.  Those are all absolute bottom of the bill artists!  In 2007, I actually watched many of those artists.  In 2016, the bottom of the bill artists are unrecognizable.


  The Kills;  This a band that I have now seen three of four times because they are managed by the company of my significant other.  I was indifferent at first, but I've grown to appreciate the onstage gyrations of front woman Alison Mossheart.  I'm still not entirely clear why The Kills played this year, but they are always a solid late afternoon/early evening booking, and the crowd was into it.  This was at the outdoor stage.

Underworld:  I was super excited about seeing Underworld play, maybe for the first time?  They had their full line up, and raced through a collection of old hits and material from the new record.  They closed with Born Slippy.  It was a commanding performance, the light show was excellent and the the crowd was enthusiastic.  They got a much better reception than Pet Shop Boys, occupying a similar slot in the festival a couple years ago.


  Run the Jewels:  Run the Jewels performed an explosive late afternoon set on the main stage.  They were a highlight of the festival.  Unlike many rap artists, including former main-stage headliners, they do not suck live.  They managed to ignite the (relatively modest) main-stage crowd with a mixture of adept rapping, up-to-date backing music and a special guest appearance from DJ Shadow.  Red Run the Jewels bandannas had been widely distributed throughout the crowd, making the set something like a celebration of all things "Blood."   Bernie Sanders introduced the group, Killer Mike seemed incredibly proud about that.   The Run the Jewels performance was undeniably powerful, and I would recommend them to another festival goer if they were playing some other festival.


Pete Yorn:  Pete Yorn played Sunday afternoon in the Gobi tent.  Yorn is an LA area musical stalwart, and part of the "Yorn Brother" who also include Rick Yorn, the super-agent and Kevin Yorn, attorney.  I had it in my mind that York played folky style indie, but the set was actually filled with up-tempo radio friendly rock numbers.  It made me think that he is really only one hit away from securing really top level status in terms of sales and live shows.  But he isn't there yet, and I think it a very legitimate question to ask when the hit will come.

Autolux:  Autolux followed Pete York on Sunday afternoon. Autolux also has a sound (heavy 90s style alt rock with electronic flourishes) that is out of step with the prevailing EDM/hip hop heavy taste of current Coachella-goers.  That's a shame.  It's almost like the Sahara tent has taken over the entire festival at this point.  Autolux played an excellent set, anchored by the incredible drumming of Carla Azar.  Azar, who was short listed for the Seth Myers band, drummed for Jack White when he had two bands at the same time and acted in the Michael Fassbender starring film, Frank, is certainly one of the top drummers working today.  It's a pleasure to watch her work.  The new Autolux songs are really good, it just seems they are playing a style of music which isn't particularly fashionable.  They reminded me of the band Jawbox.  Their new record, Pussy's Dead, is really good, too.

Chris Stapleton:  Chris Stapleton was the highlight of the festival for me.  He is another in the very short list of artists who have played both Coachella and Stagecoach.  It makes sense that there would be some, because both festivals are thrown by the same entity in the same location, back to back to back.  So far, that list of artists includes Sturgill Simpson, Trampled by Turtles and Willie Nelson.  Chris Stapleton is the fourth. That is a short list, but I think it's a list that will grow longer as a consequence of the decimation of the process for a&ring rock bands.

  If you are looking at the 2016 Coachella Arts & Music Festival and asking, who are the hot young rock bands on the bill, you may be stymied.  Friday had Savages, who are still far from the pop charts, but two LPs into an incredibly well received career.  Health are industry veterans at this point, Haelos are the only band playing Friday who even remotely fit that category.  Saturday and Sunday are no better.  Gary Clark Jr. might fit into that category, but if he's rock he's not "modern" rock, Churches, Courtney Barnett, Unknown Mortal Orchestra are already established.  Same for Deerhunter and the Arcs.  Sunday you've got Girlpool and Joywave.

  I'm not saying that Chris Stapleton is up and coming, just that he fills a vacant niche at Coachella of "rock music" even though he is marketed as a country singer.  It's not a secret that rock and country have a common heritage in the blues.   In Chris Stapleton's masterful Coachella set, he walked back and forth across the line of blues, rock and country, aided by the voice of his wife.  He had a simple set up of drums, bass and guitar and stood on the stage and sung while he played the guitar, but it was all he needed to wow the audience, which was clearly starved for the kind of sing-a-long country-rock vocals that are in short supply at Coachella 2016.

   Stapleton clearly scratched an itch of the paying audience, and I assume this means more country cross-over artists at next year's version of the festival.

The Quest for Christa T. (1968) by Christa Wolf

Book Review
The Quest for Christa T. (1968)
 by Christa Wolf
Translation by Christopher Middelton

   Like The Joke by Milan Kundera, The Quest for Christa T. is a literary depiction of life under Communist rule, this time in East Germany (vs. the Czechoslovakian setting of The Joke.)  The Quest for Christa T. has nothing overt to do with politics, but the title character suffers from what might be termed "existential despair" at the thought of living the crassly materialistic society of post-World War II East Germany.  The very existence of this novel rebuts a dominant strand of Cold War Communist propaganda, that citizens in the East lived spiritually fulfilling lives without the help of religion.   As we all know today, that claim was always a sham, but that wasn't the case in the late 1960's.

   At a time when many Western intellectuals painted rosy pictures of life under Russian/Eastern European Communism, the actual authors writing in those areas gave a much more realistic portrayal of life.  The Quest for Christa T. has some similarities to a Virginia Woolf novel.  Everything is presented as if viewed through a gauzy membrane.  The underlying dissatisfaction with circumstances that leads to the death of Christa T. is left unstated.  Like many artists operating in an restricted creative environment, Wolf seeks solace in abstraction.


Blog Archive