Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, December 16, 2016

City Primeval (1979) by Elmore Leonard

Book Review
City Primeval (1979)
by Elmore Leonard

   Elmore Leonard is probably the top American crime fiction of the past few decades.  He got his start writing westerns- as early as 1953, but he segued into crime fiction and City Primeval is a good example of a police procedural: detective fiction written from the perspective of a cop, rather than a private investigator.  Here, the crime is the senseless murder of a controversial African-American judge and his (white) girl friend, the location is Detroit, and the cast of characters includes a psychotic red headed killer, a Mexican police Detective and a white, female defense lawyer.  

   Long known as a compelling writer of "gritty" crime fiction,  City Primeval is all that and a bowl of chips, a compelling example of Leonard coming into his own as a top author of genre fiction.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Smiley's People (1979) by John Le Carré

Vladimir Putin might as well be a character from a John le Carre novel.
Book Review
Smiley's People (1979)
 by John Le Carré

  Smiley's People is the final installment of his trilogy of novels about English intelligence officer George Smiley.   This trilogy is commonly considered a high point of a rich and varied (and continuing) career writing high-class spy fiction.   Over the course of the trilogy, Smiley is locked in a career long struggle with the nameless head of the KGB KARLA unit, devoted to recruiting western double agents.

 The single most memorable scene in spy fiction (outside of the various James Bond one liners popularized by the films) is the confrontation between Smiley and the future head of Karla in a Bombay prison, described during Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  In that meeting, Karla famously refuses to defect, instead choosing to face a likely death sentence back home in Russia during one of the post World War II purges.  Confusingly, the  1001 Books series didn't include the middle book in the Smiley trilogy, The Honorable School Boy and they also include an earlier novel where Smiley appears as a minor character, but is not part of the Smiley trilogy (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold).

  I think you could make the argument that Le Carre is underrepresented at this point.  His career extends far beyond George Smiley, and his works are being adapted as frequently as ever.  His lengthy, rich plots seem ideally suited for the requirements of "peak tv."   Movie versions have been received warmly.   If you read the newspaper, the KGB and Russian spies are are as relevant right now as they were in the late 1970's.  Vladimir Putin wouldn't be out of place in a Le Carre novel.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Amateurs (1976) by Donald Barthelme

Book Review
Amateurs (1976)
 by Donald Barthelme

  Amateurs is maybe one of five books I've read as part of the 1001 Books project that doesn't have it's own Wikipedia page.  I'd wager there aren't more than 10 books on the entire list that don't have their own page.  I get it though, I have no idea what to say about Amateurs besides:

1.  It is a book of short stories by Donald Barthelme, many of which were published in prestigious mass-market literary magazines.
2.  The pocket paper back edition I read has a quote from Time magazine calling him a genius.
3.   Not a single one of the stories made any sense.  

   Barthelme is closer to surrealism and dadism then he is to post-modernism.  It just so happens that he was writing at the dawn of the post modern era in literature, so the tack stuck.   But really he is just updating the cultural reference points for a set of narrative strategies (or anti-strategies) that were close to half a century old by 1976.   Really, what we call post-modern in literature is a simply reaction to the realist novel, and realism as a literary ideology.   That attack against realism in literature, which we call post-modernism, is part of a larger cultural attack against reason and the enlightenment which was spear headed by French and German philosophers before and after World War II.

  At the same time, many writers on the experimental fringes of fiction were deeply influenced by the heavy logic of other philosophers like Wittgenstein and Alfred Whitehead, a movement separate from the critique of the enlightenment sponsored by the left leaning theorists in Europe.  In his fiction, Barthelme seems to embrace both the process oriented, Wittgenstein/Whitehead influenced practice of spinning out every logical iteration of a sentence or phrase- something clearly visible in the earliest prose fiction of Beckett as well as the surrealist/dadaist practices of the Europeans.

 So, I suppose, if you were reading this book in 1976, and you were aware of various nascent philosophical post-modernism in France, you would find Barthelme novel, but that is no excuse for hailing the man as a genius, let alone including three of his books in the first edition of the 1001 Books list.

Shikasta (1979) by Doris Lessing

The cover of Shikasta tells you all you need to know about the comments: Tedious!
Book Review
Shikasta (1979)
by Doris Lessing

  Shikasta is book one of Doris Lessings' Sufi influenced science fiction quintology.  It bears the extremely awkward full title of:  

Canopus in Argos:
Re: Colonised Planet 5
Professional, Psychological, Hisotrical Documents Relating to Visit by
(George Sherban)
Emissary (Grade 9)
87th of the Period of the Last Days

    All of that appears on the cover of Shikasta, and it actually provides a good indicator of what the reader is in for with this book.  Shikasta is only very loosely a novel, rather it is a compilation of reports and observations by JOHOR, ending with a two hundred page novella written about George Sherban, a human incarnation of JOHOR.   Before the novella comes a series of obeservational reports written by JOHOR and other alien observers about their time on Shikasta (It's Earth, ok?) during the lengthy project of alien colonization.

  Lessings' narrative: Multiple alien species active secretly on Earth in an attempt to create a galactic colony in harmony with the rest of the universe, will sound familiar to many fans of science fiction.  Canopus, the main player in this galactic empire of harmony, works in conjunction with partner empire Sirius and against the rogue empire Puttiora and it's aggressive representative planet, Shanmat.  JOHOR is designated as an emissary to Shikasta/Earth and he is on the scene as the initial colony set up by Canopus collapses as a result of Shanmat's interference, to be replaced by the rise of the contemporary human race.

  The modern period with the incarnation of JOHOR as George Sherban, takes place on the eve of World War III, when China with the help of various youth armies has taken control of the globe, and Europe stands on the brink of extinction, in order to pay penance for the crimes of "the white race."  Lessing, in addition to her new Sufi influences, evident in the eschatology of the alien race of Canopus, joins her previously noted Socialist/Communist leanings in Shikasta.

  During Shikasta I had the distinct feeling that I was reading a dramatic wrong turn in the career of a first rate world writer (Nobel Prize for Literature 2001).  The fact that Lessing remained committed enough to the idea over five novels presumably tells you all you need to know about "late Lessing," and the fact that the 1001 Books project dropped Shikasta in the first revision tells me all I need to know about whether this book is actually a classic.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Margo Price Announces Spring 2017 US Tour Dates: Born to Ramble Tour Continues

    One of the things I've noticed as I've continued to go back and condense this blog, deleting and combining old posts together, is how unpopular the tour announcements and posts about the mechanics of touring, routing, etc, were.  People just weren't interested!    But I've maintained my interest on the down low.  And I have noticed that the last Margo Price show review, at the Troubador, earlier this year, is close to a hundred page views.   That is big traffic for a show review.

  What is interesting to me about this tour are two things.  First, notice how if you are a band working out of Nashville you can take week long breaks in the middle of the tour.   And then some of the secondary markets that she is playing.  Saxapahaw, North Carolina?   What bands play the Haw River Ballroom?  That is what is amazing about Margo Price's audience: she's equally comfortable at the Haw River Ballroom and the Troubador.   Same difference.  The Haw River Ballrom does look pretty cool.

Born to Ramble Spring 2017 US Tour dates:

02/23 – Knoxville, TN @ Bijou Theatre
02/24 – Blacksburg, VA @ Lyric Theatre
02/25 – Charlottesville, VA @ The Southern
02/26 – Charleston, WV @ Civic Center Mountain Stage
02/28 – Asheville, NC @ The Grey Eagle
3/1 – Wilmington, NC @ Throne Theatre
3/3 – Saxapahaw, NC @ Haw River Ballroom
3/4 – Chattanooga, TN @ Revelry Room
3/5 – Birmingham, AL @ WorkPlay
3/24 – Austin, TX @ Emo's
3/25 – Dallas, TX @ The Kessler Theater
3/26 – Oklahoma City, OK @ ACM UCO Performance Lab
3/28 – Memphis, TN @ 1884 Lounge Minglewood Hall
3/29 – Louisville, KY @ Headlines Music Hall
4/2 – Cincinnati, OH @ 20th Century Theater
4/4 – Columbus, OH @ The Basement
4/5 – Indianapolis, IN @ HiFi
4/7 – Chicago, IL @ Thalia Hall
4/8 – Minneapolis, MN @ First Avenue

The Dead Father (1975) by Donald Barthelme

Book Review
The Dead Father (1975)
by Donald Barthelme

   The Dead Father is the only one of the three novels by Donald Barthelme to survive the initial cull and replacement of titles between versions of the book.  Frequently described as "surreal" and "post-modern," I would describe The Dead Father as turgid academic post-modernism, the same words used by a French critic who is quoted on the author's Wikipedia page.  I didn't invent that description, but I subscribe to it.  The front cover says it was one of the five best books of the year according to the New York Times, and the back cover compares Barthelme favorably to other early post-modernists like Thomas Pynchon and John Barth, both of whom are far superior to Barthelme.

  To call The Dead Father a "novel" is more a tribute to it's length, over 200 pages in the pocket paperback edition I read, then any novel-like characteristics.   Critics call his style "digressive" but you could also, just as easily, say that the book makes no damn sense.   The Dead Father is supposedly a parody of high modernist writers like Joyce and T.S. Eliot, and I suppose I get that, but it's not a parody in the sense that is any way, shape, or form comic, let alone funny.  I mean, it might be comic in the sense of the Greek theater sense of the word comedy as being the only type of drama besides drama or history, but it's not funny.

  In fact, if I met someone and they claimed that The Dead Father was funny,  I would pull up a copy of it on line and make them show me what is funny about The Dead Father.   It is undeniable that there were some very "Emperor's New Clothes" in post-modern criticism and literature.   The Dead Father may represent the earliest work where this turn into turgid academic post-modernism is crystallized, and therefore, it is also understandable why someone who happened to fashion a career in the academy during this time period might argue that The Dead Father is a classic work of literature.  That, apparently, is the position of the editors of 1001 Books, but personally, I don't get it.


Monday, December 12, 2016

A Bend in the River (1979) by V. S. Naipaul

Book Review
A Bend in the River (1979)
by V. S. Naipaul

  V.S. Naipaul won the Booker Prize in 1971, and forty years later he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.   That is the modern world double in literature and with it comes assured status as a statesperson of world literature, not just English language literature.  His work sits at the intersection of broad trends in literature past and present, an heir to Conrad and an avatar for the globalization of English language literature at the very same time.   A Bend in the River did not win the Booker Prize, but when the committee awarded Naipaul the Nobel Prize for Literature and singled him out as an heir to Conrad, A Bend in the River seemed to be the book they were talking about.  At least, the publisher of this copy of A Bend in the River would have you believe that, since they splash that quote from the Award Ceremony on the back cover.

  A Bend in the River is set in a thinly veiled Eastern Congolese city during the era of Mobutu.  The narrator is Salim, the son of a moderately well to-do Muslim Indian trading family living on the coast in what is today southern Kenya or northern Tanzania.  African independence hits their community hard, and Salim takes up an offer to run a trading depot in a moribund central African township, recently despoiled by the paroxysm accompanying independence.   The cast of characters include his "slave," who has made the decision to accompany him up river for lack of anything better to do, Ferdinand, the child of a trader from an up river village, and Yvette, the white, European wife of exiled Presidential advisor Raymond.

  The events of A Bend in the River in a manner familiar to students of the history of Zaire/the Congo, initial progress under the dictator is reversed  over time, and eventually all are left worse than they were before.  It's no wonder that this book received criticism from the left for being an apology for neo-colonialism, but since Naipaul seems to be right about everything he said in A Bend in the River, as things turned out,  it appears that it would be the Nobel Prize Committee who had the last word.

  As a fan of Conrad and Conradian fiction, it is easy to see the comparison, and makes sense to call Naipaul a worthy heir to Conrad's achievements.  After all, Conrad famously wrote in his third language (English) and his anglicized name disguised but did not erase his Polish heritage.  Conrad was a global author before such a thing existed.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Show Review: Waterstrider, Big Search, Nine Pound Shadow @ The Resident DTLA

Show Review:
30th Century Records Showcase
 Waterstrider, Big Search, Nine Pound Shadow
@ The Resident DTLA

   There is something, if not surreal than something close, about watching Brian "Dangermouse" Burton go about his business as label impresario with his 30th Century Records label.   Burton was recruited for this label by Rob Stringer, presently head of Columbia Records, soon to be head of Sony Entertainment, which makes him one of the five to ten most powerful people in the music industry.  The philosophy of men like Rob Stringer has been expressed by his predeccesor with Sony Entertainment,  Doug Morris.   Here is a quote from Morris when he was working at UMG, in 2008:

Let's move to present-day issues. When you come to work, what do you see as your biggest challenge?
The biggest problem is always getting hits. That's the one thing that has never changed. The way of delivering music has changed, the way of listening to it has changed, the way of distributing it has changed, but it's always the music.  (BILLBOARD MAGAZINE 2008)

    The answer, according to Morris, and I would presume, Rob Stringer, is that you bring hit-makers into Sony Entertainment and then pair them with artists.  As Morris himself says above, the other stuff is secondary- you have to have hits.   30th Century Records then, is the intersection of the vision of Brian Burton with the philosophy and money of Columbia/Sony Entertainment.  What is different between Burton and other, typically producers, like Dr. Luke and Max Martin, who have also been selected by Sony  (Sony entertainment owns Columbia, but Columbia maintains an infrastructure accrued over half a century as an independent "Major" label.

  So, I mean, the completely obvious and true fact to observe about the difference between Brian Burton, Max Martin and Dr. Luke, or other entities that have similar agreements with UMG (Universal), is that, simply stated, Brian Burton is not a whore for hits.  He has hits, great, massive, hits, but he does not spend his days thinking of ways to create more hits.  I happen to know someone who works for producer Max Martin, who I think is still independent, but I can testify that it is all about the hits with Max Martin.  

   That is the only way to process the 30th Century Records showcase, which equally could be the showcase of a moderately funded indie label with a production and distribution deal via Secretely Canadian.   I'm pretty sure I've reviewed Waterstrider and Nine Pound Shadow, and they are both extremely mellow indie bands.  If I haven't said it before, I'll it now: Nine Pound Shadow compares closest to the Milk Carton Kids (who are huge, fyi.) Waterstrider is more in the vein of Arcade Fire, to use a broad comparison.   Big Search has 538 Facebook fans.  They also had a mellow, indie sound and vibe.   It's simply impossible to doubt that Burton is trying to create a legitimate indie-style label with  bands who are excited to get the opportunity.  I mean, I personally vouch for the fact that by any yard stick, his heart is in the right place, and I'm saying that as someone who ran an indie label with no major label involvement.

   And also, I can testify that is he personally involved with the bands, and gives them tips and advice about their live show and of course their sound.  In conclusion, what is amazing about capitalism, and the entertainment industrial complex in general, is that how people who could very much afford to run their own business with no interference from anyone will instead accept arrangements with giant conglomerates.  For obvious reasons, the resources of the multi national conglomerates far exceed those that can be brought to bear even by a wealthy individual with extensive business experience in the entertainment industry.

  It's similar to the idea in american capitalism where a tremendously successful, mega-billionaire will have to justify him or herself to a board of directors, because accepting outside capital requires a board of directors.  The situation where you have a Steve Jobs getting fired and then brought back in according to the vagaries of the business cycle.   I guess I wonder, what was the exact understanding between Stringer and Burton.  Did Stringer say, "But you have to give me some hits in a reasonable time frame." Or was that not said, because no one would say that to Brian Burton. 

   Mostly though, I wanted to write this review to commend the Resident in DTLA as a venue.  It is for sure worth while to head down there to check out a show if there is a band you like.  It's clean, with indoor and outdoor areas, and seats inside and outside.  The sound is good.  They had a food truck in the court yard.  I would go back to the venue to see another show if asked. 

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