Dedicated to classics and hits.

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

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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