Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, April 28, 2017

The Afternoon of a Writer (1987) by Peter Handke

Book Review
The Afternoon of a Writer (1987)
 by Peter Handke

  It's hard not to compare The Afternoon of a Writer, A German language novella about an isolated and obsessed intellectual, with the contemporaneous work of Thomas Bernhard, another German language writer who writes novella's about obsessed and isolated intellectuals.   Nearly all of the German language works on the 1001 Books list from this time period can be described the same way.

  Unlike Bernhard's protagonitst, Handke's writer can pass for normal, he is alone as part of his writing process, and The Afternoon of a Writer is notable largely for the insight that Handke brings to that lonely world.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Child in Time (1987) by Ian McEwan

Book Review
The Child in Time (1987)
by Ian McEwan

  McEwan placed an ASTONISHING number of titles on the first edition of the 1001 Books list: 8!  Five of them were dropped in 2008.  Another title was dropped in 2010, leaving him with only two core titles:  Atonement (his biggest hit) and The Cement Garden (his first novel.)  McEwan is an author I've always had an attitude about- I've never read Atonement, never read Amsterdam, never seen any of the movies, would laugh at someone who expressed appreciation for his talents- typical hipster bullship attitude stuff.  But I was impressed by The Cement Garden- which is spoooky as hell, and this book- The Child in Time- which is his breakthrough in terms of his- I think- characteristic ability to warp the workings of time and space.  I think that's where he's headed in his big monster hits, though I can't quite be sure.

 It's true that your author's from the 1980's who combine critical and popular success tend to couple solid, if uninspired technique with power packed twists, much in the same way a movie works to develop suspense.  Here, McEwan starts with a horrifying event: the abduction of a 3 year old child from a grocery store check out counter in London, and traces it's impact on the life of the father, the protagonist, and his wife and family.    The Child in Time obviously lacks the immense swagger of his later blockbusters, but all the elements are there.

  But losing six out of eight original titles- would clearer evidence could one have of the extremely arbitrary and biased process of canon making exercise. "Yes, let's include eight books from a guy who literally everyone who buys this book will have already heard of, because he's popular right as we are publishing this book- that's a good idea."

Cigarettes (1987) by Harry Mathews

Book Review
Cigarettes (1987)
by Harry Mathews

  I don't think the editors of the 1001 Books list eliminated many authors who only placed a single title on the initial list.  Rather, I think most of the 300 books that got cut in 2008 were authors with two or more titles. Cigarettes is the only title for American author Harry Mathews- he was also the best known (only?) American representative of the Oulipo movement, a Paris-based group of writers who were interested in applying specific restraints to the writing process.   It's a movement that has been more directly influential in Europe- you can think of the Lars Von Trier producing/Harmony Korine associated Dogme 95 movement, for one.  You can also consider the restraint driven work of multi-platform American artist Matthew Barney.

     In Cigarettes, Mathews undertakes the telling of a more or less conventional multi-generational family drama set in 1960's New York City and environs, but tells it by making each chapter about a single relationship between two characters.  Some of the characters reappear in subseqeunt chapters, but never the same pair.  So it's, father/daughter, daughter/lover father/father of second family, mother/son, etc.  Within the chapters there is less experimentalism, with Mathews prose echoing other New York centered authors from the 1980's.  Mathews also sets his characters against the back drop of the growth of the re-insurance industry in New York City.

   Re-insurance is when a company buys a valid insurance claim from a disaster victim- warehouse fire, ship sinking in a storm, etc, and then exploits the claim for maximum value making a profit on the difference between what they pay the disaster victim and what the insurance company pays them.   Mathews also touches on the lives of artist, intellectuals and gay culture.  It is, in other words, a familiar blend of materials.

Show Review: The Stagecoach Discovery Tour w/ Jamey Johnson, Margo Price & Brent Cobb @ North Park Observatory

Show Review: The Stagecoach Discovery Tour
 w/ Jamey Johnson, Margo Price & Brent Cobb
@ North Park Observatory
San Diego, CA.

  Getting ready all this week for Stagecoach, particularly Saturday Night with a sequence of Margo Price, Willie Nelson and Shania Motherfucking Twain basically in a row.   The prep for that begins this week, with a couple of local dates on the Stagecoach Discovery Tour with Jamey "Kicked Out of Country" Johnson, Margo and Brent Cobb (He's Dave Cobb's cousin, not his brother, FYI).  Last night it was the first date on the tour, playing the North Park Observatory (f/k/a the North Park Theater).  I am a decided fan of the venue, if not the staff at the venue.

  Pre-gaming across the street at the Waypoint Tavern, I got a taste of the vibe for the night:  manly men wearing Johnson's trademark "Kicked Out of Country" t-shirt and some combination of work wear and/or cowboy books, with a much smaller number of cowgirls.   When the tour was announced, the question on my mind was who was Jamey Johnson- turns out he's a Chris Stapelton type with several great records and a spotty relationship with labels and publishers.  He's currently in the middle of a multi year dispute that has rendered him unwilling or unable to release a new record, but his passionate fan base provided a justification for his headliner status.  That and his enormous tour truck/bus combination.

  The shows at the North Park Observatory start impressively early, Brent Cobb's set started before 8, Margo played at 8:15 AM.  Amazingly, last night was her first date in San Diego since her last record came out, another testament to her competitiveness in so many mid size and small markets that she can afford to ignore San Diego completely. The crowd was assuredly there for the headliner, but they were very interested in both opening acts, far beyond what you'd expect from a similarly sized rock crowd.

  I would have liked to do more wandering through the crowd, but I'm planning to get my crowd work in tomorrow night at the Ace Theater in downtown Los Angeles, where the same tour takes the stage.  Good tickets still available!  Jamey Johnson has a two hour set!


Monday, April 24, 2017

The Black Dahlia (1987) by James Ellroy

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

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

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

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

Legend (1984) by David Gemmell

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

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

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

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

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

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