Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Wise Children (1991) by Angela Carter

The complicated family tree from Wise Children by Angela Carter

Book Review
Wise Children (1991)
by Angela Carter

 Angela Carter died of cancer shortly after Wise Children was published.  It was an early death, she was only 51.  We don't know what else she would have written, but fair to say that it was a premature loss.  Carter was not only a novelist, she wrote poetry, short fiction, translated works from French and a wide variety of anthologized non-fiction.

   Her novels are therefore only one aspect of her contribution to the republic of letters, but I'm sure it's fair to say she has a higher profile in England then she does over here.  Like Nights at the Circus, her 1984 publication that ranks as her top book, Wise Children features non-conventional families immersed in the world of early 20th century musical theater and vaudeville.  Unlike Nights at the Circus, Wise Children is firmly rooted in the real, and abandons the flights into surrealism and magical realism which characterized Nights at the Circus.

  Wise Children largely consists of the reminiscences Dora and Nora Chance, the illegitimate twin daughters of theater impresario Melchior Hazard.  Set in an unspecified "present," much of Wise Children takes place in flashback form, as Dora and Nora go through all the different permutations suggested by the flow chart above.

Gravity's Rainbow (1973) by Thomas Pynchon



Gravity's Rainbow
by Thomas Pynchon


  I would argue that Gravity's Rainbow is the second best novel of the 20th century (Ulysses by James Joyce).   No author has more directly influenced by cultural development than Pynchon, from roughly college, when I read Gravity's Rainbow for the first time, to today.  The reading I did for this post was, I think, the third time I've read Gravity's Rainbow, but it was the first time I bought a "reading copy" and sat there with a pen in hand, making notes page-by-page, so that I could delve deeper into the mysteries presented.

    What I was discovered was more linkages between Pynchon's books, details of the intricacies of the plotting that had previously escaped my notice, and observations about Pynchon's influences.   Starting with the last first, I was very much struck by the similarities between large swathes of Gravity's Rainbow and the writing of William Burroughs circa Naked Lunch.   A critical character in Gravity's Rainbow is Doctor Weissman/Captain Blicero, a German army officer with a fondness for BDSM and gay sex.  The chapters involving Blicero and his proclivities seem like they were almost imported from the Burroughsian fantasies of Naked Lunch.   These heavy s&m sequences, which I basically didn't even remember reading about the first two times through, are likely the reason that Pynchon hasn't won the Nobel Prize for Literature- too dirty for the Nobel committee!

  Blicero, as it turns out, spent his formative years in the German Southwest, where he served in the aftermath of the Herrero massacre- itself a reoccurring theme in the work of Thomas Pynchon.   It is in the character of Blicero-Weissman that Pynchon really connects the idea of the exercise of power upon the body to his shaggy-dog rocket man plot.   One aspect that becomes very clear is that for Thomas Pynchon, the idea of "plot" has a double meaning- the first is the typically literary meaning, the plot of the novel.  It is the second aspect- that Gravity' Rainbow works out if you look at it in the sense of an x/y axis, where one plots points of data onto a map or graph.

   This theme is woven throughout many of the sub-plots of Gravity's Rainbow, and embodied by the closest thing this book has to a central character, Tyrone Slothrop, who has an uncanny ability to predict an imminent rocket attack via an erection.   The unraveling of this atttribute- with Slothrop seeking his own answers and a variety of world power trailing in his wake,  is the main plot point, and the easiest way to describe the plot of Gravity's Rainbow.  The title itself actually refers to the geometric space under the parabola of a rocket's trajectory, if I have that right- Gravity's Rainbow literally refers to the space one would describe under the arc of a rainbow.  Thus, geometry, and geometric space, the plotting of points on an x and y axis, and the sciences they have been inspired seem to be THE central theme of this book.

  The linkages between books are obvious, with reoccurring, tailismanic characters and shared narratives- the German extinction of the Herrero people in German Southwest Africa in the early 20th century being central to any attempt at a pan-Pynchon narrative of 20th century history.  

   I could go on.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Possession (1990) by A.S. Byatt


Book Review
Possession (1990)
 by A.S. Byatt

  Possession is another excellent example of a book that made "historical metafiction" one of the hottest genres in literary fiction, a trend that continues today.  Historical metafiction can be viewed through a variety of lenses, but  I think the easiest perspective takes into account that practitioners of historical metafiction tend to be well versed in literary theory as well as literature itself, that, like all genres that combine sales with critical acclaim, it strikes a resonant chord with prospective readers.  A.S. Byatt meets all those criterion, and the forward to the Modern Library edition also makes it clear that she was directly inspired by the success of Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose.


  Clearly for me though, the element which elevates Possession beyond turgid high concept post modern historical fiction is the author's ability to describe action, albeit the kind of action that collectors and professor of literature get up to in 1990's England when a career making discovery is at hand. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

Canons (1984) Edited by Robert von Hallberg


Book Review 
Canons (1984) 
Edited by Robert von Hallberg

   A canon is a collection of works, typically art works, considered to be the best representatives of their form.  The 1001 Books project is a canonical attempt for the novel as an art form.  The major development in the discussion surrounding literary canons in the last generation has been an assault upon the "classical" canon as being too white, too male, too exclusive.   This is a discussion that began in the 1950's, but really took flight in the 1970's and 1980's, when professional canon-establishers (professors, critics and readers) began to elevate contemporary authors from previously excluded groups.   This was a logical response to the more critical approach of denying the possibility of any canon, or deriding the concept of canonization as somehow irrelevant for a modern, enlightened era.

  Canons, published in 1984, represents the state-of-the-art of academic literary critics towards the idea of canons.  This came after the revolt of the 1960's and 1970's, and the introductory essay, Contingencies of Value by University of Pennsylvania professor Barbara Herrnstein Smith does a great job of summarizing the status quo circa the early 1980's- a position that has not been materially altered by new criticism in the last 30 years.    Smith describes the progress of serious literary critics and their attitude towards the project of literary canonization.

  She begins with the (much derided) "magisterial mode of literary evaluation," which is typically associated with the 19th century, and forms the "before" of canon formation. In the mid part of the twentieth century, the magisterial approach was attacked by critics, influenced by developments in philosophy and linguistics, which questions whether the type of critical project represented by the "magisterial mode" was even possible, let alone valid.  These critics ultimately foundered on the rocks of cultural relativism, and left people without a canon.  As Smith points out, this had the impact of keeping the existing canon in place.

  The "modern" period- which covers the early 1980's and beyond, acknowledges the validity of the concept of a canon, but vigorously contests the boundaries and representatives of canonical project.   That is where we are today, in 2017.   Canons are constructed by groups who are critical of the canonical project, but acknowledge it's importance, whether teachers who need to teach or critics who need topics to write about that people will read. 


Thursday, July 13, 2017

Get Shorty (1990) by Elmore Leonard


Book Review
Get Shorty (1990)
by Elmore Leonard

  Elmore Leonard is an interesting figure to use as a basis for discussing the yes or no canonical status of an author.  He clearly did not start out life as a canonical author- there was no burst of initial recognition and prize winning type plaudits.  Rather, he labored for years an average type genre writer- starting with Westerns, and graduating to Detective fiction.  He wasn't a stranger to Hollywood, either, with something like 10 movie versions of his books being released before the movie version of this book, Get Shorty, was released in 1995.   That was followed by well received versions of Jackie Brown (based on Rum Punch) and Out of Sight in 1997 and 1998.   In 2017, Leonard is firmly in canonical territory, with three separate Library of America compilations "Four Elmore Leonard Novels of the 1970's" etc.

  I think Leonard's canonical place was secured by those three films- the first of which was a commercial hit, and the last two were critical hits, with some commercial success, by notable directors.  I would argue that it is this book- Get Shorty, where Leonard delivers the blend of action, humor and philosophy that constitutes "classic" Elmore Leonard.  The humor and philosophy came later to his work- early books like City Primeval are short on anything except tough talk and hard living.

   The idea of doing a noir/detective novel about Hollywood was hardly original- by 1990 people were literally writing books about "Hollywood Noir," but the ability to blend humor into the mix clearly set  Leonard apart then, and continues to do so today.  Get Shorty the book (unlike the film) holds up 25 years later.

Vertigo (1990) WG Sebald


Book Review
Vertigo (1990)
 WG Sebald

   Vertigo is that rarest of entities: A book that is both experimental and commercial, and one that achieve both goals while being translated from a different language (German to English).  Still, it's hard to even describe Vertigo let alone summarize the plot, which may not exist.

  Vertigo is comprised of four stories connected... not at all? About different literary figures, one section concerns Stendahl, another Kafka.  The figures aren't named directly- Kafka is Dr. K, so it is left to the reader to figure it out.  The same could be said for the whole book.

The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) by Hanif Kureishi


Book Review
The Buddha of Suburbia  (1990)
 by  Hanif Kureishi


   The Buddha of Suburbia is another example of the way familiar literary themes can be invigorated by the introduction of novel perspectives.  Here, the novel perspective is that of a mixed-race Indian/English narrator, a stand in for the author,  growing up in and around central London in the 1970's and 1980's.  The Buddha of Suburbia is not the narrator, but rather his India immigrant father, who augments his office work  with a mid-life crisis that involves him leaving his wife and the narrator's mother for a different English woman.

    Karim, narrator and protagonist, is a bright, vibrant fellow, not gay but certainly bi-sexual, who decides to make his way as an actor.  He has amusing adventures along the way.  Like many characters coming of age in contemporary fiction, the growth process can look suspiciously like non-growth, or arrested development, but it is impossible to pin that on Kureishi, who does a good job blending style and really gives insight into the mentality of a second generation London area immigrant.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

At Home at the End of the World (1990) by Michael Cunningham


Book Review
At Home at the End of the World (1990)
 by Michael Cunningham


   At Home at the End of the World is a combination of a gay coming-of-age book and a contemporary relationship novel.  Each chapter is voiced in the first person by a different narrator.  The narrator rotates between the three main characters: Bobby, Jonathan and Clare with occasional appearances from Jonathan's mom.  The main childhood friendship is between Jonathan- essentially the main character and author stand in, Bobby- his straight friend, and Clare, who is the type of woman one might call a "fag hag" - in a non pejorative sense, of course.  

   Although these characters are 20 or so years older than I am, I recognized all of them, from the parents on down, as being accurate portrayals of urbanites in the late 1980's.   Unlike other gay-friendly lit titles from this time period, At Home at the End of the World explicitly deals with the AIDS crisis through the travails of a minor character who none the less features prominently in the unexpected resolution of the book.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Music of Chance (1990) by Paul Auster


Book Review
The Music of Chance (1990)
by Paul Auster

  Paul Auster is balls deep on the first edition of the 1001 Books list.  I was thinking about Auster while recently reading a book about the formation and maintenance of canons (called Canons), published around the same time as this novel.  The trend, in those days, was to oppose canons and critique the process of canon formation, often in the key of "dead, white men."  Ultimately, this critique foundered on the realities of institutional pedagogy: One has to teach something in freshman English, but it is this time period which gives us the concepts and vocabulary to accurately describe the canon forming process in the same way that I am attempting to describe it via the 1001 Books project.

  Most of the disparate essays in Canons deal with 19th century poetry, but one interesting essay on canon formation for American fiction between 1960 and 1975 makes some interesting empirical observations about what is essentially the current canon forming process.  The author's hypothesis is that the best place to start is the best seller list, and that you then overlay the best seller list with critical response- he doesn't differentiate between critical response before best seller status.

  If you want to apply this quick and dirty method to say, the current New York Times Hardcover Fiction Bestseller list, you see quick results.  Of the 15 titles on this list, nearly half are automatically disqualified because the best-selling author has no critical audience.  These are titles by: David Baldacci, Nora Roberts, Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy, Janet Evanovich, Dean Koontz and John Grisham.   To the extent that any of these writers are likely to sneak onto any literary canon, it will be with a single, early novel.   Almost every other author on the New York Times Hardcover Top 15 Bestseller list can be excluded with a single Google Search:  Elin Hilderbrand (writer of summer beach read novels according to her wikipedia page), Paula Hawkins (thrillers), Adriana Trigiani (YA fiction), Don Winslow (Police procedurals), Lee Child (Jack Reacher books).

  This leaves us with two possibilities:

1.  The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
2.  Beach House for Rent by Mary Alice Monroe

  Since the list is rolling, you have to imagine doing this  maybe 30-40 times over the course of a year, and then toting up points at the end, that would give you your best canonical candidates for fiction.   Looking at these two, Arundhati Roy, who ticks all the serious lit boxes AND doesn't write fiction very often, seems like the obvious choice.   If you were looking for one book to maintain literary relevance over the summer, it would be the Roy novel, and if you were going to bet on one book from this time period, it would be that one.

  Which all goes to say that the inclusion of so many Paul Auster titles on the first 1001 Books list represents another manifestation of this best seller/critical appeal overlay.  Auster sells books and he appeals to critics, this makes each of his books, even the non best-selling titles, candidates for canonical inclusion.  He, like other artists writing in the "present" benefit from the easy access to pre-canonical "best of" lists, typically organized by year.

  The Music of Chance is an interesting novel, like other of his books it blends dark action and European style philosophical musings, with a firm understanding of the role of genre in serious fiction.  His books are recognizable but slightly askew, they go down easy, but stay with you over time.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Things They Carried (1990) by Tim O'Brien


Book Review
The Things They Carried (1990)
 by Tim O'Brien

  The Things They Carried is like the real-life version of the fictional Vietname memoir/work of fiction that forms the basis of the film Tropic Thunder.  That fictional book was also called Tropic Thunder.  The Things They Carried is named after one of the interlinked short stroies about the author's experience fighting in Vietnam- the story describes the items carried by the soldiers during the tour of duty in Vietnam.  Poetic, it is not.  Lyrical, perhaps- but not poetic. Readers looking for cutting edge prose technique are likely to be disappointed. Instead, you get literal stories about phrases non-combatants may have thought to be metaphorical.

  One story concerns the platoon taking mortar fire in a literal shit field- so called because local villagers used it for the deposit of their feces over a lengthy period of time.   I would say that much of The Things They Carried is cliche, but of course, that is only because lesser lights have so often covered the same ground, particularly Hollywood, which had codified the Vietnam experience with it's code of mud, blood and incomprehensible combat objective.  All that is here in purest form, making it a must for Vietnam war buffs and fans of combat literature.

Arroyo Seco Weekend: Day 1


Show Review
Arroyo Seco Weekend: Day 1
Gold Course next to the Rose Bowl, Pasadena, CA.


  Yesterday I went to Day 1 of the new Arroyo Seco Weekend, a new festival- pitched somewhere in the Venn Diagram between Desert Trip, Coachella, Stage Coach and a food and drink fair.  Arroyo Seco Weekend raises the question, "Have we reached the point of a post-music music festival?"  The answer I think, for now, is no, but Arroyo Seco Weekend has raised the issue for resolution at a later date.

    The first argument AGAINST Arroyo Seco Weekend being the first example of a post-music music festival was the obvious monster draw of the night one headliner: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.  Like, I suppose, every human being living in the United States between the late 1970's and today, I like me some Tom Petty radio hits.  Not so much into the deep cuts, but man oh man his hits, and I've never been to one of his infrequent tour dates (Petty's Tour Archives on his website look like the IMDB page of Daniel Day Lewis:  2008. 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014...)  So while I wouldn't say I exactly jumped at the opportunity to attend, I wasn't hard to convince.   Mostly, my reluctance had to do with the location.  The only Rose Bowl area event I've been to was an exhibition match between Manchester United and the LA Galaxy. That event drew something like 80,000 people, whereas I was told that the capacity for Arroyo Seco Weekend was 25,000.

   As it turns out, logistical concerns were unwarranted.  I arrived late in the day, parked with ease, and walked 10 minutes down, essentially, the length of a golf course.  No line at the front entrance.  The interior layout was scaled down festival- closer to a Renaissance Fair size then Coachella.  Three stage- two major stages and one smaller tent. A huge difference maker between this and other Goldenvoice festivals was the amount and variety of food options.  It was entirely possible to just eat and drink something different every forty five minutes for the entire time you were there, albeit one had to be able to wait in lines between stops.

  The crowd was old to very old- the only demographic keeping the crowd from simply being "very old" was the number of young children- down to babies in strollers, there with parents. Long before Tom Petty took the stage, it was clear, to me, that Goldenvoice is on to something hugely lucrative, and it perhaps a formula that Live Nation, their major rival, simply will not be able to match.  It's hard to imagine the corporate, oxen-like Live Nation being nimble enough to pull off an analogous festival.

  Certianly, it would be fair to say that Arroyo Seco Weekend is pitched towards an older, "bougey" crowd, but it's not fair to say that it is anymore expensive than Coachella.  There was a clear absence of the elements that make Coachella today an exasperating experience for anyone above the age of 25: No EDM, no hip hop and no artist edgier than Broken Social Scene.   There was a heavy jazz/soul/funk vibe, with a noted New Orleans flavor (Preservation Hall Jazz Band and The Meters were two featured artists.

  If anything, I was surprised at just how democratic Arroyo Seco Weekend turned out to be- I was expecting tiers and tiers of access, exclusive seated dining experiences,etc.  Instead, VIP was just a roped off area at the side of the two main stages, a la Coachella in it's earliest days.  The Artist Access area was located on the Third Floor of the Donahue Pavilion in the Rose Bowl.   That was a needed oasis- as it moved toward Tom Petty's set time, the crowd around the main stage was close to unbearable.  A notable visual from this time period was people trying to fill up their inflatable sofa's by whipping them in crowded areas.

  Can I be the first to recommend Margo Price for Arroyo Seco Weekend next year?  I think she'd be a great fit!

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Trick is to Keep Breathing (1989) by Janice Galloway


Book Review
The Trick is to Keep Breathing  (1989)
by Janice Galloway

   Another sad book about sad 1980's Scotland, this one written by a woman instead of a man.  Joy Stone is the narrator and main character- she teaches drama, she's a "drunkorexic" though she is also depressed, and she spends basically the entire book being sad and bemoaning her fate.

  And although I see that sad white women need their own voice in literature, I also find these type of books pretty tedious.  I've known plenty of sad white women- rich, poor- young, old- my whole life has been spent talking to sad white women bemoaning their fate.  While I am sympathetic to the various problems that women face- I'm more sympathetic to those faced by women of color and women in the global south than the problems of women in wealthy industrial countries who are basically sad about a bunch of stuff because life sucks.  I know life sucks. Everyone knows life sucks, that life isn't fair.


   I mean, get over it, or I guess, don't get over it. I'm saying that in the full flower of understanding of the struggle faced by women like Joy Stone and her progeny.  I'm sorry you are sad, I'm sorry you grapple with mental illness. It's terrible. Is it the only thing you are going to talk about for the rest of your entire life?


William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles (2000) by Catherine Mulholland


Book Review
William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles (2000)
by Catherine Mulholland

  There is a foundation myth of the growth of Los Angeles, familiar to a generation of Americans.  It is expressed in the film Chinatown, by Roman Polanski.  The most famous academic version of the myth is Cadillac Desert- read by almost every American studies undergraduate class in the US.  The myth, which is described in the foreword to her excellent history of her father, William Mulholland, the architect of modern Los Angeles, goes like this:

   Once upon a time Los Angeles was a small Mexican village, after the United States took over, it wasn't long before a vast conspiracy, consisting of both public and private interests, launched a plan to steal water from a bucolic farming community hundreds of miles away.  This theft, engineered in secret, destroyed that community and constitutes an original sin that forever taints modern Los Angeles.

  I'm as guilt as anyone when it comes to embracing what is essentially a false story.  I've got a shelf full of books like Cadillac Desert- seeking to expose the corruption at the heart of the Southern California dream.  Well, Catherine Mulholland, daughter of William and esteemed historian in her own right, is fed up with that bullshit, and her book, William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles serves as a counter-point to the more established, critical view point.

  I wouldn't say that she wrote this book to settle scores, but she does settle some scores while also writing a dense, well written, well researched, well cited book about the growth of Los Angeles.  First things first, William Mulholland started work in Los Angeles digging ditches for the pre-Anglo water department.  He moved up to work as a supervisor for one of the private water companies which preceded the (in)famous Department of Water and Power.  The early chapters shed little light on the meat of the book, but they are interesting if you live in the Silver Lake/Echo Park area.   Tracing out one of the maps in the early chapters, I actually found the original water pipes that served the Elysian Park Reservoir.

  The meat of Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles has to do with the oft recounted tale of the "theft" of the water supply of the Owens River Valley.  This act has been repeatedly portrayed as the theft of water from a group of innocent ranchers and farmers.  Some of the parts of this story turn out to have been true-  Mulholland did use a private citizen to acquire the rights in secret, then that citizen sold the water rights to Los Angeles.

  The representation that the Owens Valley aqueduct was simply to serve the land owned by wealthy Angelenos in the San Fernando valley is shown to be false.   Mulholland and Los Angeles were plotting to secure an enormous supply of water for the entire Los Angeles basin.  Wealthy Angelenos bought large ranches in the San Fernando valley because they were cheap, and available.  The two facts are not linked in time or motivation.  Those land owners did, in fact, benefit from the water supply, but then, so did every person in Los Angeles.

  Another assumed fact that is shown to be false is the idea that the Owens Valley actively resisted from the beginning of the plan to steal "their" water.  Mulholland demonstrates that the active period of resistance- with some physical sabotage- was not linked to the construction of the aqueduct, but rather to the period after, when there was a vociferous debate as to whether the power generating capacity of the new aqueduct would be controlled by private or public entities.   The acts of sabotage were supported by those who advocated for the private control of the power to be generated, financed by outside interests who weren't opposed to the aqueduct, but just to the public control of the resulting power generating capacity.

  The rise of Los Angeles wasn't the result of a criminal conspiracy, it was an obvious solution to a pressing problem, and it was executed with a style and aplomb that is rarely seen in public infrastructure projects.
  

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Moon Palace (1989) by Paul Auster


Book Review
Moon Palace (1989)
 by Paul Auster

  There is no denying that Paul Auster is still read, and that a generation of serious readers (in America, at least) have grown up with Auster's books readily available on the shelves of libraries and book stores everywhere.   Beginning with his existential detective trilogy, Auster seems dedicated to intertwining the tradition of the 20th century European philosophical novel (Novels where nothing much happens) with the active plot mechanic of a writer who is very aware of the "state of the art" of fiction writing.

  In short, he writes savvy, intellectual fiction with some commercial appeal.  His characters very much reflect the dramatic self obsession which has grown to define our American culture, and his presence in the fictional precincts of New York City ensure that even his most failed characters have an aspirational side for readers of contemporary literature.

  Moon Palace has an intricate plot for a 300 page long novel- the narrator, M. F. Fogg, is an orphan, raised by an uncle, an itinerant jazz musician.  He attends Columbia University and descends into a "I would prefer not to" style of genteel poverty.  He is rescued from his plight by Kitty Woo, a "manic pixie dream girl" from before that term was coined.   Perhaps the brilliance of Moon Palace is contained in the fact that this description of the first act of the book provides no clue to the second and final act.

  I'm not sure that Auster's book stand up to much discussion or description- the gossamer strands of his jewel box plotting means that even the barest description of events risks compromising the pleasures of the read.  Not all fiction is like this- you can describe a work of experimental fiction- like Ulysses by James Joyce, without changing the wondrous impact of the prose itself.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Amongst Women (1990) by John McGahern


Book Review
Amongst Women (1990)
 by John McGahern

  John McGahern is another excellent answer to the question, "Why bother with the 1001 Books list?"  There is not doubt that McGahern is an excellent novelist, with a compelling ear for dialogue and superb grasp of the mechanics of the "country novel."  That he could publish such a book in 1990 and have it considered a masterpiece is even more a testament to his skill, since the cool, quiet realism of country life in 20th century Ireland is far, far from the precincts of post-modernism and magical realism.

  Amongst Women is about Michael Moran, an IRA guerrilla turned farmer, living in the middle of the 20th century, out in the country, with his second wife and his children from his first marriage.  Moran and his family live quiet, respectable lives, but Moran also lives with a tightly suppressed anger that occasionally bursts forth in a manner that we today consider border-line domestic abuse.  In the context of the mid 20th century, Irish milleu, Moran is far from being a boundary breaker, and as the novel proceeds, McGahern softens Moran's character over time in a way that will ring familar to anyone with the experience of a stern patriarch.

  What could be a one dimensional tale about an abusive patriarch is instead something far subtler and richer. 

Sexing the Cherry (1989) by Jeanette Winterson


Book Review
Sexing the Cherry (1989)
by Jeanette Winterson

  Jeanette Winterson is both a post-modernist and a Feminist (capital F.)  Sexing the Cherry is her take on the "meta-historical" novel, though in her case it is more of meta-historical work of experimental fiction. Sexing the Cherry is the kind of novel where you feel compelled to say that the author "plays with" various ideas because it is not clear what he/she thinks about the characters, or what the characters think about themselves.

  The fantastical elements of Sexing the Cherry align closely with the "freaks and geeks" sub-genre of 20th century literature. The protagonist is the Dog Woman, a giant freak of hideous visage. Their travels take place across time and space, with no explanations of the how or why.

  

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Billy Bathgate (1989) by E.L. Doctorow

Image result for nicole kidman billy bathgate
Nude Nicole Kidman in the terrible failure movie version of Billy Bathgate, the 1989 novel written by E.L. Doctorow.
Book Review
Billy Bathgate (1989)
 by E.L. Doctorow

  When a good book begets a terrible movie, what influence does that bad film have on the reputation of the book?  Presumably, a terrible movie version will never help the long term reputation of the underlying book, it can only not impact the reputation of the book or negatively impact the reputation of the book.  Billy Bathgate, published in 1989, was out in theaters in November of 1991, where it was a HUGE HUGE bomb:  Budget: 48 million Box Office Revenue: 15 million.

   Huge bomb. If the file came out in November of 1991, and the book was published in 1989, the film rights had either been pre-sold or were sold immediately after it was published.  Billy Bathgate the book was a price winner, so it is fair to say that in November of 1991, it was still in paperback- in fact- it's safe to say that a "movie edition" of the paperback was in stores.  So the movie comes out, and it's terrible- that surely must hurt the reputation of the book- because the film is named the same as the book, and many people who never heard of the book now know ONLY that it is a terrible movie.

  Billy Bathgate is a fun, but by no means world-beating piece of historical fiction, about the titular character, who is a young boy coming of age in picturesque early twentieth century New York City.  It's often categorized as a "post modern historical novel" (by Wikipedia, no less.)  I have no idea why this book would be called post modern.  What Billy Bathgate is, is a historical novel, written in 1989, by an author with two decade long track record of matching critical with popular success.  Does that combination somehow render him post-modern?  Honestly, I asked google about it, but couldn't come up with an easy answer.

    

Thursday, June 08, 2017

A disaffection (1989) by James Kelman



A disaffection (1989)
by James Kelman


   It's almost like a joke to complain about the over-representation of sexless white males in the precincts of "serious" literature.  This book is one example.  A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, featuring a literal 40 year old virgin as a narrator, is another recent title which fits this description.   I'm not a reader obsessed or repressed with sexual matter, but it seems to me that these sexless, white-male narrators are the fore-runners of the "Beta Male."

   Scottish author James Kelman represents Glasgow on the world literary scene, and Glasgow stands for post-industrial urban decline (see the Glasgow Effect).  He write in Glaswegian brogue, not as hard to understand as the dialect of Irving Welch, but noticeable.  Patrick Doyle narrates A disaffection, he is a school teacher from a working class family, and the guy can not get laid.  CAN NOT get laid.  The book is about that problem, and Doyle's (sad) efforts to end it.

  Sad 40 year old virgin, that is A disaffection by James Kelman.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Like Life (1990) by Lorrie Moore


Book Review
Like Life (1990)
by Lorrie Moore

  It's the 90's, people!  I was born in 1976, and by 1990 I was starting high school and reading the kind of books you would expect a precocious teenager in the Bay Area to read:  Mostly the Beats, the French existentialists,  Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson and "new" journalism.  I read... the New Yorker, my parents had a subscription. I never read the fiction in the New Yorker- I still don't- I'm just not a huge short story guy (Like Life is a collection of short stories) and it appears that my sentiments were shared by the editors of the 1001 Books project.  Fewer than ten titles in the 1001 Books list to date have been short story collections.   Lorrie Moore may be it, now that I think about it.

  I think, personally, that people are going to be revisiting the time immediately before the digital/computer/cell phone revolution of the past decade.  In Like Life, Moore is writing about "now" (several of her stories appear to be set in the near future, where global warming and climate change lurk in the back ground.  But, I can already say that I am tired of sad white folks.  Whether they be English, American or Australian, Scottish, Irish, Canadian or South African.  Rich or poor, living now or in the past, I am tired of them and their problems.   Boo hoo, I say.

  In a sense, that is also my demographic, but it's like, I don't want to read endless fiction about sad yuppies (or sad working class) Americans living in LA or New York, or, as some of the characters in this book are, the Midwest.  In fact, I think Moore is here as a representative of fiction written by Midwestern authors, so in that sense, maybe she is someone I should be reading carefully.  Perhaps she is a muse of the Reagan Democrats and Trump voters of Wisconsin and Michigan. 

Saturday, June 03, 2017

The Busconductor Hines (1984) by James Kelman


Book Review
The Busconductor Hines (1984)
 by James Kelman

  The Busconductor Hines is what you might call "Scottish kitchen sink realism," about said Busconductor (as supposed to Bus Driver) working on the Glasgow city bus system.  For those who don't know the "Glasgow Effect" is the unexplained phenomenon by which the life expectancy of people from Glasgow is ten years lower than for those living outside of Glasgow.

  The events take place over a few days,  Hines loses his job, and gets it back at the end... I think.  He's got an unhappy wife, a young baby (or Bairn as he calls it) and a shitty bedsit in Glaswegian slum.  Hines needs to wake up super early to get the work, except when he has a super late shift.  For whatever reason, he has trouble getting up on time.  That was a personal trait I've never understood, like, either you need to get up and you do, or you don't need to get up, and you don't, but Hines is very much a connoisseur of the alarm clock, and Kelman treats the reader to an "Eskimo words for snow" situation describing the various ways Hines fails with his alarm clock.

  The Busconductor Hines was Scottish writer James Kelman's first novel.  He would go on to win the Booker Prize in 1994, and Hines is, I think, the only novel on the list that captures the (now familiar, to me, I think) Glasgow patter/slang.   Kelman also throws in a hefty gob of graphic sex and enough swearing to bring down the wrath of effete English literary critics.  In this way, he is a clear antecedent of Irving Welsh.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

The Temple of My Familiar (1989) by Alice Walker


Book Review
The Temple of My Familiar (1989)
by Alice Walker

    There is a fairly typical, pan-artistic discipline career path followed by artists who achieve a significant combination of critical and popular success in the mid to late 20th century:  The breakthrough work is typically conventional, but something that brings new life to the form.  After that, the artist rebels against the early success.  Musicians start side projects, or change their sound.  Authors create pseudonyms or publish works that radically push against what is "acceptable" within the form at the time.  Studio artists switch art forms or abandon successful themes.  Continuing to mine the veins that brought you initial success is frowned upon among communities of successful artists.

  The Temple of My Familiar is a good example of an author taking flight after publishing a career defining hit.  The Temple of My Familiar contains a multitude of plots and characters, and delves deeply into past life and recovered memory theory, while containing characters of (almost) all races and genders.  I wouldn't call it a masterpiece, but it is a very interesting book for those interested in the mind of Alice Walker.  Walker was never "just" a novelist- her career spanned journalism and academia.  Before she struck gold with The Color Purple, she almost single-handedly revived the memory of early African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston (she literally uncovered her unmarked grave in Florida.)

   Walker also directly addresses the irrational hatred of whites by African Americans, though she attempts to explain it away by using recovered memory instead of copping to what is essentially a rational attitude for any African American (I don't agree with it, I just understand the why.)

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Melancholy Resistance (1989) by László Krasznahorkai


Book Review
The Melancholy Resistance (1989)
 by László Krasznahorkai

   Krasznahorkai is the second Hungarian language author to make the 1001 Books list.  The other author is Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertesz, so that makes Krasznahorkai the SECOND most famous Hungarian language novelist in English.   Unlike Fatelessness, Kerteszs' straight forward Holocaust memoir, The Melancholy of Resistance is an avant-garde, paragraph-less fantasia about a nameless town plagued by a mysterious circus, a dead whale and a shadowy mob of hooligans.  Did I mention that this book has no paragraphs?

  Aside from the total lack of paragraphs- there are chapters, thank god, The Melancholy Resistance avoids any kind of signaling to the reader so that the story unspools "in real time."


An Artist of the Floating World (1986) by Kazuo Ishiguro


Book Review
An Artist of the Floating World (1986)
by Kazuo Ishiguro

   Kazuo Ishiguro's career is a testament to the strength of the novel as an art form.  He was the child of Japanese emigrants to England, grew up in England, never went to Japan, wrote books written in English, set in Japan, then wrote books about England- won a Booker Award for Remains of the Day.  Remains of the Day got made into a movie that turned into a world beater, both critically and in terms of box office receipts.  

    The extent to which An Artist of the Floating World is "about" an actual historical Japan- it is set in an unidentified Japanese city during the American occupation period after World War II- is a matter of some debate.  Ishiguro grew up in post War England- not Japan.  Floating World is written in English. Masuji Ono- the aging painter who narrates Floating World, is coming to terms with his ill-fated participation in the Japanese war effort via his propaganda posters- the Shep Fairey of his day, as it were.

   In the present, he grapples which arise as a result of his un-analyzed role in Japan's disastrous experiment with totalitarianism.  One of his daughters is on the eve of marriage, and he worries that his history will destroy the match.  He makes his way to his former compatriots- including one who was actually imprisoned directly as a result of his denunciation, and eventually acknowledges moral culpability in a very, very, very, Japanese way.

  The question of "authenticity" as it relates to an obviously good novel written by an English language author of Japanese ancestry who was raised in England is a curious one.  I would argue that Floating World demonstrates that the novel- either written in English or translated into English- becomes, in the late 20th century, an art form which transcends the original language. 

A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989) by John Irving

Image result for simon birch
Actor Ian Michael Smith played Owen Meany (Simon Birch) in the movie.  Smith suffers from Morquio syndrome, a type of dwarfism. 
Book Review
A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989)
 by John Irving

   A Prayer for Owen Meany is one of those "popular, critically acclaimed artist at the top of their game" releases that is well received upon release, but ages badly.  The aging process was not helped by a movie version that was so bad that Irving forced the makers to rename the film (Simon Birch).  In 2017, reading A Prayer for Owen Meany was a tedious experience.  First of all, it's something like 650 pages long- well over a thousand pages in the large print edition I accidentally checked out from the library.  Despite being 650 pages long, Owen Meany doesn't cover a whole lot of territory- basically it discusses the friendship between John Wheelwright, the mini-scion of a regionally important Maine family, and his dwarf-like best friend, Owen Meany.

   A Prayer for Owen Meany is about a lot of things:  friendship, religion, family tragedy, New England private school education, the Vietnam War and the Reagan era Iran Contra shenanigans.  Narrated from a present where Wheelwright is teaching girls school in Canada, a forty year old version, he recounts the shared life of himself and Meany through Meany's untimely demise (not a spoiler, Wheelwright makes clear in the first chapter that Meany has been deceased for some time).

   Irving is nothing if not consistent, if you wanted to change the names around you could almost put The World According to Garp, Cider House Rules and this book in order and call it one book.   Personally, I don't think that Irving is going to a canonical author a century for now.   His books just aren't arty enough and they are long, long, long.  His milieu, that of straight white men from New England coming of age in the mid 20th century, are highly unlikely to evoke the kind of revival interest among academics of the kind sparked by representatives of less familiar groups, none of the movie versions have made it to "classic" status.  No one is ever going to that John Irving is "cool" ever again.

  The main argument for Irving's canonical inclusion is his continued popularity with a mass audience.  As I'm writing this, the most recent edition of this book is a top 5000 Amazon title, followed closely by Cider House and Garp.  John Irving is still being read, in other words, and an author who combines critical and popular acclaim is likely to stay canonical as long as said works continue to be purchased by a large audience. 

Friday, May 26, 2017

Cat's Eye (1988) by Margaret Atwood


Book Review
Cat's Eye (1988)
by Margaret Atwood


   I did not have much appetite for a 400 page story about a (female) painter coming to terms with her past on the eve of her first Toronto area career retrospective.   That said, Atwood won me over with her (stop me if you've heard this before) crisp observations about the relationships between men and women, career and family, art and commerce.  And while the present for painter Elaine Risley is a familiar blend of musings about the art world,ex-husbands and children, the past is a more Gothic place.  Much of the early reminisces of Risley concern her ill treatment by a troika of classmates.  Later, her chief antagonist/tormentor emerges as her high school bff.  After that, she is witness to her friend's long decline and failure as an adult.

  It is far from clear that Cordelia, the tormentor in chief and high school bff will emerge in the later part of Cat's Eye, but I feel it is that relationship, rather than Elaine's emotional/sexual relationships with men, that defines the reader experience.


Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Radiant Way (1983) by Margaret Drabble


Book Review
The Radiant Way (1983)
 by Margaret Drabble

  I found The Radiant Way tedious.  I'm not a huge Margaret Drabble fan, and I don't really care about here milieu-  the lives of upwardly striving working-class born women who were promoted into Cambridge University in England during the 1960's and 1970's.  The introduction of merit scholarships into English higher education was a novelty then, and that gives this tale of three such women some socio-political weight.   So far, so good.  It's more the women themselves- all of whom are unhappy for the entire length of the book, spending their time wondering why they are so unhappy, or knowing why they are so unhappy and simply wallowing in it for chapters at the time.

  Drabble is a keen observer of human nature, I often winced knowingly at her characters observations about their disintegrating/disintegrated marriages and relationships.  At the same time, those aren't really observations I need to enrich my life, and nothing she is has to say feels anything but utterly familiar.   Also, I'm of the firm opinion that England and Britain stopped meaning much after World War II, so the fiction of the this time period seems less relevant than the fiction from the height of the British Empire.  Not better or worse, but less relevant for sure.  The Radiant Way is fiction from drab 1980's England, about the rather drab decades preceding the 1980's, and there is hardly a bit of color or beauty in the whole book.  Mostly just whinging. 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

London Fields (1989) by Martin Amis


Image result for london fields movie
Amber Heard plays Nikki Six in the hugely ill fated movie version of London Fields, the 1989 novel written by Martin Amis.

Book Review
London Fields (1989)
 by Martin Amis

 Fair to say the work of Martin Amis evokes both strong positive and negative reaction- then and now.  I have often said- to artists in personal conversation that this is a universal characteristic of great art, art that lasts the decades, stands the test of time- you know GREAT ART.  Love AND Hate,  Beauty AND Squalor.   That's another maxim I mutter- to myself only- walking the streets of Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, Orange County and San Bernardino:  The ugliness is a part of beauty.  Beauty contains both attributes- beauty and ugliness, because it is individual to the viewer.  If one person can say something is great, another can say it is terrible, and the observed work is both.

  London Fields is an exemplar of beautifully ugly fiction- another example would be American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis,  Bright Lights, Big City is another example- and Amis' other books.  Billed as a murder mystery written in reverse, Amis indulges in the kind of viruoso post-modern maneuvering that will surely characterize the generation of writers including Amis and those that follow.  The unreliable narrator isn't a technique deployed to generate interest in readers of 19th century periodicals, it is a literary device  that, by 1989, had already been analyzed to death.  The unreliable narrator means something, or maybe it means nothing, but you can see novelists- not just Amis- struggling with the very fibers of what a novel "is' even as they achieve dazzling heights in the field.

  Contrast these post modern antics to the more conventional coming of age type narratives that emerged from new sources: LGBT authors, African and Latin American authors.  At the same time, the mainline of Anglo-American fiction shifted away from more conventional set ups (marriage, relationships, families) and begins to deploy of tool box of tips and tricks developed by successful writers who also became successful teachers and theorists of writing.

  London Fields is also a good early example of another trend of 1980's literature- the emergence of the "Brick" -a 400 to 600 page work of "serious" fiction.  Amis is himself a pioneer of this style of book publication, Salman Rushdie, Don DeLillo (not quite there yet in his 80's books), The Bonfire of the Vanities.  As such he is somewhat responsible for a line that runs right up to today.  London Fields, written in 1989, is clearly contemporary fiction- 30 some-odd years on.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

#CHASEME: Danger Mouse, Run the Jewels & Big Boi Tease New Song From Baby Driver

This image was posted by Danger Mouse on Reedit today.


#CHASEME:
Danger Mouse, Run the Jewels & Big Boi Tease New Song From Baby Driver

   Danger Mouse and Run the Jewels are teasing Chase Me, their new song from Baby Driver, a new movie directed by Edgar Wright.  I've heard this song, and it is, let me tell you, fucking amazing. I have not seen the film but I have heard that it, too, is amazing.  (REEDIT #CHASEME)

The Sea (2005) by John Banville



Book Review
The Sea (2005)
by John Banville

  A plot description, which I have cribbed from the post-Booker prize win London Guardian review below, does not do The Sea justice:

The story, such as it is, is narrated by one Max Morden (not quite, we are told quite late on, the name he was christened with), a widowed art historian, who is returning to a seaside boarding-house he once knew as a child on the cusp of adolescence. He has arrived there in order to deal with, in some roundabout way, the death of his wife from cancer. But the reason he lodges at Miss Vavasour's comically moribund guest-house is also because, when he was young, Something Happened there, and the novel only reveals what that was at the end.  - London Guardian 2006
  It's not even entirely clear that "Something Happened" there until the last 10 or 20 pages.  For example, myself, not having read any summaries, was legitimately surprised at the revelation.  That The Sea won the Booker Prize was itself- beating Zadie Smith and Kazuo Ishiguro- surprising.   I think you can fairly ascribe the success of The Sea to Banville's ability to evoke the sparse prose of Samuel Beckett while developing a conventional narrative with a "twist" type ending.   That is a winning formula, evidently.  

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Life & Times of Michael K (1983) by J.M. Coeteze


Book Review
Life & Times of Michael K. (1983)
 by J.M. Coeteze

  Life & Times of Michael K. was the first Booker Prize winning book written by South African turned Australian author J.M. Coeteze.  His other Booker Prize winner was Disgrace, in 1999.  He followed that with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.  Since he 2003 he's published four more novels and some short story collections.   He stays out of the spotlight.   I'm a fan of Coeteze.  I'm not sure he deserves 10 titles in the 1001 Books list.  Does any author deserve that many entries?

  His ten titles from 2006 was cut to five in the first revision.  You'd expect a Booker Prize winning book to make the cut into the core 700 titles, and it does.  Like all of Coeteze's books, Life & Times of Michael K. is both deeply satisfying and disturbing at the same time.   Likewise, his South African landscapes are both familiar and alien.  Like Foe, another Coeteze written 1001 Books entry, Michael K. draws on the conventions of Robinson Crusoe- Michael K. isn't marooned on an island, he's isolated in a society at war, friend and family-less, desiring only his freedom.

   Descriptions of Michael K. often bring up the theme of human dignity, the will of the protagonist for freedom even at the cost of his own life.   He wants to sit quietly, not work for money so he can eat, and not, in fact, eat.  It is his failure to properly feed himself that for me was the enduring image of Michael K.   Although set in a civil war in South Africa, it might as well be a post-apocalyptic scenario.  South Africa, even at the best of times, always seems to be hovering at the edge of catastrophe.  Coeteze, writing before the collapse of the apartheid regime is careful to omit explicit references to race.  I had to resort to the Wikipedia page to discover that Michael K. is classified as "colored" or mixed-race, under the scheme of the apartheid regime.


The Book of Evidence (1989) by John Banville


Book Review
The Book of Evidence  (1989)
 by John Banville


   I would hope, by the time I made into the 1980's section of the 1001 Books list, that I would have at least heard of all of the major authors.  He actually won the Booker Prize in 2005 for The Sea, which is the year before I started this project.   So here I am, 2017, learning about Irish author for the first time, via an Everyman's Library dual publication of The Book of Evidence and The Sea.   It's embarrassing, but it probably is evidence that Banville hasn't really crossed the Atlantic ocean in any substantial way.   I can understand it- the authors that John Banville draws comparisons to:  Nabokov, Proust and James Joyce, all come from the stylish/experimental side of the novel family tree.

  Banville is on record saying he wants to bring the same depth of experience to prose that one experiences from reading poetry.    The Book of Evidence, which itself was short-listed for the Booker Prize, is a dark tale featuring a highly unreliable narrator, Freddy Montgomery, a classic existential anti-hero who narrates The Book of Evidence from an Irish prison cell, where he awaits sentencing for his senseless murder of a house maid in the course of even more senseless attempt to steal a 16th century painting from the estate of some family friends.

  Calling ole Freddy an "unreliable narrator" gets to the heart of what The Book of Evidence is "about" in a serious-critical sense.  Montgomery is writing out what he imagines to be his testimony in his upcoming trial- a trial that will never occur.  He addresses the Judge of his case and repeatedly observes that it is unclear which parts of his tale are true and un-true.  Since one imagines that untruth in this context would involve making one look better in front of the Court, it comes as surprise that Montgomery's own recollections could hardly be less flattering.

  The portrait that emerges is a man who is as close to unredeemable as exists in modern literature.  That his redemption never arrives won't surprise anyone familiar with serious literature.  At the same time, The Book of Evidence is a beautiful book, and Banville is an excellent writer.  He's worth looking up.

  

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Radiant Way (1987) by Margaret Drabble


Book Review
The Radiant Way (1987)
 by Margaret Drabble

  Margaret Drabble is one of he most intelligent chroniclers of educated, upper-middle class women living in 1980's England, for better or for worse.  She writes squarely within the mainstream of 20th century English fiction:  characters are highly educated, articulate and unhappy with their marital status.  The main difference between the character of The Radiant Way and any set of characters from a 19th century English novel is the absence of of an obsessive concern with the inheritance of property and the legitimacy of birth in The Radiant Way.

  Basically, what the women- three friends from "scholarship" backgrounds who meet while attending Cambridge University in the late 1970's, do is complain. Not without reason, of course.  And of course, the story of the English novel is the story about men and women complaining about their spouses, so Drabble is hardly unique.   I would argue though, that by the late 1980's, none of these type of novels- be they about Americans or Brits are really necessary.  As far as these talky, self-obsessed protagonists go, you might as well stop at D.H. Lawrence in terms of the way this genre of novel is interesting to an audience beyond the people portrayed (which presumably includes the England based editorial staff of the 1001 Books project.)

  It's hard to make the case that any mainline English novel written after World War II deserves inclusion.  That may be an exaggeration, but it's true that there is little exciting happening in the English novel after World War II.

Wittgenstein's Mistress (1988) by David Markson


Book Review
Wittgenstein's Mistress (1988)
by David Markson


  Two things you need to know about Wittgenstein's Mistress:

1.  It is an experimental novel, in exactly the same way as many of Samuel Beckett's novels.
2.  David Foster Wallace was a huge fan, and an essay he wrote on the genius of Wittgenstein's Mistress is appended to the 2012 paperback edition.

    Kate, the narrator, claims to be the last person on earth, and Wittgenstein's Mistress consists of her disconnected ruminations on a variety of subjects related to her personal history and art.  As DFW points out, repeatedly, in his essay, Wittgenstein's Mistress is like a literary representation of Wittgenstein's early philosophy, as expressed in his later disavowed, Tractaus Logico-Philosophicus
   At this point, it would be appropriate to maybe get into some of the analysis that DFW provides regarding the relationship between Wittgenstein, his Tractaus Logico-Philosphicus and the text of Wittgenstein's Mistress, but I think it would all be tedious, and I simply can't imagine a reader who would be interested, except the person who +1's all of the experimental fiction reviews on the Google Plus network.  Shout out to that person! Or bot! I'm fine if bots want to read this blog as well.  All hail our robot overlords, that's what I say.

Concrete (1982) by Thomas Bernhard


Book Review
Concrete (1982)
 by Thomas Bernhard

   There are so many Thomas Bernhard novels in the 1001 Books project between 1975 and 1990 that I missed Concrete, published in 1982, in all the hub-bub.   The editorial essay which accompanies the listing for Concrete in the 2006 edition of the 1001 Books project says that Concrete is in fact a "parody" of Bernhard's obsessive-compulsive style.  I would be hard pressed to agree with that assesment.  Like all other of Bernhard's novels, Concrete features a protagonist who speaks in a paragraph-less monologue, and shares all the common obsessions of all of the protagonists from all of Bernhard's novels on the 1001 Books list. To whit:

1.  Hate-loves his family.
2.  Hates Austria.
3.  Hates Austrians.
4.  Hates people.
5. Hates the modern world.

  That is Thomas Bernhard for you.  He hates modern life.  He hates modern society.  He hates the people around him.  He can't actually accomplish anything because he spends all his time indulging his peculiar obsessions  In Concrete, the protagonist is a wealthy heir who has spent a decade attempting to begin a monograph on an obscure composer.  This fact is essentially the only plot-like device in the entire book.  Other than the unwritten monograph, see above for the contents.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

The Satanic Verses (1988) by Salman Rushdie


Book Review
The Satanic Verses (1988)
 by Salman Rushdie


   I am now convinced that Salman Rushdie is the best novelist of his generation, maybe the best novelist of the 20th century and certainly one of the top 5 novelists of all time, alongside writers like Daniel DeFoe, Charles Dickens, James Joyce and Marcel Proust.  Before I started the 1001 Books project, the Rushdie slot would have been taken by a writer like Thomas Pynchon or maybe David Foster Wallace, but I have no doubt that Rushdie leaves Pynchon in the dust.  Rushdie's protean ability to absorb almost every aspect of the western AND eastern literary tradition within a single work is remarkable.  There is enough to unpack in each of his novels to keep people interested for decades in  unraveling it all.  At the same time, his work is never over complicated or technical to the point of being obscure.  His books traffic in the kind of universal human emotions, love, hate, anger, that people want to read about.

  Of course, The Satanic Verses is best known for provoking the Iranian government-clergy to pronounce a fatwa against Rushdie soon after the book was published.  The reasoning behind the fatwa is obscure but not that obscure.  The title of the book refers to an actual "incident" that happened during the life of the prophet Mohammed.  Basically, it was a time before Mecca (or really anywhere) had converted to Islam.  Medina was a city that had temples and shrines to many deities, standard in the ancient world at that time.  Mohammed was offered control of the city, provided he acknowledge three female deities. He agreed, only to later say that he had been deceived by the devil, who had interposed himself between Mohammed and his angel-contact. The verses he recited justifying his decision to acknowledge the three female deities, a clear violation of the Islamic adherence to monotheism, are known as the "Satanic Verses."

  These verses were part of the canonical tradition for several centuries, but were eventually stripped out both for technical reasons and reasons having to do with the doubt it placed in the idea that Mohammed was infallible.   Salman Rushdie, provoked the Shi'a clergy of Iran in the much the same way the Catholic Church would be provoked if one wrote a book about Jesus having sex with Mary Magdalene.  Obviously minus the fatwa.

  This rich historical background is just a single strand of the multi-layered plot, which interweaves fantasy, science fiction, post-colonial literature, posts-modern literature and the tradition of the 20th century English domestic novel into a rich tapestry.  Like many works of genius, description lessens the impact, but I would like to say that The Satanic Verses is not nearly as difficult to read as one might expec from it's reputation, and it is, in fact, a good deal of fun.

The Beautiful Room is Empty (1988) by Edmund White


Book Review
The Beautiful Room is Empty (1988)
 by Edmund White

   The coming-of-age stories of the LGBT spectrum are one of the limited areas where a "coming of age" novel can hope to bring something new to the table by the end of the 20th century.  Coming-of-age tales are contained by the formalism of the genre: first person narration by a character who closely resembles the author.   Edmund White represents the bleeding edge of the LGBT wave:  A white male, not particularly effeminate nor trans, from a privileged economic upbringing, with a very good education and a prestigious job in New York City as an editor.  The Beautiful Room is Empty is the second of his cis gay coming of age trilogy- this chapter covers the events from college until the Stonewall riots, which the author/narrator character takes part in.

   In 2017 there is nothing particularly revelatory in the terrain covered by White in The Beautiful Room is Empty- in the first novel- the best parts concern his becoming aware of his sexuality in the relative isolation of Cincinnati.  By the time he gets to New York City and pre-Stonewall Greenwich village, he is documenting a scene that is well known to all with even a casual interest in social equality

  White writes frankly about gay male sex, oral and anal, describing intimately such milleus as the Port Authority bathroom-which sounds like a virtual bachinallia of sucking and fucking (I'm just being descriptive) and the gendered practices of gay love making in pre-AIDS New York City.  Perhaps the most lasting importance of The Beautiful Room is Empty is to give a portrait-in-time of pre-AIDS New York City- a virtual Weimar Republic before the onset of AIDS terror.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

The Passion (1987) by Jeanette Winterson


Book Review
The Passion (1987)
by Jeanette Winterson

  The Passion is what Canadian literary theorist Linda Hutcheson first called, "Historiographic meta-fiction" around the time it was published.  This category contains many of the novels published between 1970 and the present that have garnered both serious critical and large popular audiences.  Writers who can be plausibly included as having works in this category are like a who's who of mid to late 20th century fiction: Peter Ackroyd, Isabelle Allende, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, E.L. Doctorow, Umberto Eco, John Fowles, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Thomas Pynchon, Salaman Rushdie, Neal Stephenson and Kurt Vonnegut all fit the description first provided by Hutcheson.

   These books are both self-reflexive and concerned with "real" historical events and characters. Unlike many of the other authors represented in a survey of historiographic metafiction, Winterson is a queer woman, so that makes The Passion different.  It is a tale of two losers caught up in the seismic shifts of Napoleonic Europe: The French army enlistee from the bucolic French countryside and the web-toed, canal-wise Venetian red head, daughter of a boatman, who makes her way in the world as a croupier, pick pocket and occasional prostitute. Her amoral adventures are presented matter-of-factly without lingering or moralizing.   The two stories are told separately and become intertwined in the disastrous aftermath of the French invasion of Russia, when the two flee together to Venice.

  And while The Passion certainly qualifies as reflexive and self-aware, it is not a difficult read- unlike, say, Nights at the Circus, with which it shares some similarities. 

Libra (1988) by Don DeLillo

Lee Harvey Oswald.  This picture appears on the cover of Libra, Don DeLillo's novel about the JFK assassination.
Book Review
Libra (1988)
 by Don DeLillo

  Don DeLillo wasn't the first American novelist to take a recent historical event and rewrite it from the perspective of the actual historical actors.  The Public Burning by Robert Coover, published in 1977, retells the story of the Julius and Ethyl Rosenberg Russian spying case from the perspective of then Vice-President Richard Nixon.  Libra is a re-telling of the assassination of JFK, from the perspective of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald and a colorful cast of characters.  DeLillo deserves recognition for the genius of selecting the JFK assassination as his subject.  No single historical event of the last half century has generated more fevered speculation among weirdos and obsessives than JFK's assassination and the resulting investigation.   To recap what you may or may not remember from your most recent brush with this story:

   Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK from the sixth floor window of the Texas Book Depository.  The Warren Commission determined that Oswald acted alone.  Oswald was murdered shortly after his arrest by Jack Ruby, a Dallas business man.  Many people have raised numerous questions about the "official" version of events, with key attention paid to whether there were multiple gunmen positioned the day JFK was killed, whether Oswald was led to act by government affiliates, particularly those responsible for the Bay of Pigs debacle in Cuba, what happened to Oswald in Russia when he defected, etc, etc, but most of the speculation is around the "fact" that Oswald acted alone.

  The counter-fact, that Oswald DID NOT act alone, is accepted as truth by three quarters of the United States population. (GALLUP)  In Libra, DeLillo firmly aligns himself with the community of doubters, drawing from the facts but giving them the kind of coloring that suggests that every potential participant in the JFK plot is a character from a Saul Bellow novel written in the fifties.  Some of that similarity may come from the fact that many of the Dallas and New Orleans based characters in Libra come from Chicago and left in the 1950's.

  The greatest irony surrounding Libra is that for a majority of Americans, it is Libra which is closer to the truth of "what happened" to JFK than the exhaustively researched and publicly assembled Warren Report.  

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Nights at the Circus (1984) by Angela Carter

Cover art for Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter
Book Review
Nights at the Circus (1984)
 by Angela Carter

   The Twin Peaks principle of popular entertainment might be that works that alienate a significant portion of the largest general audience ALSO create a higher level of audience appreciation among the remaining audience.  This heightened level of audience reaction among a smaller set of the largest general audience for a work of popular culture (a television show on a major network before the internet) is a key to maintaining a larger audience for a longer time period vs. works that appeal to a larger audience initially.  The Twin Peak principle is a specific example of the "cult" art work phenomenon, largely but not wholly confined to the 20th century, where a work fails to find an audience during it's initial release, and is only "discovered" years after the initial publication of the work.

   Nights at the Circus is an interesting literary example of this Twin Peaks principle, a work that is off-putting to large portions of the audience for literary fiction, but whose appeal to those who remain has formed the basis for an enduring audience. Largely written in a post-modern approximation of a Cockney patois from the early 20th century, Nights at the Circus is about a half-woman/half-swan and the American journalist who is trying to get the scoop, in the same way that Ulysses by James Joyce is about a guy walking around Dublin.

    Even if you are passably familiar with the Cockney dialect of the main character, Carter deploys many of the techniques of high post-modernism to obscure the development of the narrative, mis-identifying characters, relying on dialogue without any framing narration, skipping through time and space between chapters and generally omitting all of the signaling techniques that novelists typically use to guide audience expectations of what comes next.

  Which is not to say that Nights at the Circus doesn't have it's moments, when Sophie Fevvers- the swan woman, coherently recounts the circumstances of coming of age in a turn of the century whore house in London, or when the Circus is marooned in the Russian Tundra, the hostages of Russian peasant rebels who have decided that the help of Fevvers is crucially necessary to the pursuit of their cause.  It is clear that the number of works of "experimental" literature is declining as a percentage of the books included on the initial 1001 Books list.

  If you compare, let's say, the 1920's- with it's 67 titles within the 1001 Books list, there are very few books included that aren't experimental or cutting-edge in some significant way.   Authors with multiple titles in the 1920's portion of the list include arch modernists like Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf and Proust.  Many of the one time appearing French and German language authors from the 1920's are experimental or avant garde: Nadja by Andre Breton, Radiguet, Alfred Doblin, Chirico, Faulkner was writing in America in the 1920's. Even mainline non-experimental writers from the 1920's like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway continue to exercise a disproportionate influence on contemporary literature and criticism.

  Few of the titles from the 1920's are what you would call "block busters" or "hits," mostly because they hadn't really been identified back then, but there was a developed international market for fiction. In the 1980's, most of the books are commercial hits first, critic certified second.  Most of the titles from the 1980's are still in print, still being sold in book stores.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

The New York Trilogy (1987) by Paul Auster

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster remains relevant and in print- pictured above is an Art Speigelman drawn cover sequence for a recent re-print.
Book Review
The New York Trilogy (1987)
by Paul Auster

  The New York Trilogy is a collection of three "post-modern detective fiction" novellas, originally written and published separately in 1985 and 1986.  There is a limited overlap of characters, but the three novellas are not three separate stories about the same detective, a la Sherlock Holmes.  Rather they are three novellas that are thematically similar in that they blend elements of detective fiction with elements of the post-modern philosophical novel that is more often associated with French and German authors in this time period.  In any time period, ha ha.

  Although Auster was never part of my literary experience, I recognize that The New York Trilogy was and is popular, but I didn't find The New York Trilogy to be earth shattering work.  It may not even be the best book about an existenalist influence detective to be published in 1987, because that is the same year that Douglas Adams published Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency.

   I'm sure these would have made a bigger impression if I'd read them closer to the original publication date, but 30 years later it just seems like one of any number of self consciously existentialist detective novels. 

The Player of Games (1988) by Iain M. Banks


ThePlayerOfGames.jpg
Cover art from the 1988 Culture novel, The Player of Games, by Iain M. Banks.
Book Review
The Player of Games (1988)
 by Iain M. Banks

  Scottish author Iain Banks wrote non-genre fiction without his middle initial.  For his genre work, mostly science-fiction/fantasy, he went by Iain M. Banks, as is the case for The Player of Games, his second book in his sequence of titles about "The Culture" a far-future, post-scarcity civilization of humans, humanoids and sentient artificial intelligence (mostly represented by Droids and intelligent space ships in this volume) who... well it's not exactly sure what the Culture are actually up to, since their money-free, law-free anarchistic society doesn't appear to have any formal or informal goals, but they seem to be a force for what one might call "good."

 Banks doesn't go in for a lot of exposition- a major point among works of genre fiction that got included in the first version of the 1001 Books list (The Player of Games was cut in 2008.)  Jurneau Gurgah is the game player in question.  He lives on some kind of floating asteroid designed to look like a Nordic fjord-scape.  He travels the galaxy playing games as a representative of The Culture, but at the start of the book he is in full recluse mode.  The games that he plays appear to be board games.  I was a tad surprised that it was the humble board game which extends to all galaxies and civilizations, but there you have it.

  In The Player of Games, Gurgah is recruited, under highly mysterious circumstances, to travel to the Azad Empire and take part in their civilization defining game (called Azad- the Empire being named after the game.)  It's the kind of game where winning means you get to be the Emperor, and the Azadis take it very seriously.  Compared to the Culture, the Azad are very uncool- they have three genders, and the Apex gender treats men and women as slaves, basically.  The Azad are also low key into torture and rape, and they generally resemble what the worst in humanity might look like as a galactic empire.

  For my money, the most interesting part of the Culture universe Banks has dreamed up is the presence of sentient artificial intelligence as co-partners- not servants of the Culture.  How we treat sentient artificial intelligence is likely to be a major issue in the coming decades, and Banks is one of the first authors to take such an idea seriously- beyond the level of analysis first advanced by Mary Shelly in Frankenstein.

Show Review: Stagecoach 2017 w/ Willie Nelson, Jamey Johnson, Margo Price & Nikki Lane

Margo Price and band prepares to take the stage at Stagecoach 2017, photo credit me.


Show Review:
Stagecoach 2017 w/ Willie Nelson, Jamey Johnson, Margo Price & Nikki Lane

  One of the major ironies of being a moderately successful pop artist is that your work day is everyone else's party.  Even for the biggest, most successful artists, touring is a grind.  The process of touring is a function of minimizing unnecessary costs over time, so if you are doing reasonably well as a touring musician, there are not a lot of days off- by design.  Every city you play is different, every lodging, every venue, you are playing in front of a live audience five out of every seven days, and then, to top it all off, every human you know in each city comes out and wants to hang.  Touring musicians, unless they are psychopathic-ally unable to be alone or chronic substance abusers or both, do not want to hang out with random people during their work day, they want to play their gig, maybe have a couple hours to relax, and then they want to go to the next city.  It's nothing personal, its basic humanity.

  No where is this dynamic more apparent than at a mid to large size festival, where you've got dozens of artists and camp followers, squeezed into unusual time slots, with a double or triple portion of friends and family from the surrounding area.  If you happen to be one of those camp followers, as I am, it should be more about the festival audience than whatever artist you may taking along behind.   I've long espoused the audience first perspective, and no where does that pay higher dividends than at the Stagecoach Festival, or "Cowboy Coachella" as members of Margo Price's band of trained killers were calling it over the weekend.

  Despite my love for the festival, I felt like it was over all a down year for the bill, particularly the headliners, with only the Saturday night Shania Twain post-Vegas headline slot feeling really festival worthy.  Dierks Bentley, and Kenny Chesney, headlining Friday and Sunday night respectively, were of no interest.  Friday had some "aww sorry I missed them moments":  Elle King, an ancient Jerry Lee Lewis, Maddie & Tae and John Moreland.   Sunday had Terry Allen, who I really did want to see.  But basically, Stagecoach 2017 was all about Saturday afternoon, with Margo Price, Tommy James, Nikki Lane, Jamey Johnson and Willie Nelson celebrating his 84th birthday, playing in that order between 4 PM and 8 PM.  

  In many ways, the 4 PM Margo Price set felt like the fulfillment of a promise made two years ago, when I came to Stagecoach for the first time.  It was in September of that year that Third Man announced the Margo Price record, that same week, my gf brought her into Monotone (who manage Jack White, who owns Third Man records) and then flash forward two years and here we are.  So it was satisfying to see it all go down, even if there was the normal frisson of anxiety that accompanies any live show by a band you care about.

  Obviously, the crowd at 4 PM was just filling in.  The Palomino tent for Stagecoach is the Sahara tent for Coachella, so it is a big space, and it can be half empty with a few thousand people watching.  The performance was workmanlike, not inspired.  I mean, how inspiring can you be at 430 PM on a Saturday afternoon?  I suppose it has happened, I can think of some memorable afternoon performance at Coachella- MIA's first performance was in the mid afternoon, but it's a tough sell.  The band was truly spectacular, a fact that everyone who watches picks up on, country fan or no.  I could just watch the band play for an hour without Margo at this point.

  The crowd was that amazing Stagecoach mix of races and classes, though mostly white with a sprinkling of darker skin tones and ethnic identifies subsumed by a unifying, American flag inspired visual aesthetic.   I'm hardly a member of that coterie of festival goers, but at least they aren't the annoying, drug-addled children who dominate the general population area of Coachella in 2017.  I would have liked to have seen more artists, period.  After Willie Nelson wrapped his set at 9 PM Saturday night, there was no one left to see except Shania Twain. It would be great if the second stage went a little deeper into the night.
Image result for nikki lane
East Nashville artist Nikki Lane also played Stagecoach 2017
  After Margo Price wrapped up, we ended up trouping over to the Mustang stage- to see Nikki Lane, who is something like an East Nashville rival- I'm using "rival" in a very casual sense not meant to fan the flames of gossip, but it would be ridiculous to not compare to East Nashville based artists who peddle similar varieties of vintage country.  For Lane, the emphasis is on the vintage. She sings with a twang that wouldn't be out of place on a Western Swing record from the 1940's.  She literally owns a vintage shop in  East Nashville.

  It's probably a leetle embarrassing that I've been following Margo Price and East Nashville so closely for the last year and a half and had yet to actually hear Nikki Lane sing.   And I was impressed by the voice, and the general look/style/aesthetic that she brings to the table.  But her band is not as good as the other East Nashville based bands I've heard.  Also, I think her twangy singing style is something that I personally enjoy but one that limits her upside.  The only place that twang has in contemporary Top 40 country is the accent of country artists who are belting out choruses or "rapping" in between verses.  I'm sure, though, that after Stagecoach I'll be paying closer attention, but my take is, based on the fact that she has three LPs out and the first one was in 2011, that it isn't going to happen for her in this iteration.   She needs a hit, and she didn't get one from the new record.  I'm saying this having heard the new Margo record and knowing that there is at least one, maybe two or three radio level hits on her next record.

  The Willie Nelson set was a total shit show, in the best possible sense of that term.  His set started out with 10 minutes of Bradley Cooper shooting for his Lady Gaga featuring Star is Born.  No sound, just Cooper "playing" on stage with a band.  The big story backstage was Neil Young literally driving up in his beater car.  He ended up hopping on stage for 45 seconds, alongside Margo, John Doe,  Jamey Johnson and others as Willie was serenaded with happy birthday.

  Afterwards, there wasn't much celebrating- we had gone early for the managers and bookers Stagecoach Brunch, so Shania's set would have required a full 12 hours at the festival.  The band did watch Shania Twain, then it was off to Tempe for the Sunday edition of the Stagecoach Spotlight tour with Jamey Johnson and Brent Cobb.  I would also like to again say that Brent Cobb is a very nice guy with an excellent attitude.

  A major difference between Stagecoach and Coachella is the artist village- for Coachella it's the beating heart of the industry scene, but for Stagecoach it is essentially deserted.  I sat in the artist area for hours, in the middle of dedicated trailers for Willie Nelson (he never even used it and eventually they turned it over to Steve Moakler), Maren Morris (she was there for about 15 seconds, sporting legit side boob), Margo, Nikki Lane and Brent Cobb and really it was only after the end of Nelson's set that anyone started hanging out.  Most of the main stage acts have their own tricked out tour buses and never leave, and the lesser artists were just stopping through Stagecoach on their own tours.

  Sunday I was disappointed that I didn't see Terry Allen.

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