Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, January 27, 2017

On the Black Hill (1982) by Bruce Chatwin

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The area surrounding the Black Mountains of the Welsh/English border are the setting for the events of On the Black Hill, by Bruce Chatwin.
Book Review
On the Black Hill (1982)
 by Bruce Chatwin

  Thomas Hardy is a literary immortal, forever synonymous with dour morality tales set in the mid to late 19th century English country side.   On the Black Hill by Bruce Chatwin is an homage/update of the Hardy template, transported to the Welsh/English borderlands and moved forward in time to the early 20th century. On the Black Hill is a clear example of a new novel existing largely within the audience created by an earlier author (Thomas Hardy.)   Thus, the success of On the Black Hill is judged by it's ability to successfully evoke Hardy while not imitating him.

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Hay-on-Wye is the local town for the area in On the Black Hill, but it does not appear by name.

  Judged by this standard the movement of the Hardy-plot forward and time and west to Wales is sufficient to give it a satisfying level of novelty for a late 20th century reader.  I'm sure that the number of audiences members between 1982 and today who are actively reading Thomas Hardy is so small that coming across On the Black Hill is likely to be as novel as Hardy himself is today

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Playlist as Art Form

  Who would argue with the statement that the play list has supplanted the album/LP as the most vital format for the consumption of music?   This transition took over a decade, becoming a possibility in 1999 when the original Napster went online and becoming fully realized with the launch of Spotify in the United States in July, 2011.  Since the launch of Spotify in 2011, other competitors have joined the field, notably Apple Music, and Pandora also exists as an apotheosis of limitless music, but as I write this in 2017, I think Spotify represents the most advanced the of the possibilities and it is the system that I use almost exclusively.

   When I talk about the Playlist as an Art Form, I am talking about the Spotify playlist.  The available library of music on Spotify allows the listener to compose any kind of play list for any kind of music.  Spotify itself creates play lists by genre, mood and artist.  I would hypothesize that there are essentially three play lists that together constitute the entirety of available music.  All music can be divided by tempo (fast, medium, slow) and length (from a few seconds to hours.)   The three play lists refer to the three tempos: fast, medium and slow.  In developing these three play lists, fast, medium and slow, the listener should be unlimited by time, place and style of music but allowed to sort by secondary considerations that impact the creation of the play list, from an aesthetic stand point.

  To take two examples of these secondary considerations which relate to the aesthetic of the play list, the length of the track is significant.  Since a play list inevitably contains dozens of songs, length of each is an issue.  For my own three play list I target a track length between three minutes and ten minutes.  Another secondary consideration is the distribution of sound within the length of the track.  For example, a song that starts with 30 seconds of silence, or uses extremely quiet parts followed by extremely loud parts, are less suitable for play list purposes than songs that begin immediately and maintain a similar volume of loudness throughout the length of the track.

   These secondary considerations sometimes rightfully impact the ability of the creator to travel, "unlimited by time, place and style of music."  To give an example, the symphony is obviously a huge part of any complete play list, at any tempo.  Unfortunately, the recording of large scale orchestras is made according to standards different that the world of popular music, and the contrasts in volumes is often jarring.   Likewise, the ebb and swell within a typical symphonic track is far beyond that of more recently developed genres of music.

   The primary instrument for the development of the three Spotify play list is their interlinked genre play lists, which are interlinked and typically contain 150 to 400 songs.

The Spotify play list for Experimental covers a huge range of artists, from Captain Beefheart to Pere Ubu. and it has 375 tracks and lasts nearly 40 hours.

Some of the genres are quite exotic, Central Asian folk, for example- only 150 songs and 10 hours long, but it shows how far the listener has to travel in time and space to really embrace the fullness of the three play lists.

    The key to assembling the three play lists is to draw from the genres like taking ingredients for a recipe.  Each composition will be different, the only obligation is for the listener to attempt to embrace all of it to create the fullest possible aesthetic across the three play lists.   I have added my three play lists on the side bar.

A Pale View of Hills (1982) by Kazuo Ishiguro

Book Review
A Pale View of Hills (1982)
 by Kazuo Ishiguro

   Ishiguro was the child of two parents who moved from Japan to England when he was young.  He wrote in English, and his great hit, Remains of the Day, was about as English as novels get.   A Pale View of Hills was his first novel, and it is a book closer to Japan than England in terms of the themes, the novel equivalent of an Ozu film with Gothic overtones. The plot concerns the reminisces of Etsuko, a widowed(?) Japanese woman living in the English countryside.  She is visited by her London dwelling daughter, Niki, the child of Etsuko and her English husband, and they discuss the death of Keiko, Niki's sister and Etsuko's daughter, by suicide, in the recent past.

  These episodes are interspersed with lengthy flashbacks to post World War II Nagasaki, where Estuko remembers her friend, Sachiko and her daughter Mariko, who would have been the same age as Keiko.  The actual reality of Sachiko and Mariko is in doubt, and it becomes clear that Etsuko is a classic "unreliable narrator" who may or may not be fabricating all or some of her story.  Specifically, it becomes possible that Etsuko may be remembering her own life in the guise of Sachiko.  This possibility is outlined by the heavily Japanese modes of communication between characters (which is still be written, in English.)  The extreme deference and refusal to forthrightly address emotions lead the reader to consider that Estuko can not bear to remember the truth of her experience in Nagasaki, and she has created Sachiko as a vessel.

 Of course, it's also possible to read A Pale View of Hills straight, and it is still good on that level, creepy, eerie, and illuminating about the domestic culture of post World War II Japan in the same way as the 1950's and 60's films of Ozu.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Newton Letter (1982) by John Banville

Book Review
The Newton Letter (1982)
by John Banville

   The Newton Letter is about 80 pages long. Thus, the reader is in novella territory.  The title refers to a (fictional) letter that Sir Issac Newton wrote late in life to John Locke, supposedly berating Locke for imagined betrayals.  The narrator is supposedly writing a biography of Newton, and has retreated to rural Ireland to focus on his writing.  Instead he becomes romantically involved with a young single mother, and the wife of the man renting him his retreat (also the Uncle of the single mother, and perhaps the father of her young child, or perhaps not.)

  The themes revolve around Newton's late in life break down and the similarities and differences between that portion of Newton's life, and the current situation with his biographer.   Given the slight length and equally slight story, I was puzzled that The Newton Letter was included at all on the 1001 Books list, and not surprised to find that John Banville had FOUR of his FIVE titles removed from the list between 2006 and 2008.  That is the greatest diminution in representation between the first and second edition of any represented author.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Schindler's List/Schindler's Ark (1982) by Thomas Kennally

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Liam Neeson's performance as Oskar Schindler in the Steven Spielberg movie version of the book was become synonymous with the story depicted in the book, originally called Schindler's Ark, written by Thomas Kennally and published in 1982.
Book Review
Schindler's List/Schindler's Ark (1982)
 by Thomas Kennally

  The book known in America as Schindler's List was first published as Schindler's Ark in the UK, where it was successful, winning the Booker Prize the year of it's release.  Steven Spielberg bought the rights to the book and released the movie, Schindler's List, in 1993, and it quickly became regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, and is in fact the only time I can remember an English language book being renamed after the movie based on that book.  You can not discuss the book without paying homage to the film, which is, I think, better than the still very good book.

  Kennally was a historian, from Australia, and he writes Schindler's List in a kind of fact-based new journalism style that stops just short from inserting the narrator into the action.  The story is clearly based on the recollections of Schindler himself and the testimony of survivors.  The narrator occasionally opines on motives, or will interject when he is relying only on his own instincts about what must have happened.   \

  Some of the aspects of the book that were not conveyed in the film(to my memory) is that Schindler was the first witness to describe the mechanics of the "final solution" to the outside world.  Obviously, the film underplays the grotesque cruelty of the Jewish genocide in Poland, the book stops just short of describing the act of being in the gas chamber itself.  Kennally peppers the book with specific references to technical mechanics of the implementation of the final solution that stand starkly outside any sort of reference in terms of their ability to horrify.  

  For example, an early camp used Carbon Monoxide instead of Zykron B, and the results were too cruel... even for Nazi's, or at least "not efficient" in that it tooks the victims hours to die excruciating deaths.  Oskar Schindler is not a saint, but he is the only human being who used the industrial slave labor of the Jews as a mechanism to save hundreds of Jewish lives, and he did at considerable danger to himself.  Most astonishing that his is the only example of someone saving Jewish lives on such a vast scale.  The absence of other similar stories is perhaps as amazing as the existence of this one.

Monday, January 23, 2017

A Confederacy of Dunces (1981) by John Kennedy Toole

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New Orleans is a major star of A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy toole.
Book Review
A Confederacy of Dunces  (1981)
 by John Kennedy Toole

   A Confederacy of Dunces has a publication history that perpetuates myths about the romantic artist-creater.  John Kennedy Toole, the author, committed suicide in 1969, and A Confederacy of Dunces wasn't published until 1980 (and then on a small, regional university press) and subsequently became a sensation, earning a rare posthumously awarded Pulitzer Prize.  A Confederacy of Dunces is still in print, is still read and is even the subject of protracted "only in Hollywood" type stories about a mythical film version that has never been actually made.

  Dunces is a rare thing: A late 20th century example of the picaresque novel, a genre last current in the mid 18th century, when it helped to define the parameters of what a novel would or would not be.  In the 19th and 20th century, the picaresque evolved into the English coming-of-age novel and the German bildungsroman, but the difference between the 18th century picaresque, and later novels influenced by the picaresque, was the lack of a moral purpose in the original picaresque.  Things happened, but people did not change or evolve.  This lack of moral center dovetails nicely with the 20th century existentialist novel, and Toole successfully evokes both, along with a level or erudition that resembles the James Joyce of Ulysses.  He also very successfully evokes the New Orleans of 1962, which scholars have pinpointed the year of the events of the novel based on films that the main character, rotund Ignatius Reilly, views in local movie theaters.

  This combination of 18th century and 20th century influences with a memorable location is a heady mixture, and then you add the "published 12 years after the untimely suicide of the brilliant author" and you have a recipe for box office magic!  Dunces is also notable for his grasp of New Orleans dialect- also something you don't see much of outside Tennessee Williams plays when it comes to literature.   This rich and heady stew seems so potentially intoxicating that the failure of it to gain an audience initially seems even more puzzling.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The World According to Garp (1978) by John Irving

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Robin Williams played Garp and John Lithgow played the memorable character of Roberta, a transsexual who was formerly a tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles
Book Review
The World According to Garp (1978)
 by John Irving

   The World According to Garp was a very much a book that was on the shelf at my parent's home.  I tried reading it when I was young, maybe 11 or 12, and I didn't get very far.  Frankly, I expected, with a title like The World According to Garp, something along the lines of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, science fiction, humor.    There is some humor in The World According to Garp, but no science fiction.   Irving was a student of Kurt Vonnegut at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, a fact which I became aware of halfway through Garp, when I thought to myself, "This books reads like a Kurt Vonnegut novel" and searched the names of both authors on the internet.

  There are also elements of Tom Robbins and Ken Kesey as well as the additional element of post-modernism.  The plot of Garp is both loosely autobiographical AND about the ways in which literature contains and does not the biography of the author.  The protagonist (but not narrator) T.S. Garp is the son of a nurse who decides she wants a baby but not a man.  Working as a nurse in a New England towards the end of World War II, she inseminates herself with the help of a soldier in a vegetative state, and then repairs to her ancestral home of New Hampshire, where she works at a prep school and raises her son, little T.S. Garp.

  After graduation, Mother and son repair to Vienna, where Mom writes an auto-biography that becomes a touchstone of feminism.  Son writes a novella which is well-reviewed but doesn't sell. Garp and Mother return to the States, where Garp claims his bride with the help of his novella (proving he's a "real" writer to his bride, a the daughter of his prep school wrestling coach)  and things move on from there.

  "There" involves A LOT of events.  The major themes are lust, death and human relationships, in the same way that those are the central themes of every Kurt Vonnegut novel.   The World According to Garp has the first explicit discussion of the feminist "movement" of the 60's and 70's, that I have read so far in the 1001 Books project.  This portion very much reminds me of a similar theme in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, published in 1978 by Tom Robbins.  In 2016 it is cringe inducing to realize that a major literary investigation into the feminist movement was authored by the cissest of cis white males.

  The cringe inducing discussions of feminism, which also explicitly treats the issue of transsexualism in a way that was ahead of it's time, are balanced out by some astute observations about the nature of "popular" and "literary" fiction.  Unfortunately, I can't really discuss this portion of The World According to Garp without spoiling the third act,  but I found that part of the book highly satisfying, simply speaking as someone who has given ample time and thought to the issues surrounding art, artists and audiences.

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