Dedicated to classics and hits.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Black Dahlia (1987) by James Ellroy

The real life murder of Elizabeth Short AKA the Black Dahila, is the basis for the 1987 James Ellroy novel of the same name.
Book Review
The Black Dahlia (1987)
 by James Ellroy

  The Black Dahlia was a real murder case- of Elizabeth Short, in Los Angeles, in 1947.  The notoriety of the case extended to the realm of fiction, where it became a kind of short-hand for neo-noir.  James Ellroy was not the first or last author to write a fictionalized version of the case, which has remained formally unsolved (although informally the physician George Hodel is considered to be the murderer.) but his version is considered the best, even withstanding a disastrous Brian De Palma movie version to remain not just a certified platinum neo noir classic, but also one of those rare titles which elevated an author from "genre" to "serious" literature after publication.

  That elevation is almost always a combination of popular and critical acclaim, as was the case with The Black Dahila.  In his book, Ellroy successfully uses the Dahila murder as a metaphor for the decay, decadence and spiritual rot that has always existed at the heart of Anglo Los Angeles: an unholy combination of entertainment industry executives, real estate developers, racketeers and police that colluded to run the city for decades.

  That combination of nefarious forces is synonymous both with our historical understanding of Los Angeles and it's heavy representation in the field of neo-noir literature.   In 2017, largely as a result of the success of The Black Dahlia  and the other three books in his  L.A. Quartet really serve as the state of the art in this field, even decades after publication.

Legend (1984) by David Gemmell

Druss, the Legend 
Book Review
Legend (1984)
by David Gemmell

  I actually had to buy this book off of Amazon because the Los Angeles Public Library System doesn't own a copy.  I received a vintage Del Rey paperback- the kind associated with the lower levels of genre fiction, fantasy and science fiction in particular.  There is nothing about the paperback copy of Legend by David Gemmell that would seem to indicate greatness- it's got a picture of Druss, the Legend in question, swinging his battle axe, about to decapitate a barbarian.

   David Gemmell was an English journalist turned genre fiction writer, with a heavy emphasis on military stories involving vaguely non-politically correct Asiatic type hoards and conspicuously white Anglo Saxon/Scandinavian types waging heroic battles against said hoards.  To his credit, and probably the reason that Legend is the sole representative of the genre that Americans would recognizes as "Conan the Barbarian" type adventures, is Gemmell's grasp of the underlying mythical elements of real world history.   Although Legend contains some mildly explicit sex and highly explicit violence that marks it as a book published in the late 20th century, it is otherwise timeless, and could have been written at any time in the past hundred or so years.

  Gemmell obviously had (he dies in 2006) a firm grasp on both history, mythology and the study of both, and he was obviously familiar with Conan (first appeared in the 1930's in American magazines featuring pulp fiction) and his barbarian prodigy.   Part of the fun of Legend is spotting the influences.  Despite all of it's some fantastical flourishes, limited mostly to the presence of dueling psych warrior-monks within its pages, Legend is almost an alternative- earth history, set in the early Middle Ages, along the lines of a "last stand" narrative, like the Alamo.  

  To give one notable example, two characters enjoy a nice glass of orange juice together at the beginning of chapter one.  The biology and physics appear to be the same as that on Earth, there are no non-human sentient creatures and no fantastical beasts.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Pigeon (1987) by Patrick Suskind

Book Review
Pigeon (1987)
 by Patrick Suskind

   Pigeon is a little existential novella  about a lonely Parisian security guard.  He's been living in the same tiny walk-up flat for the better part of four decades when his routine is a pigeon, incongruously located in the hallway outside.    Like his other 1001 Books entry, Perfume, there is ample evidence of Suskind's skill as a prose stylist, even in translation.  Unlike Perfume, Pigeon is not story dwelling.  The obsessive protagonist resembles various narrators in the novels of Thomas Bernhard, minus the self-conscious intellectualism.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

World's End (1987) by T.C. Boyle

Book Review
World's End (1987)
 by T.C. Boyle

  T.C, Boyle is incredibly prolific for a "serious" novelist.  Since the first edition of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die was published in 2006, Boyle has published five stand alone novels, each of which has remained in print in an evergreen paperback edition.  The editorial language in the listing for this book in 1001 Books calls it Boyle's masterpiece, but without having read any of his other books (Road to Wellsville, anyone?) it seems like there is at least a chance that one of his subsequent novel deserves to replace World's End, which, in my mind, has aged badly, even since the 2006 publication date of the first 1001 Books.

 Set among several generations of the population of the Hudson River Valley in three different time periods:  The late 17th century, the period surrounding the second World War and the "high 1960's."  With the exception of the portion set in the 17th century, Boyle is walking in a well trodden meadow.  One book it recalls in particular is The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow, published in 1971, which also uses The Peetskill Riots as a major plot point.  Those riots were nativist/anti-communist protests of a Peace Concert in the Hudson River Valley by Paul Roebeson.  Like a Woodstock, that was very much ahead of it's time.

  And while there is nothing wrong with two works of 20th century American Fiction that focus on the Peetskill Riots as being emblematic of the American experience in the 1940's, I thought that Boyle's use of Native American characters bordered on the insulting.  There are some subjects where a wry meta-fictional touch isn't appropriate, and personally, I don't see the Native American soft genocide as a topic for a comic novel.  It is different for a writer who is actually Native America- Sherman Alexie, for example, an excellent Native American author who is very funny and not represented on the 1001 Books list.

  It is easy to defend Boyle by saying that he treats his Native American (or part Native American) characters with the same sense of wry detachment that he uses for all his characters, but its hard to imagine him treating enslaved African American characters- who do appear in cameo roles in World's End, with the same attitude.   As it stands, World's End is the first novel that really even discusses the Native American experience in North America- surely a rich vein of literature. A Sherman Alexie book at the least.  Since World's End is Boyle's only core title, it would mean dropping him entirely.  Maybe that isn't fair to Boyle, because World's End is only partially about Native American subjects.

  And, if you are going to start directly comparing books at this point in time- 1987, it's easy for me to say that, a book like Beloved would be one of maybe two or three books to remain on the list, were space needed for new titles.   Whats interesting about the core list is that you've got 700 titles, but those 700 all remained through 2010 and 2012, while the 300 books that were added to the list in 2008 were, I think, replaced entirely in 2012.   In other words, none of the 300 replacement books in 2008 remained after the 2012 revision.   You might also drop The Book of Daniel, since Doctorow has multiple titles on the core list. 

Event Preview: Jamey Johnson & Margo Price @ North Park Observatory Next Week (Tuesday)

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The Stagecoach Spotlight Tour features Jamey Johnson, Margo Price & Bret Cobb
Event Preview
Stagecoach Spotlight Tour (TM)
 Jamey Johnson, Margo Price & Brent Cobb
 @ North Park Observatory
 Next Week: Tuesday, April 25th, 7:30 PM

  I have to hand it to Goldenvoice talent buyer Stacy Vee, she was down with Margo Price from day 1.  Well not really day 1, but who was, really.  But Stacy Vee was at the little industry show Margo Price played in Hollywood, and the Stagecoach offer came in super early.  So when Stagecoach decides to do a Stagecoach Spotlight Tour and asks Margo Price to be on it, she is on it.  That is how things work.   People will criticize Goldenvoice on various grounds, but the fact remains that they (via corporate parent AEG) the only viable alternative to Live Nation.  I mean they aren't an alternative to Live Nation, who can front a monster advance to any artist they please (but usually those who are capable of drawing at a mid size shed venue in any of the top 150 markets in the United States),  but you can structure a solid cycle of American tours around a big Goldenvoice show.

   It's the kind of support that can give rise to the decision to say no to a Live Nation offer.   The trade off for taking Live Nation money is that an artist is forced to work themselves to death to pay back the advance.   Also that it can get an Artist accustomed to the lifestyle that a massive advance can finance but not maintain.  I know these are 1% problems, but they are problems that any American musician achieving viability is going to face.

   The Stagecoach Spotlight Tour covers most of the major western markets:  Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and Denver.  The logic behind this tour gets stronger the further you get from the epicenter of the Stagecoach festival itself, which happens in the middle of the two week long tour stints.

    Part of my continuing enchantment with Price's rise is seeing her touring numbers for secondary markets in the south-east.  She can play these locations, sell out theaters and take in a few thousand in merch, night after night, with most of the markets within driving distance of Nashville, an ideal location for a touring musician, geographically speaking.  She is also viable, though as yet unproven, in secondary markets in other geographic regions of the country: The Northeast, the Midwest and the West.   You compare that with the touring profile of a comparably successful indie rock act, and there is no comparison, Margo Price would crush them.

   Generating a certain level of ticket sales in these secondary market (in addition to some previously demonstrated ability to sell out smaller venues in major markets) is the essential pre-condition to generating a virtuous circle of touring activity.   Once that circle is established, all it requires is additional momentum, provided by more touring.   However, absent additional albums and tours, the virtuous circle stops spiraling.

  Tickets are still available for this show, next Tuesday at the very, very, lovely and nice North Park Observatory Theater- owned by the Affliction clothing company owner!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison

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Thandie Newton played the reverant to Oprah Winfrey's Mother character in her movie version of Beloved by Toni Morrison.

Beloved (1987)
by Toni Morrison

  I think any process of canonization which includes works within the last 30 years is suspects.  30 years of consideration should be the rule before any specific work of art is included in any canonical collection.  Before 30 years have elapsed, you really don't have a feel for the true impact of a work of art, particularly for those works which were commercially but not critically appreciated, or vice versa.   Its possible that there are books out there which were written in 1987 that the editors of the 1001 Books list were not aware of when they made the first edition of this list in 2006.

  The core collection of 1001 Books is 700 titles.  Chronologically speaking, 1987 is probably the cut off for that 700 number if you start from the beginning of time.  I would guess that the 300 replaced titles are disproportionately located in the 300 books that remain between 1987 and the 2006 cut off for the first book.  In 2006, they had no idea which books published in 2005 might qualify, and so how can they know which books might have to be replaced?

  I'm bringing this up because I would argue that Beloved, Morrison's 1987 gothic shocker, is a keeper- an obvious inclusion within the core list of 700 books.  Just to compare her to the other 1987 American authors that made the first edition of the 1001 Books list, you've got The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe, the collected New York Trilogy by Paul Auster (collected in one edition in 1987) and the Black Dahila by James Ellroy.   Looking at a list of those four entries, and I would cut all of them BUT Beloved.  I understand why the other titles have made it:  The Bonfire of the Vanities was a cross-platform phenomenon for a mildly "important" author,  Black Dahila is a stand out of 80's genre fiction and New York Trilogy is a clever work of metafiction.

  Beloved, on the other hand, is an important book, Morrison has stood accused of overwrought, feverish prose, but who are we to quibble with the style when the results are so august?  When Beloved was published, Morrison was at the top of her game, deploying elements of style to induce deeply felt emotions in the reader. 

Mayra(1986) by Joyce Carol Oates

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A photo of a young Joyce Carol Oates
Book Review
Mayra (1986)
 by Joyce Carol Oates

   You might consider Mayra a Joyce Carol Oates origin story.  Mayra, the title character, physically resembles Oates, shares a similar background and has the same experiences as Oates the writer.  Within the 1001 Books project, Oates is a huge loser.  She starts with four titles in the original edition, and that number is cut to a single title in the first revision.  This reduces Oates from a repeat player of some note to a one hit wonder, for the purposes of the list.  It also points to the way that many, if not all, authors with multiple titles- certainly all those from the 20th century and beyond- were subject to having their contribution halved.

  I'd be inclined to think that Oates was ill served- she is almost certainly an author who deserves more than a single title.  It's likely that she is a victim of both being prolific, still writing and not a major literary prize winner.  Oates is not going to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, she hasn't won the Pulitzer Prize.  She's also written non fiction and short stories throughout her career, and flirted with the career of a public intellectual in the television era.

  Like Anagrams by Lorrie Moore, Mayra hasn't aged well, except as it relates to a general up-swell of appreciation for Oates as she ages out of productivity.  Most of Mayra exists within the confines of the academic literature of the 1980's.  Her plight as a white woman, making her way in academia, has only muted relevance to the polyphonic explosion of viewpoints related to class and gender.   At least Oates, unlike Moore, avoids writing from a place of vested privilege.  

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Parable of the Blind (1986) by Gert Hofmann

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The Parable of the Blind (painting)(1568) by Pieter Breugel, the book is based on imagined evets from 
Book Review
The Parable of the Blind (1986)
by Gert Hofmann

   The Parable of the Blind is a fun little novella about the (imagined) circumstances behind the painting of the same name, created in 1586 by Pieter Breugel.  The idea is that Breugel, unnamed in the book, paid to have models enact the painted scene, again and again, in the same way that one might imagine a Hollywood director having an actor do dozens of takes.  Here, the blind are stumbling into the river, a scene they repeated numerous times, as Breugel sits in his window and paints them.

   The rest of the book describes their attempts to get to the house of Breugel,  The Parable of the Blind is an impressionistic narrative, since the narrators, are blind beggars with no formal education.  To the extent it resembles anything else in literature, the closed comparison is Chaucer, call this "The Blind Beggars Tale."

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Anagrams (1986) by Lorrie Moore

Book Review
Anagrams (1986)
 by Lorrie Moore

   I wouldn't call Anagrams a core title on the 1001 Books list, one of the 708 books that have stayed through all editions of the 1001 Books list.  The editors of the 1001 Books list would call Anagrams a core title, because it is a core title on the 1001 Books list.  Moore is an author who has straddled the line between short stories and novels, balancing both with a career in Academia- thirty years at the University of Wisconsin and now at Vanderbilt University.   She is a professional academic, and Anagrams, her first novel, is a prime example of the genre of "professional academic literature."  It's a major trend, still on going, and it concerns itself with the lives of professional and would be professional academics, living and working on or near a university campus, and almost all of them white, from a middle or upper class background (though not happy about it) and straight.

  Brenna Carpenter, the primary protagonist in Anagrams, shares biographical details with the author- both worked as para-legals in New York, both worked in academia.  Moore is a precursor of the manic-pixie dream girl, though one might more appropriately call her a manic-depressive pixie dream girl.  She's quirky! She sleeps with students! She invents an imaginary daughter.  It's this last detail that, I think, is the crux of Anagrams.  The fact that her daughter is imaginary is stated once, baldly, as a fact, then for the rest of the book she might as well be real.  After the initial disclosure, Carpenter makes no reference to the fact that her daughter does not exist.

  Anagrams hasn't aged particularly well, except as a capsule of that mid 1980's, anti-yuppie, professional-academic sub-culture.  Despite the essentially sad subject matter, Moore maintains a light touch that harkens back to her personal history as a prize winner of short story contests from an early age.   The short story is really hard done by within the precincts of the 1001 Books list.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Extinction (1986) by Thomas Bernhard

Book Review
Extinction (1986)
 by Thomas Bernhard

   Within the precincts of the original 1001 Books list, Bernhard is a major 20th century German author, with six novels making the cut.  That number was reduced in half for the first revision in 2008.  Extinction, his last novel, survived the initial reduction, and that makes sense.  Extinction is by far Bernhard's longest work, and it serves as a kind of summation for his entire oeuvre.

  Loosely put, Bernhard's concern is to serve an indictment against the entire world, focused through his perspective as an Austrian national living in the aftermath of World War II.  Although the characters change, they all share a common narrative style: close, cramped, obsessively and repetitively teasing out all the potential consequences of a certain emotion or experience.   It's novelist as OCD sufferer,  While some of his works are divided into parts, chapters and paragraphs are non-existent.  Instead the reader - of any of his books - is forced to follow the narrator through pages and pages of densely written prose.

   Extinction is one of those novels that both infuriates and entralls.  Even though it is only 311 pages, Extinction took me weeks to read, because I could not keep my place.  Eventually I was forced to sit down and read it in 50 to 100 page gulps.  Every time I put Extinction down, upon resuming I would have to re-read the previous few pages.  Each page took me several minutes to read- unusual- since I usually read something more than one page a minute for a typical work of fiction (100 pages an hour).

  I've been bringing up Thomas Bernhard in casual conversation whenever possible- which is tough- but I've yet to find a single other person who has even heard of him.  He's worth checking out if only for that reason, since his books are widely translated and available.  The end of Extinction, where Bernhard tells his readers (via his narrator) that the only way to avoid the catastrophe of modernity is to "kill yourself before the millennium" rings eerily true in 2017.  Thomas Bernhard is not surprised by Donald Trump.  Nothing could be less surprising to him.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Matigari (1987) by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

Book Review
Matigari (1987)
 by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

  Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o famously abandoned writing in English in favor of developing a literature in his native language, Gikuyu.  Writing a foreword while in exile from Kenya, Thiong'o wryly notes that the Gikuyu language version was banned inside Kenya for years, but that the English translation could still be purchased while the Gikuyu language version was samizdat.

  Matigari is a creation myth, the eponymous hero an allegory of the people who fought for independence but were betrayed by post-independence elites.  Matigari, despite it's allegorical form, is a direct attack on the corruption of the post-independence Kenyan elite.  They are a group that are often singled out for criticism in Thiong'o's fiction.   Thiong'o's style is like the obverse of magical realism, non-magical fantasy.  The symbolic children of Matigari earn a living picking out garbage from the dump. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Lost Language of Cranes (1986) by David Leavitt

Book Review
The Lost Language of Cranes (1986)
by David Leavitt

   The Lost Language of Cranes is a father/son gay coming of age novel set against the back-drop of the AIDS era in New York.  It's a world where the closeted gay father  seeks furtive pleasures in a gay porno theater, while the son  slowly moves into his own gay adulthood while he works as an editor of romance novels.  It is a world permeated with Laura Ashley and Häagen-Dazs ice cream, the 1980's,  It also incorporates an African American lesbian with conservative parents, and the co-op movement in New York real estate.  A heady combination.  You can smell the Laura Ashley pot-por-ri.

 And of course, AIDS, which lurks in the background but never emerges as foreground.  No one gets AIDS, no one dies of AIDS.  No one talks about people dying from AIDS.  It seems a strange thing to say about the novel that represents gay New York culture in the 1980's.  Isn't AIDS THE story from that period?  

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Enigma of Arrival (1987) by V.S. Naipaul

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Much of the "action" of The Enigma of Arrival takes place in Wiltshire, England.
Book Review
The Enigma of Arrival (1987)
by V.S. Naipaul

  Naipaul's status as the child of an East Indian immigrant who came to an English colony in the Caribbean on an island with a long history as a Spanish colony before it's take-over by the English.  He is a kind of emblem of the British empire, with his DNA containing the entire story of the British conquest in the globe in the 18th and 19th century.  Of course, Naipaul is aware of this history, but it is an inheritance that doesn't control Naipaul and his prose.

  The Enigma of Arrival is an excellent example of the way Naipaul transcends his rich inheritance.  A largely auto-biographical work of fiction that mostly takes place in Wiltshire, England, where Naipaul rented a cottage for several years to work on his writing, after he had made enough headway to afford to work full time on fiction.

   Naipaul alternates between memories tied to his upbringing in Trinidad and subsequent emigration to England and the present of life in Wiltshire, where the decrepit estate which houses his rented cottage is slowly collapsing into ruin. His portraits of the characters in his little rural valley are so convincing that it is difficult to believe that is they who are the fictional element of The Enigma of Arrival.  The close observation of his neighbors is like an inversion of colonialism, the coolie returned to England to get a good look at the sahib,

  At the same time, Naipaul is well aware of the role that this Empire has had in his own education and his own present as someone who could afford to rent a cottage and write all day.  One of the major themes in The Enigma of Arrival is the way that struggling to escape Trinidad shaped his subsequent experience outside of Trinidad.   

Show Review: Sleaford Mods @ The Echoplex

Show Review:
Sleaford Mods
@ The Echoplex
April 9th, 2017

   England's reigning working class talk-rap duo delivered the goods last night to a crowd of predominantly older, male and English non working class fans, their first show in Los Angeles.  The easiest catch phrase to describe Sleaford Mods is "post-Brexit the Streets/Mike Skinner."  That capsule summary doesn't do justice to the magnetism and delivery of rapper/talker/singer Jason Williamson.  Sleaford Mods are a genuinely compelling live act perhaps because of their bare bones aesthetic.

 You can count me as convinced by their performance last night

Thursday, April 06, 2017

The Lover (1984) Marguerite Duras

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Jane March memorably portrayed the Duras character in the movie version of her novel, The Lover.
Book Review
The Lover (1984)
Marguerite Duras

  It's clear that the average length of a book on the 1001 Books list shortens over time. In the 18th century, novels often eclipsed 500 pages and were published in 10 volume sets.  In the 19th century, serial publication and the publishing convention of printing single novels over three volumes ensured that the length of individual works was often over 300 pages, with many books over 500 pages.  In the 20th century, books over 500 pages are notable for being "long."  Throughout the first part of the 20th century, the 300 page novel became the standard.  After 1970, the average length of each book begins to plummet.  By the mid 1980's, it feels like the average 1001 Books list is somewhere under 250 pages long.  The Lover, at almost a hundred pages, doesn't even feel like a novella, just a short novel. It's a truism that attention spans declined after the introduction of television, and I think the average length of books on the 1001 Books list clearly supports that contention.

  The Lover is another book on the "international best seller" sub-list, notably the publicity surrounding the popular film version, released in the mid 1990's.   The Lover is a spicy meatball for real, the autobiographical tale of the love affair between an underage, impoverished french girl living in Vietnam and her older Chinese lover, the scion of \a local business magnate.  The love depicted between the unnamed child girl and her 20 something lover is the kind of thing that gets you arrested in 2017, and I think that gives The Lover it's edge.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Old Devils (1986) by Kingsley Amis

Book Review
Old Devils (1986)
 by Kingsley Amis

  Old Devils was the Booker Prize Winning book that Kingsley Amis deserved for  a career that began with him as a fringe member of the "angry young men" of post-War English fiction, and ended with laureates, accolades, and a son who was arguably even more successful at being a novelist than his dad.

  I love this two sentence summation of the plot from Wikipedia:

       Alun Weaver, a writer of modest celebrity, returns to his native Wales with his wife, Rhiannon, sometime girlfriend of Weaver's old acquaintance Peter Thomas. Alun begins associating with a group of former friends, including Peter, all of whom have continued to live locally while he was away. While drinking in the house of another acquaintance, Alun drops dead, leaving the rest of the group to pick up the pieces of their brief reunion

   There you have it, people, Old Devils in a paragraph.  Old Devils is also very...Welsh, in the sense that it takes place in Wales, outside of Swansea, I believe, and Alun Weaver is a "writer of modest celebrity" in that he is the pet Welsh poet/public intellectual for the BBC.  He is also a compulsive philanderer, in his very British way.   Like his other 1001 Books qualifier, The Green Man, Old Devils concerns itself with a group of men who, one imagines, were known directly to Amis.  It doesn't seem like any of the characters are meant to be Amis himself.

  It's not hard to call Amis pere a dinosaur.  His characters are bloated, white, privileged, alcoholics and philanders.  Not the landed aristocracy of the 19th century novel, but the the class of 20th century professional intellectuals, some successful, some not so much.   He couldn't be further away from the hot trends in 1980's literature- no diversity, racial or economic, no post-modern pyrotechnics, no infusion of magical realism.  Just unhappy British people.  But it's so, so well done.  Amis manages to draw some universal truths out of a creative milieu that had been left for dead by a half century of literary progress.  And he won a Booker Prize, an award that did not exist when he started writing.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

The Name of the Rose (1980) by Umberto Eco

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Sean Connery and Christian Slater in the movie version of The Name of the Rose (1980) by Umberto Eco.
Book Review
The Name of the Rose (1980)
 by Umberto Eco

  The Name of the Rose is one of those super unlikely international best-sellers, which didn't just ensure everlasting fame and audience for the author, Italian semiotician Umberto Eco, but also single-handedly created the genre of the medieval detective story.   The Name of the Rose had to prove itself as a top seller four different times:  First, in the original Italian, where it was a best seller.  Next, in French and German translations, where it was a best seller.  Then, in England, where it was a surprise best seller, finally, in the United States, where it sold millions of copy and became a film starring a young Christian Slater and Sean Connery.

  Today, The Name of the Rose is very much in print (last edition in 2014) and still selling.  The copy I checked out from the Los Angeles Public Library was the Everyman's Library edition, published in 2006, the same year as the first edition of the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list.   Whoever would think that a book that is one part Sherlock Holmes and one part exegesis on the paths of heresy in Southern Europe in the 13th century would prove such a hit?  Part of the credit due Eco is his recognition that the Europe of the pre-Black Plague era was a pretty interesting place, intellectually speaking.  The other part is being able to write a tale that translated fetchingly into four different languages and finding an audience in all of them.

  Eco wasn't exactly a one hit wonder- other of his novels have proved to be best-sellers, notably  Foucault's Pendulum, but Eco never prostituted himself in an attempt to match the qualities which inspired the success of The Name of the Rose.  

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Book Review: The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980) by Bruce Chatwin

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The Viceroy of Ouidah was made into a film called Cobra Verde by German auteur Werner Herzog

Book Review:
The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980)
by Bruce Chatwin

   I believe that the genre of colonial fiction that Joseph Conrad invented was an important influence on the development of dystopian literature.  Right from the beginning, Conrad was an important influence on George Orwell, and he was certainly know to Aldous Huxley.   But more than that, the tone of the "white man in Africa" resembles the typical narrator in a dystopian novel, a sane man or woman (or robot for that matter) in an insane world.   Personally, I'm interested in depictions of the insane dystopias of colonialism.   And if you get right down to it, there are few darker than the odd European controlled areas of Africa, outside those controlled by major powers of England and France.
   Let's see, you've got the Herrero massacres of German Southwest Africa, as discussed by Thomas Pynchon both in V and Gravity's Rainbow.  There is the famous Conradian Heart of Darkness in the  Belgian Congo.  I understand why a critic might ask why read another narrative along those lines, this one covering the Portugese/Brazillian slave coast off the Kingdom of Dahomey in the 18th and 19th century, but I would say that this is a separate literary genre, alongside narrative written by Africans themselves.

  Colonial literature isn't simply about the historic circumstances depicted in a particular narrative, it is also a metaphor for the relationship that we have with the forces of consumer capitalism and the entertainment industrial complex in our own lives- they attempt to colonize our consciousness.   Thus, the narrative of colonialism also included the narrative of resistance to colonialism.

  I understand that The Viceroy of Ouidah has an episodic and feverish quality, and it switches narrative viewpoints between generations of characters

Book Review: California (2014) by Edan Lepucki

Will Edan Lepucki's California survive the Colbert bump? Probably.
Book Review
California (2014)
 by Edan Lepucki

  It was always my intent that I would be laying the groundwork for a straight forward "book blog" by using the 1001 Books project as a foundation for opining on contemporary literature, with a more prosaic goal of having a relevant opinion about whether should buy one new work of fiction over another.  Since new fiction typically costs upwards of 30 bucks in hardback, and usually being a tad under 300 pages... it's not a light recommendation.  If a reader wants to read three new works of high-quality, "literary" fiction a month, that is going to set them back a hundred bucks.  In my mind, the question is always is this (new work of fiction) potentially a canonical book.

  If you are dealing with a book that might be a canonical work, the thirty bucks can be justified on a number of levels, ranging from the cultural capital of being familiar with the resulting big budge film or tv version before it comes out, to potentially owning a small press first edition of a work later deemed to be classic, to cocktail banter and water cooler talk.

   Edan Lupicki was the surprise beneficiary of a campaign by Steven Colbert against, where he promoted the sale of Lupicki's debut post-apocalyptic relationship drama, California, through non Amazon channels, the prove the point that author's didn't need Amazon to have a best seller.   These are the kind of promotional fluke that often lead to books that take on an out-size amount of publicity in the "first novel" category,  As the New York Times observed in their (subsequent to Colbert) review of the book, Lepucki won the "literary lotto."

   And to be fair, she did, but she also wrote a dystopian relationship drama that seems like it anticipated the elevation of dystopian fiction from genre to literary fiction, a process that is very much in full bloom even as I write this, with film versions of Colson Whitehead's Underground Railroad and American War by Omar El Akkad coming out this week.  At the genre level, dystopia is dominant everywhere from comics, to films, to genre fiction.

   Lepucki delivers a carefully drawn, if not wholly transporting "low key" version of the upcoming breakdown in society as observed by two unusual millennials. The story is so simply drawn that giving away any element risks spoilation of the narrative, but I do believe there is depth under the surface, along the lines of what one might expect from a European style philosophical novel from the mid 20th century.   I know California inspired a virulent Colbert inspired "back lash" of people who claimed California was weak as a literary effort  but perhaps those readers weren't as attuned to Lepucki's well drawn details of life "before" including one memorable conversation which took place around a drained Silver Lake reservoir, the bottom covered in garbage- not too different from present reality.

  Because of the fluky nature of her rise to prominence, Lepucki is going to need to prove herself with a second hit.   Can she do it? California doesn't seem to particularly hard fought as a work of art.  Part of that is Lepucki's laconic, southern California inflected dialogue and prose.  It's clear that she is setting up the prospect of a "further adventures of" if not directly anticipating a sequel in her ending.  I'm sure her publisher will publish a sequel if that is what she wants to do.  What does Edan Lepucki do next, that is my question.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Drowned and the Saved (1986) by Primo Levi

Book Review
The Drowned and the Saved  (1986)
 by Primo Levi

  I'm not trying to diss Primo Levi, the poet lauerate of the Holocaust, but it is unclear to me why The Drowned and the Saved is the single book of philosophical essays included in the 1001 Books list. It is no doubt due to the literary quality of Levi's writing, as well as the importance of the subject matter, but doesn't that open up the 1001 Books list to whole realms of non-fiction and philosophy that are otherwise wholly excluded?

  Certainly, Levi's elaboration of the world view of the Concentration camp, the weltanschauung expands in this, his final work, to include the world of the Soviet gulag, and he really draws a universal, global perspective on the totalitarian death camp.   He also thinks deeply about the groups who survived the experience, focusing on the helpers, including fellow Jews who were in charge of operating the gas chambers themselves.  Think about that for a minute.  That was something the Nazi's did, they made Jews operate the death chamber,  Levi also points out that very, very few of these individuals actually survived, being witness to horrific crimes that were kept secret from the general population.

  Levi explores the Nazi end game.  In his opinion, the crazy machinations at the end of the war were a conscious effort by the Nazi regime to destroy the evidence, and in that way he both exonerates and condemns the German people as a whole.  The whole end of the book is devoted to his correspondence with German readers, and he also devotes a chapter to the process of translating the book into German.  Levi, of course, was from Italy, and he saw the German language translation of his works as a kind of reckoning for Germans who claimed they didn't know what was going on.

   And you know, I'm not a hysteric about our current political situation.  I don't think that it rises to the kind of crisis some people make it out to be.  It helps ifyou actually know about the Nazi's were and what they actually did.  

Foe (1986) by J.M. Coeteze

Book Review
Foe (1986)
 by J.M. Coeteze

   Color me not surprised that Foe, Coeteze's mid 1980's riff on Robinson Crusoe and father-of-the-novel Daniel DeFoe did not survive the cull between the first and second(2008) edition of the 1001 Books list.  First of all, Coeteze, Nobel Prize for Literature winning author or not, is hugely over-represented on the first edition of the list, with ten qualifying titles.  That is too many for any single author, let alone a writer who didn't start writing till the late 20th century.  His over-representation is the most egregious example of "present-ism," the tendency to favor the recent past to the far past, that permeates any canon making exercise.

   Still, as a lover of literature and a particular fan of the birth of the novel in the 18th century, I can't personally help but love Foe, with it's in depth exploration into the meaning of Robinson Crusoe, all in the guise of a sympathetic female narrator, who is said to have been cast away with Crusoe and the real source for the early novel that DeFoe wrote.   Meta fictional technique is everywhere, strewn about like the boulders on the rocky island Crusoe finds himself inhabiting.

  The idea of rewriting a classic work of literature from the perspective of a minor (or invented) character was not original to Coeteze.  Specifically, Jean Rhys published Wide Sargasso Sea, famously written from the perspective of the "crazy wife in the attic" who haunts Jane Eyre.   That book is typically called a prequel, whereas Foe is a kind of imaginative retelling.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

reasons to live (1985) by Amy Hempel

Book Review
reasons to live (1985)
 by Amy Hempel

  Amy Hempel is a literary minimalist, or you might say a miniaturist, her books of short "stories" has several episodes that are under a page in length, and I don't think any of them have more than a dozen pages tops.   Her "stories" chronicle the dissipated Los Angeles area coastal lifestyle in the late 1970's and early 1980's.   She is often compared to Raymond Carver (who I always confuse with Raymond Chandler ha ha), in terms of the quietness of the lives she depicts.
   Once again, I found myself in total ignorance of an author who chronicles the very area I call home.  Where has Amy Hempel been hiding my entire life? Why have I never seen or heard of anyone else reading her books?  Why have I never seen an article in a newspaper or online about her?  

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) by Gabriela Garcia Marquez

Image result for love in the time of cholera florentino ariza
Javier Bardem played Florentino Ariza in the 1997 movie version of Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Book Review
Love in the Time of Cholera (1985)
by Gabriela Garcia Marquez

  Those looking for another classic falling under the description of "magical realism" are sure to be disappointed with Love in the Time of Cholera, one of Garcia-Marquez's post Nobel Prize for Literature winning efforts.  What it must be like to win the Nobel Prize in the middle of one's literary career.  Of course, the Nobel Prize for Literature can't be awarded posthumously, so every recipient is living and in some way benefits from the win, but Marquez really sealed his reputation as an international author of the first rank

  More-or-less explictly set in his native Columbia, Love in the Time of Cholera is a more personal work than One Hundred Years of Solitude.  One Hundred Years of Solitude maintains a quasi-mythic tone (one which became synonymous with magical realism) which is largely absent from Cholera. Although Cholera is set almost entirely in the 20th century, the major characters have attitudes which seem drawn from the prior centuries of literature, specifcally the 18th century idea of "sensibility" and 19th century ideas about romanticism. Florentino Ariza, Marquez's hear sick protagonist, is both hero and villain, not in the sense of an "anti-hero" but in the sense of someone who does good and bad.

  Cholera is very much about romantic love, and concerns itself largely of the impact of romantic love unrequited.  

Monday, March 20, 2017

Contact (1985) by Carl Sagan

Jody Foster played Dr. Eleanor Arroway in the movie version of Contact by Carl Sagan.
Book Review
Contact (1985)
by Carl Sagan

    Is it possible that Contact, the achingly dull science fiction classic by Carl Sagan, is not just a charter member of the 1001 Books list but also a core title, one that has not been removed at any point?  Yes.  It is more than possible, it is a true fact.   I will grant that it has maintained it's relevant- just take a look at two recent "serious" science fiction films with the same theme: Arrival, starring Amy Adams, and Interstellar, with Matthew McConaughey.   Both films echo important parts of Contact so concretely that it almost seems like an "inspired by" would be required for both films.

   At the same time, it's not exactly a book that people really read anymore.  The Jody Foster starring film version in the 1990's gave it a bump, but as of 2017 Contact, with it's Cold War milieu and pre-Internet technology, seems more like alternate history a la Man in the High Castle than science fiction.

   For those unfamiliar with the basic premise, the Jody Foster character is an astronomer working on the SETI (Search for extraterrestrial intelligence) project when a message is detected.  Much of the novel involves decoding the message, followed by the construction of a machine specified by the decoded message.  As the title promises, Contact ensues, though it is the kind of anti-climax that one might expect from the real world, not science fiction.

   Like many notable science fiction authors, Sagan is no prose stylist. Even judge by those standards, the resulting pages, especially the exposition heavy conversational dialog.  Sagan's obsession with the relationship between science and religion is understandable, but it doesn't make for compelling fiction, in my opinion.   I suppose you could argue that Sagan earns his place by authoring the first "Hard" Science Fiction, a genre which has increasingly led the charge for genre fiction to be taken seriously as literature, or at least as a major inspiration for scientific and popular culture. 

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985) by Jeanette Winterson

Book Review
Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (1985)
 by Jeanette Winterson

  "Flannery O'Connor if she was a Evangelical Pentecostal from the English Midlands;" is as apt a description as I can imagine for Jeanette Winterson's lesbian coming-of-age novel.  The comparison doesn't track all the way to the station: O'Connor didn't write about herself, and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is about as thinly veiled fiction as I can imagine,  Winterson was actually raised by Evangelical Pentecostal's in the English Midlands (she was adopted.)

  Her coming of age novel has a mix of familiar LGBTQ tropes (now, not in 1985) and outre behavior from Winterson's adoptive Mother, a highly religious woman equally devoted to judging others and her adoptive daughter.  Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit eschews explicit sex, and doesn't contain anything beyond explicit descriptions of hell-fire to trouble sensitive souls.

  Alas, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was a victim of the initial 2008 revision of the 1001 Books list, making Winterson not just a one hit wonder, but also a one and done, for the purposes of the 1001 Books project.

Friday, March 17, 2017

A Maggot (1985) by John Fowles

Book Review
A Maggot (1985)
by John Fowles

 John Fowles really ticks all the boxes of  post modern fiction with broad commercial appeal.  In A Maggot, he brings his bag of post-modernist tricks and applies them to a faux-historical tale, set in the 18th century.  A Maggot pieces together the circumstances behind a mysterious hanging of a servant in remote Western England (near the Welsh border.)  Fowles explicitly places the events in the 18th century, going so far to include faux news broadsheets in between chapters.   The novel itself largely consists of "legal documents" drawn up during the investigation of the mysterious death that opens the novel.  Of course, this is a method of constructing a novel that did not exist in the 19th century, let alone the 18th century, and any versed reader will immediately recognize the "18th century" sounding dialogue as being closer to what you would find in a 19th century novel.  A casual reader, unfamiliar with the difference between 18th and 19th century in English literature, would of course not notice the difference.

   Without dispensing spoilers, Fowles include plot details which span 18th century gothic fiction, 19th century "supernatural" fiction a la Wilkie Collins and Edgar Allan Poe, and 20th century speculative fiction.  This material is integrated with the aggregated legal documents so that the reader is left to speculate or look up on Wikipedia what actually happens.

  I was dismissive of the challenge that A Maggot presents to a casual reader (as one might reasonably expect to be when reading a John Fowles novel), but the combination of the pieced together, pastiche narrative technique and a layer of symbolic as well as a meta-symbolic level of narrative proved confusing when I tried to read A Maggot during the opening nights of March Madness.   I can't get into what about A Maggot I actually fully missed while reading it without spoiling major plot developments, but it's significant to understanding both the symbolic and meta-symbolic interpretations.

  Do I give a shit that I missed something in a John Fowles novel? No. John Fowles is, above all, a fun author, easy to read.  Maybe complicated to fully understand because of all the meta-fictional asshattery, but easy to read.  A Maggot is NOT easy to read, even if you are comfortable with 18th and 19th century fiction.   You could call it tedious.  There can be not surprise that A Maggot was one of two (out of four) titles dropped in the first revision of the 1001 Books list.  You could make the argument that he only deserves one: The French Lieutenant's Woman or The Magus, pick one.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Cider House Rules (1985) by John Irving

Naked Charlize Theron playing Candy in the movie version of The Cider House Rules
Book Review
The Cider House Rules (1985)
 by John Irving

   Reading John Irving is fine enough, but like his mentor Kurt Vonnegut, I don't trust him- his sentiment or his prose.  I'm sure his presence in the 1001 Books list stems from his ability to achieved critical and popular success while grappling with the sort of tough themes that are often absent from popular fiction, but in the end, it all seems too calculated and upbeat to really ascend to the upper echelons of the literary canon.

  Case in point is The Cider House Rules, a well received best-seller, adapted by the author himself into a big budget Miramax production (starring Tobey Maguire at his hottest, a young Charlize Theron and Paul Rudd, of all people.)  The film itself was successful, nominated for seven Oscars in 1999 and winning two (best adapted screenplay, best supporting actor Michael Caine.)  I'm not saying that middle-brow fiction can't also be high art, but I am saying that John Irving, serious themes aside, is inescapably middle brow, and that his books aren't first-rate works of literature.

  To take one example, there is the incest sub-plot of The Cider House Rules, which comes as part of the otherwise strong third act.  The victim is the African-American daughter of the African-American foreman of an apple picking crew that handles work at the Apple farm where most of the action takes place.   It bother me that Irving, writing in 1985, thought it was cool to use African American character to enact an incest driven plot point in a book set almost entirely in rural Maine.  Is that John Irving's story to tell?  No it is not.  He doesn't do a good job telling it, and it ends up making his African American characters seem less human.

  The same could be said for many of Vonnegut's characters, that they are simply transparent vehicles for the author's high-falutin' ideas about humanity.  And I suppose you could make the same claim for every successful author, but not really, since so often what we respond to in fiction are finely drawn characters who draw us into their world.  The Cider House Rules is about abortion as much as it is about anything, so get ready of 560 pages of opinions about abortion from an old white guy.  That he is sympathetic does little to disguise what to me read as really tone-deaf takes on the abortion experience.

Old Masters (1985) by Thomas Bernhard

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White Bearded Man, by Jacobo Tinoretto, from the  Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna

Book Review
Old Masters (1985)
 by Thomas Bernhard

   After reading one book by Thomas Bernhard, you largely know what to expect from the others:  A narrator who 1) hates and misunderstands humanity 2) is obsessed with some sort of intellectual pursuit with no real world value 3) hates Austria and Austrian culture.   So obsessed, misanthropic characters are Bernhard's stock in trade, and it is no wonder that he has managed to establish an international reputation, because, really, he's talking about serious readers.

  Authors and novels which obliquely (or overtly) critique the culture of seirous readers are to the novel what knowing books about the movie industry are to Hollywood: popular enough with intensive consumers of the resulting cultural product to establish a distinct creative space, but not something that extends out into the wider world of the general, popular, audience.   Put another way, Bernhard might be described as an "authors author."   I think his nearest American analog would be Nicholson Baker but there is no doubt that the intensity of his hatred for modern life marks him apart, and that extremity is, again, probably why he has successfully found an international audience for his German language fiction.

  Old Masters concerns two old men, Atzbacher and Reger, who have spent five hours, every other day for 30 years (Reger has, anyway) sitting in front of White Bearded Man, a painting by Italian artist Jacobo Tinoretto that is displayed in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.   Atzbacher narrates Old Masters, which largely consists of Atzbacher remembering important events from Reger's life, notably the death of his wife.  Interspersed with those musings are lengthy fulminations against "the modern state"  and the "state sponsored artist." Both elements are well developed, as you would expect from Bernhard, but I found his material about the role of the state and the state-artist to be particularly clever.  It's not a foreign subject for him.  For example, Wittgenstein's Nephew considers a lengthy chapter involving the Bernhard/narrator figure disastrously receiving a state sponsored artistic prize, insulting the audience in his acceptance speech and causing the austrian arts minister to go storming out of the building.

Monday, March 13, 2017

LaBrava (1983) by Elmore Leonard

Book Review
LaBrava (1983)
 by Elmore Leonard

  Is Elmore Leonard genre fiction or literature: discuss.  On the one hand, Leonard was published in a manner consistent with the conventions of genre fiction: gaudy neon cover paperback books with his name splashed above the title, high budget Hollywood adaptations starring John Travolta.   On the other hand, he only died in 2013, and any author with a huge popular audience and debatable literary merit is going to have to wait until after death to obtain a fear hearing by critical audiences   Leonard is distinguishable from other genre writers in that he does possess a serious literary following, and that it is at least a 50/50 bet that anyone who considers the question closely is likly to agree, in 2017, that Elmore Leonard is the canonical writer of detective fiction in the US during the period when he was writing.

  If you are someone seriously considering Elmore Leonard as a canonical writer, it's worth taking a look at his work in the form of a Google timeline (if you search his name in Google and then arrange his works in chronological order, you will see what I'm talking about.)  He started out as a writer of Western Fiction- including the recently filmed version of 3:10 To Yuma.  

 Then he went into his first canonical period, when he was writing Detroit area Police procedural/Detective Fiction. This period is represented in the 1001 Books list by City Primeval (1980).  Leonard's fiction followed his own travels, and LaBrava represents the start of his second period- which is more thematically sophisticated.  Leonard never abandoned Detroit- you can consider the 1999 novel Out of Sight, which was made into a well received film by Steven Soderbergh.

  I would argue that Leonard's canonical status ultimately rests on his merit as a "Florida" author, and that Florida is a culture that deserves the most sophisticated level of literary treatment.  Elmore Leonard's Florida noir isn't quite that- he never was seriously considered for major literary prizes during his lifetime, which complicates any posthumous rehabilitation.  I mean, Leonard got a "career achievment" award from the National Book Award a year before he died.  

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (1985) by Patrick Susskind

Book Review
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (1985)
 by Patrick Susskind

       Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is what you call an international hit, written in German, set in 18th century France with an entirely French speaking cast of characters, and made into a feature film by Dreamworks, directed by Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run).  Unfortunately, the last and most important piece of that combination- the film by Dreamworks, was a huge bomb, and so Perfume: The Story of a Murderer has been denied the kind of eternal after life claimed by books made into hit films like the English Patient or Remains of the Day.

    Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is a foundling, abandoned in 18th century Paris by a mother who is quickly executed for the infanticide of Jean's older siblings.  He is raised in a tannery, where he survives against all odds and comes into possession of his greatest gift, a preternatural sense of smell.  He escapes the tannery for an apprenticeship with a declining Parisian Perfumery, and the story really takes off from there.  Oh- and also- Grenouille is also a murderer, fond of strangling nubile red heads.

  You can't be accused of revealing that fact- since the novel does in the subtitle. The story is compelling enough, with a twist at the end, but the real attractions are the portions describing the 18th century perfume industry in France.  Personally, I found this description more compelling than the story of Juan-Baptiste Grenouille, who, after all, is a murderer, and hardly a wit besides that.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Wittgenstein's Nephew (1988) by Thomas Bernhard

Book Review
Wittgenstein's Nephew (1988) 
by Thomas Bernhard

   German author Thomas Bernhard isn't a household name in America, but the editors of the 1001 Books list sure were big fans- five titles on the first edition, trimmed to three in the next.  Wittgenstein's Nephew is one of the three keepers, probably because it's the only Bernhard novel where he displays anything like recognizable human emotion.

  Like his other books, Wittgenstein's Nephew is a novella, not a novel- barely a hundred pages long.  It tells the story of Bernhard himself, and his friendship with Paul Wittgenstein, nephew of the philosopher, both descended from the same Viennese industrialist family.  Bernhard and Wittgenstein because both endure lengthy hospitalizations, Bernhard for a lung condition, and Wittgenstein for his madness.  A major theme in Wittgenstein's Nephew is Bernhard's contention that Paul Wittgenstein's madness has a genius/artistic quality that elevates him among his wealthy kin. His book charts Wittgenstein's decline as he gives away his fortune and then faces repeated commitments for his outrageous public behavior. 

  Of course, Bernhard is a trenchant critic of bourgeois society, and his exaltation of Paul Wittgenstein is also his contempt for respectable Austrian society.

Monday, March 06, 2017

The Crying of Lot 49 (1965) by Thomas Pynchon

Image result for the crying of lot 49
The muted trumpet symbol from The Crying of Lot 49 is a recognizable calling card for Pynchon fans and their progeny.
Book Review
The Crying of Lot 49 (1965)
 by Thomas Pynchon

  The Crying of Lot 49 is usually the only Thomas Pynchon book that a college undergraduate is likely to come across during survey level literature classes.  That is because, unlike all other of Pynchon's books, it is brief- a novella, not a novel.  It's not exactly a puzzling or unjustified selection, but it seems strange to include Pynchon's second published work when his first book, V, published in 1963, is pretty much a sprawling masterpiece.   Perhaps the choice is a nod to the truth that no normal reader is going to read anything Pynchon wrote except The Crying of Lot 49.

  The Crying of Lot 49 is often described as an early post-modern masterpiece AND a knowing parody of post-modernism, and both descriptions reflect that is hard to say, what, exactly, is going on in The Crying of Lot 49- both on the surface and underneath.  On the surface, The Crying of Lot 49 is the story of Oedipus Maas, who is appointed executor of her mysterious ex-boy friend's sprawling estate.  The estate includes an enormous stamp collection which features the only known evidence of two ultra secret private postal services that flourished in the early modern period.   Maas travels a very recognizable early 1960's California, encountering Beatles-style rock bands and Kesey style new-age gurus.

  Pynchon's accurate characterization of the psychedelic 1960's as it was happening is the most astonishing part of The Crying of Lot 49.  It's hard to believe that it was written in 1965, rather than 1985.  

Dictionary of the Khazars (1984) by Milorad Pavić

Book Review
Dictionary of the Khazars (1984)
 by  Milorad Pavić

  Producing a novel by blending source materials which combine facts with fiction to create a fictitious narrative of real history has become a well-established rode to both critical and popular success.   Most recently, this vibrant genre has been highlighted by English author Hilary Mantel, who became the first woman to win the Booker Prize twice, both for works which fit within this description. Dictionary of the Khazars was an early success in this area, the work of Serbian author and Nobel Prize for Literature-also ran Milorad Pavic.   His success with Dictionary of the Khazars is attributable both to the book itself and for the market in fiction translated into English.  The development of popular and critical audience for fiction translated into English is as old as those audiences themselves, but certainly the sprawling international publishing industry of the 1980's and 1990's, together with similarly international film studios, elevated the area of translated fiction from a backwater to a major player at the intersection of popular and serious fiction.

 Dictionary of the Khazars revolves around the historical but poorly understood Khazar polity of the early middle ages.  Located on the plains north of the Black Sea, their leader famously converted to Judaism for reasons which remain obscure.   Dictionary of the Khazars takes the form of three overlapping but conflicting encyclopedias referencing the (fictional) historical event of the Khazar Polemics, where a Christian, Muslim and Jewish wise man debated the interpreted a dream for the leader of the Khazars. with the winner being allowed to convert the entire Khazar people.

  Not surprisingly, the three different encyclopedia's differ substantially, beginning with each claiming victory for their particularly faith and obscuring the existence of the other participants in the Khazar polemic.  Certain figures, notably the Princess Ateh, recur, others are specific to one of the three books.  Pavic provides academic annotation in the true style of high post-modernism, to the point where historically attested "fact" are interchangeable with authorial created fiction.

  Certain descriptions extend into the procedurally generated fantastic realism of Italo Calvino.  Particularly, some of the broader descriptions of "Khazar" society echo certain portions of Calvino's Invisible Cities (1972).

Sunday, March 05, 2017

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1984) by Jose Saramago

Book Review
The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1984)
 by Jose Saramago

  Like many other non-English language authors in the 1001 Books list, Saramago really nailed down his English language audience with a Nobel Prize for Literature win, in 1998.   Before then he was obviously highly regarded, but not an instant success- The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis wasn't published in English translation until 1991.   I've read that Saramago is often grouped as a magical realist, but The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is heavy on the realism and contains no magic whatsoever.  Rather, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is about the man in the title, a Brazilian doctor of Portuguese citizenship, who returns home to Lisbon, 16 years after his departure, with Europe on the cusp of World War II.

  Portugal at the time had already established it's own authoritarian government, headed by Antonio Salazar.  Salazar was pro-Franco, even before Franco existed, and he was able to keep Portugal neutral during the Second World War.  Ricardo Reis does very little during the year of his death.  He seduces a char woman and woos a young woman from an upper class family.  He takes long walks, fills in for another doctor who is sick, and reads the newspaper, from which he learns of the events sending Europe spiraling towards the Second World War.   The only "action" in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is a scene where he is gently interrogated by the Portuguese police.   Also, he knocks up the charwoman, but that is about it.

  My favorite portions of this book were Saramago's description of the char woman cleaning Reis' apartment and then falling into his arms for bouts of passionate love making, a circumstance which reminded me of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry starts sleeping with a woman he met while she was cleaning his apartment.

Hawksmoor (1985) by Peter Ackroyd

Book Review
Hawksmoor (1985)
by Peter Ackroyd

  Author Peter Ackroyd is the kind of writer who is so successful and prolific that one suspects him of having a staff of unrecognized assistants who crank the stuff out for him.  His fame doesn't quite span the Atlantic ocean.   I'm familiar with his non-fiction works about the city of London and the work of Charles Dickens, but I was surprised to learn that his output is nearly as prolific in the world of fiction.

  And, I'm not quite sure how to say this politely, but Ackroyd seems to turned into a bit of a hack in his old age.  Example:  Between 1999 and 2010, he published seven novels, all of which had titles which started with the word "The."  Perhaps that isn't conclusive proof that an author has become a hack, but I would say it does serve as a proper supporting exhibit to support that proposition.   Ackroyd, I would imagine, is a victim of success and his later day decline shouldn't obscure what got him to the top in the first place: Several excellent works of non-fiction about the area of London and it's inhabitants, and Hawksmoor, his excellent novel of "meta-historical" fiction about the construction of several 18th century churches and some modern murders which take place in those same churches.

  Ackroyd alternates his narration between that of 18th century architect Nicholas Dyer (also some sort of satanist) and several modern narrators, including the police detective, Nicholas Hawksmoor. It should go, almost without saying, that in any work of fiction by Ackroyd, London plays a starring role.   That is the case with Hawksmoor, where Ackroyd alternates his descriptions of the 18th century, post-fire London of Nicholas Dyer with modern London.

  The chapter narrated by 18th century architect-satanist Nicolas Dyer are written in the style of 18th century fiction, with unfamiliar diction and capitalization.  The spelling and orthography are standardized, but even if you are familiar with the style of 18th century prose fiction, Dyer is likely to keep you gasping for air. 

Friday, March 03, 2017

Blood and Guts in High School (1984) by Kathy Acker

Image result for kathy acker
Author Kathy Acker
Book Review
Blood and Guts in High School (1984)
by Kathy Acker

   Kathy Acker was a Post Modern (capital P capital M) author and performance artist, closely affiliated with the literary scene surrounding the punk movement in 1970's and 1980's New York.  Her works are heavily influenced by the experimental writing techniques of William Burroughs, and her themes reflect feminist, gender theory and queer theory of the 1960's and 70's.  If you went to an American university in the 1990's, you probably ran across her books in one form another.  Since then, I'm not sure what's happened to her relevance, but her pastiche/cut up/punk aesthetic and post-2nd wave feminist queer politics seem particularly apropos for what you might call the "Tumblr Aesthetic."

  Blood and Guts in High School is her break-through work, probably because it actually resembles a novel in form, even with her lengthy digressions in the form of line drawings and sourced materials.  Her heroine, Janey Smith is a ten year old nymphomaniac and long-time sufferer of vaginal health issues that hardly inhibit her precocious sexual activity.

  It's hard to know what to make of Blood and Guts in High School.  I chose to read it as a parody of a 18th or 19th century bildungsroman/coming of age novel that was particularly concerned with the sexual exploitation of young woman in contemporary society.  However, that reading requires that we credit Acker with some kind of humorous intent in her writing, and considering the horrific travails of Smith as an incest victim and teenager forced into prostitution (by a "Persian slave trader," no less.) it seems inappropriate to call Blood and Guts in High School either intentionally OR unintentionally funny.  It is shocking, still.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Clearing Warrants in Southern California

   I just put up this new web page for clearing warrants in Southern California: CLEAR SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA WARRANTS.

  I've noticed there is a need for this service all over Southern California, because our Court system generates many different warrants, and they pop up on back ground checks, they interfere with obtaining a driver's license, and of course, they can cause you to get arrested in an otherwise non-arrest-able situation like a traffic stop.  The situation is especially perilous for those who are not in the country legally, they risk falling into the hands of Federal officials.

   The first question that people ask is, "Do I have a warrant?"  The answer to this question is often available from the facts that people possess when they call me for the first time.  There are three major categories of warrants.  The first is the "bench" warrant, typically issued in traffic and misdemeanor cases, most often because the individual charged with the traffic infraction or misdemeanor does not appear for a scheduled court appearance.    The second is the arrest warrant.  Most people think all warrants are arrest warrants, but this is not true.  Bench warrants are a lower priority for law enforcement and do not result in an arrest if you come into contact with a police officer.

   Arrest warrants are issued in felony cases or if someone misses a court appearance or for a misdemeanor after the case has started.  Thus, if you know of a scheduled court appearance, and know that the person involved didn't make that court appearance, it is highly likely that a warrant has been issued, either bench or arrest. The exceptions are when the case itself is filed.  For example, if you are arrested for driving under the influence, and it turns out that your blood alcohol level was under .08, you likely won't be charged, and so if you don't show up, and the case isn't issued, no warrant is issued.

  95% of the time, any confusion can be resolved by figuring out whether the underlying case that resulted in the missed court appearance was actually filed.  In traffic cases, tickets always result in the case being filed (an infraction, usually), in misdemeanors the likelihood varies by type of crime and jurisdiction.  Felonies are filed some of the time after arrest, but not always.  If a court date has been missed, the easiest way to verify the existence of a case is to find the appropriate county court website and search their party case index.  This typically works for felony and misdemeanor cases, but may or may not work for traffic cases.

 If you have determined that a warrant exists, you can clear it by either appearing at the appropriate court house yourself, or you can hire a lawyer to do it for you.  For traffic infractions and misdemeanors, a lawyer can appear for you, but for felonies you need to go- preferably in the company of a lawyer.

 When people call me about traffic warrants, I typically recommend they handle it themselves (unless they are out of the area.)   Misdemeanors can also be handled by the person with the warrant, but a lawyer is a better value for these cases, since they can require several court appearances.  Trying to appear on a Felony warrant by yourself will clear the warrant, but often results in the arrest of the person appearing.  A lawyer may be able to help you avoid being arrested for a felony warrant, but typically the person will need to post bail, on top of what they pay their lawyer.

  Unfortunately, warrants do not go away, so the only option is to deal with it, or to have the warrant remain outstanding forever.

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