Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1865) by Jule Verne

Brendan Fraser reads A Journey to the Center of the Earth in the 2008 movie A Journey to the Center of the Earth

Book Review
Journey to the Center of the Earth (1865)
by Jule Verne

  Not sure where my unwarranted prejudice against audiobooks came from.  The fact is that if you have a long period where you are driving or sitting on a train or plane, or exercising for over an hour, an audiobook is a good bet.  Audiobooks are subject to the same copyright laws as the underlying books- public domain books are also public domain audiobooks. Journey to the Center of the Earth makes for a good public domain audiobook because it's a science fiction genre piece, it isn't that long and there are dinosaurs and shit towards the end of the book.  Still, Journey to the Center of the Earth is a novel written in 1865, and the structure of the novel (and audiobook) is slow to accelerate and features chapters and chapters of staging: introducing the professor, getting them to Iceland, getting them down the volcano- the narrative doesn't really take off till they find the Lidenbrock Sea-  a giant underground ocean.

    Although Journey to the Center of the Earth was "scientific" in its day, the subsequent discovery that the Earth was not, in fact, hollow, or hollow-ish, diminished the strength of the underlying science and pushes the modern reader towards a reading that interprets Journey to the Center of the Earth as a fantasy.  The high point of the first half of Journey is Iceland as a location.  I think it's probably the first time that Iceland features as a setting in any novel.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

French Cancan (1955) d. Jean Renoir

French Cancan (1954) doesn't really score until the last ten minutes when Renoir gives up the full Cancan, in all its glorious 19th century bawdiness.  Splits! Garters! Underwear!
French Cancan (1955)
d. Jean Renoir
Criterion Collection #243

  This film could just as easily be called "The Moulin Rouge" because it is the story of the founding of that club, with impresario Henri Danglard as the roguish hero. Unlike the recent version, there is little singing, thought plenty of dancing.  Renoir doesn't give up the full French Cancan till the last scene, but when it comes, it is a DOOZY.  I might well suggest skipping the entire film and just watching the last 15 minutes for the resolution and triumphant dance scene.  The rest of the picture is above average melodrama with eye popping (for 1954) color visuals.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

To Have and Have Not (1937) by Ernest Hemingway

This Ngram compares the popularity of five Authors: Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.  This Ngram shows that although F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway were more famous, the less "famous" Modernists were actually more popular, particularly as the 20th century ended.

Book Review
To Have and Have Not (1937)
by Ernest Hemingway
Humphrey Bogart played Harry Morgan in the film version of To Have and Have Not (1937) by Ernest Hemingway.  The film changed several key plot points of the book, making it a poor "movie version" and more of it's own film than a faithful adaptation of the literary text

   As the above Ngram clearly demonstrates, Ernest Hemingway's ability to generate book sales and celebrity level attention from the media and audiences did not produce a level of long term popularity equal to that enjoyed by the high modernists: Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.   I would speculate that Ernest Hemingway, perhaps because of his immense popularity with the general public in the 1950s, was less read by literature graduate students in American University English departments, whereas James Joyce and Virginia Woolf were becoming firmly enshrined as fully "canonical" authors.

 Part of me thinks that this is ridiculous, a prejudice by academics against a popular author with a large general audience and respect among the critical community.  On the other hand, I can see where a scholar, could see his talents already in decline by To Have and Have Not, which is either a still-waters-run-deep indictment of the American Dream during the Great Depression or Hemingway's take on the hard boiled Detective novel, or both, or neither I suppose.

  One difference between Hemingway's Hard Boiled Cuban/Florida Keys locations and those of detective fiction mainstays like Hammett and Chandler is the tropical vibes. Another is the moral ambiguity of bootlegging, gun-running Harry Morgan.  Morgan is no private detective, quite the opposite of Hammett's continental operative or Philip Marlowe.   To Have and Have Not was pieced together by Hemingway writing a conclusory novella to two short story/novellas about the Harry Morgan character.   His prose is still bracing in 1937, but To Have and Have Not lacks the personality of his roman-a-clef-ish The Sun Also Rises(1926) and the Italian Front chronicle of A Farewell To Arms (1929.)  Sun and Farewell were career makers, and To Have and Have Not reads as the work of someone who is assured an Audience.  Not lazy, but not world beating. 

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Museum Review: The Avant-Garde Collection @ The Orange County Museum of Art

Chris Burden's assemblage work A Tale of Two Cities is one of the artworks displayed in the Avant Garde Collection exhibit at the Orange County Museum of Art, on until January 5th, 2015

Museum Review: The Avant-Garde Collection @
The Orange County Museum of Art
Exhibit runs through January 4th, 2015

   I didn't have high expectations for the Orange County Museum of Art, which is figuratively if not literally in the parking lot of the Orange County Mega Mall Fashion Island.  I was pleasantly surprised by the content if not the theme of their current exhibition, The Avant-Garde Collection, which runs through January 4th 2015.  I don't typically get into issuing serious criticisms of the underlying logic behind the content of a museum exhibition, but calling a collection of modern art "the avant-garde collection" is akin to calling it "the art collection;" in other words, superfluous and obvious.
This is a photograph of Chris Burden's Metropolis, which is on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

  However the actual works on display were tip top, with my personal favorite being Chris Burden's 1981 room sized installation, A Tale of Two Cities.  Like his somewhat similar work at LACMA, Metropolis, A Tale of Two Cities can not fail to enchant the viewer with the scope and detail both equally pleasing to the eye and mind.

  Other highlights from this exhibit include a video of John Baldessari intoning Sol LeWitt's "rules for making art," a 8 panel Andy Warhol piece featuring Chairman Mao and a couple of very creepy doll centered works.  Does any museum goer in 2014 need to have the concept of "avant-garde" explained?  Hopefully not, but the works included make a short detour from the mall worth the trip.  It's an exhibit arguably worth a trip up from LA, probably not from San Diego.

  There was no permanent collection in site, so if you go the Orange County Museum of Art you are going to see the current exhibit.  They also have a nice looking space for performances.  No museum cafe or restaurant.  Parking was free and easy.

Book Review: Out of Africa (1934) by Isak Dinesen

Meryl Streep in Out of Africa, the 1985 film version of the 1934 book by Isak Dinesen.  A major difference between the film and movie is the strong love story in the film between Streep and Redford's character- which is absent from the book.

Book Review:
Out of Africa (1934)
by Isak Dinesen(Karen Blixen)

  I'm sure that 99/100 Americans think of the 1985 Robert Redford/Meryl Streep starring film when they hear the title of Out of Africa.  The central plot of the film: A passionate love affair between Redford's Denys, a big game hunter, and Streep's Karen is nowhere in the book, which isn't so much a novel as a memoir- an interesting memoir- of a woman who ran a coffee plantation in the Kenyan uplands prior to and after World War I.
Robert Redford played the love interest in the 1985 movie version of Out of Africa.

 The enduring popularity of this book is likely due to the great sensitivity and perception (and respect) that Dinesen/Blixen shows towards the landscape and people of Africa, even as she engaged in a prototypically imperialist endeavor. The world of Out of Africa is a gentle place, with none of the seething hatred and sprang up prior to and after independence.  True, Blixen is hardly looking for trouble- quite the opposite.  Her privileged status as a wealthy white woman, not a British subject (Blixen was Danish) meant that she had a sensitivity to injustice but didn't have to confront it on a daily basis.

  Those looking for a better understanding of modern day Kenya could do worse than starting here. While it would be unfair to call Kenya an unhistorical place, the coming of Europeans to the area was barely preceded by the entrance of Arab slave traders.  Blixen lives among a mix of Kikuyu's- the largest single ethnic group in Kenya, Somalis, who occupy a kind of "house servant" role within colonial Kenya, and the Masai, who live apart but nearby, since her coffee plantation is on the edge of their reserve.

 Dinesen/Blixen has much to say about the people, particularly her native servants.  Much of Out of Africa is split between the natives and her depiction of the land itself, with various European characters popping in and out.  Thought Blixen emigrated to Africa with her husband, they divorced while they were there and Blixen kept the coffee plantation.  Blixen downplays the uniqueness of her role as a single white female plantation owner in the middle of Africa in the early 20th century, but it's easy to read Out of the Africa as a kind of white-girl fantasy of mastery.

 But Out of Africa isn't fictional- and it doesn't even have the structure of a Novel, merely a series of vaguely linked anecdotes from her life in Africa.   So while the book is a romantic tale, it's not a romance, and there is no sex, so if you are looking for that based on the content of the film version, don't bother because it ain't there.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World

Artist's conception of Ancient Delphi, in watercolor.  If you look at this painting, first note the enclosing wall, which is an archeological fact and sets the dimensions of the shrine.  The area closest to the viewer, at the bottom of the enclosed shrine area, are "treasuries" built by various supplicants- mostly greek city-states from the Western Greco-Roman area.  In the top right corner, you see the older part of the shrine, with the temple on the way up the path to the sacred cave.  The area inside the wall in the top right hand corner are statues and other works of art dedicated to the shrine.  There is also a "stoa" tucked away on the right hand side.  The main building in the middle is the enclosed Shrine is the Temple of Apollo.
Top down view of the Delphic shrine with labeled buildings, mirroring the painting of Delphi above.  The actual original cave is off the map, to the top right side (i.e. up a mountain.)

Book Review
Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World
by Michael Scott
Princeton University Press, published March 10th, 2014

    I think all things being equal I'd rather blog about subjects in World History. World History is interesting, and it simply doesn't attract the kind of readers who are an embarrassment to humanity.  World History subjects are also popular with the Audience.  There are 8 tagged World History posts with greater than one thousand page views, and an additional 26 posts with more than 100 page views, meaning that over a third of the tagged World History posts (34/103.) Almost every single post has more than 50 page views, meaning that the average for the category is something like 125 views per tagged post.  Since my average readership for a new post is 20-40, this makes these posts 6 to 3 times more popular than non World History tagged posts.

  As a new release, Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World, was a priority, but I was also genuinely interested in the subject matter, being a fan of "single subject" Greco/Roman/Ancient World history books. These are the kind of subjects where one title can stay current for a half century, so I read Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World with the idea that I would never, ever have to read another book about an ancient Greek shrine.

  The main trend in books about the archeology of ancient Greece and the larger Mediterranean world is an increase in going deeper and looking farther afield for new material.   The bias of interest towards the "classic" period has corresponded to a surfeit of knowledge about that time and a deficit both before and after.  Delphi, in it's hey day, a period which started well before the dawn of classical Greek civilization and ended after the Christian era, was forgotten by the inhabitants by 1400 AD, when the first classical scholar arrived seeking the Delphi he had read about in Greek and Latin texts. After that, it was basically another 400 years before anyone came back, and archeological excavation has preceded fitfully through the 20th century.

  This means that "what we know" is a combination of classic text largely from hundreds of years AFTER the periods described therein, and archeology. I'm mentioning this because many of the customer reviews on libel Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World as either being too simple or not simple enough. Neither assessment is correct, Delphi is simply a work of synthesis with up to date sourcing from available material.  Thus, it reflects the strengths and weaknesses of that material.

 This book is resolutely anti-hocum-pocum, so that we get enough discussion of the proto-ritual, a virgin Sybil sitting in some kind of tripod type arrangement over a vent in a mountain cave where gas issues forth and inspires prophecy.  Later, this ritual would be mimicked but within the later constructed temple of Apollo.  The original cave mountain prophesying was supplanted by the later shrine shown above.

  The later history of Delphi: A History of the Center of the Ancient World is likely to be interesting to readers only to the degree that they are interested by the "late classical period" prior to the fall of the Western Empire.   Under Roman rule, Delphi maintained some relevance in the way that Old World religious sites are appealing to New World followers, but innovation had long since ended.

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