Dedicated to classics and hits.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Go-Between (1953) L.P. Hartley

Book Review
The Go-Between (1953)
 by L.P. Hartley

    The Go-Between is the 1953 English novel, The Go-Betweens are the long-lived Australian indie band named after the novel.  The Go-Between is a late example of the English country-house novel, revolving around issues of class, property and marriage.  Leo Colston narrates the story from the perspective of an elderly man looking back on a formative summer spent at the country house of an aristocratic classmate.

   While at the house, Leo is drawn into carrying messages between Marian, the eldest daughter of the house, and Ted, a local farmer.   What appears at first to be something in the nature of a gentle comic/coming of age type story turns into something darker by the end, which likely explains the enduring appeal.  To give you an idea, Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay for the movie version.  The Go-Between reminded me of a cross between something written by Evelyn Waugh and Thomas Hardy.

The Once and Future King (1958) by T.H. White

Merlin tutors Arthur.
Book Review
The Once and Future King (1958)\
 by T.H. White

   This retelling of the Arthurian legends was ruined for a generation of kids by Disney's terrible adaptation of the first book, The Sword and the Stone released in 1963.  The entire story cycle includes three other books, The Sword and the Stone  (1938), The Queen of Air and Darkness (1939),  The Ill-Made Knight (1940) and The Candle in the Wind (1958).   A contemporary reader is unlikely to find anything other than the four novels collected as The Once and Future King, and that's how I read them, on my Kindle- with the amazing (new?) feature "word wise" where you can touch a word and it will give you the Oxford English Dictionary definition.

  I've gone back and forth on whether to engage the ebook world or stick to real books, but the ability to pull up the definition of unknown words was particularly useful reading The Once and Future King due to White's repeated use of words derived from the universe of medieval chivalry.  Because of the Disney association, The Once and Future King is typically considered a children's book, but it really is not that.  The Arthurian legends are filled with illicit sex, including a substantial plot point that turns on incest, seduction and viscous, cruel violence.   White's narrator writes from the perspective of a contemporary narrator, and he is quick to draw allusions to the events of the 20th century.

  After the initial book, which is about young Arthur being tutored by Merlin and gaining the throne of England when he pulls the sword from the stone, the subjects become quite adult and White alternates from the central themes of the difficulties Arthur has trying to introduce concepts like "fairness" and "justice" to England and the lesser myths of the Arthurian cycle, the quest for the grail and Lancelots adulterous relationship with Queen Guinevere.  Everything moves at a fast pace, and even though the full cycle is something like 750 pages in print, the reader is ushered along at a nearly cinematic pace

  Adults who have avoided the full cycle because of the Disney version of the first book might well consider giving The Once and Future King a shot, particularly if they are Harry Potter wizard types.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Roots of Heaven (1956) by Romain Gary

Book Review
The Roots of Heaven (1956)
 by Romain Gary

   The Roots of Heaven is like...if Wes Anderson made an adventure film.  Although John Houston actually did make a movie out of it only two years after it was published.  The Roots of Heaven is about rag tag group of European misfits on a quixotic quest to save the elephants in the northern part of French Equatorial Africa.  They are a mixed bag, a French partisan, a young German woman working as a bar hostess in Chad, a Danish naturalist and an American "traitor" who was disgraced by North Korean captors by being forced to denounce the United States over the radio.  Together they roam the wastes of present day Chad and Central African Republic, burning down the homesteads of people engaged in the Ivory trade.

  They combine forces with a nascent French speaking African revolutionary, late an actual member of Parliament of France under their unique system where colonies were made part of France itself.  Gary is forward thinking in his discussion of ideas like nationalism and environmentalism.  He really is quite prescient in handling questions that maintain their relevance today.

 Although the philosophizing can get a bit thick in the tradition of many philosophical novels written by French authors, the setting and terrorism angle help the lengthy discussions of environmentalism, nationalism, communism and capitalism go down easy.

Homo Faber (1959) by Max Frisch

Julie Delpy playes Elizabeth "Sabeth" Piper in the Schlondorff movie of Homo Faber by Max Frisch.
Book Review
Homo Faber (1959)
 by Max Frisch

  Homo Faber is a weird little book built around an unknowingly incestuous relationship between a Swiss-German man and his half Jewish daughter (played by Julie Delphy in the Schlondorff movie version.)   The copy I checked out from the San Diego Public Library was the movie edition of the book, and Julie Delpy's face was plastered on the cover.    I hadn't heard of the movie.  Most of Schlondorff's films are in the Criterion Collection, so the fact of the movie edition even existing gave me pause.

  With Homo Faber, the reader is in Lolita territory.  Frisch doesn't stop with incest, the first portion of the novel, prior to the incestuous relationship deals with the discovery of the suicide of the step father of Sabeth Piper by Max Faber, her father lover.  The opening portion of Homo Faber is set in the Yucatan, as Faber travels to a remote plantation to find Piper's step-father hanging by the neck, a suicide.    I thought the description of the Yucatan was spot on and surpassed other descriptions of Mexico by European/English/American authors.

  Despite the heavy subject matter, the narrator maintains a breezy, conversational tone.  Faber is an existential hero, undisturbed by events that historically drive people stark raving mad. You could read that detatchment as representing unprocessed trauma from the experiences of World War II, but Frisch hardly alludes to the War or it's aftermath.

Book Review: The Tin Drum (1959) by Gunter Grass

David Bennett memorably portrayed Oskar Matzerath, the perpetually child-like dwarf hero of The Tin Drum, in the 1979 film version of the book.
Book Review:
 The Tin Drum (1959)
by Gunter Grass

  The Tin Drum is probably the most famous work by a German author between the end of World War II and today.  Not only the book, which is the only post World War II German novel that anyone you know has ever read, if they've read a post World War II German novel at all.  The film, which is an incredibly literal rendition of the novel, won the Palme D'Or in Cannes and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1979/1980.

 Oskar is a Zelig/Forest Gump/Stewie Griffin type of character, a pale dwarf who claims that he voluntarily stopped growing at the age of 3, when he threw himself down the stairs.  Oskar lives in Danzig, now Gdansk, a German enclave in present day Poland.   He is the child of an unconventional mother, one who shares affections with a German Deli owner and a Polish post-office worker.  The dynamic between the Mother and her two lovers ends in her death.   The rest of the novel concerns Oskar's life and adventures.  He is what you call an "unreliable" narrator, and he shifts between first and third person narration within the same paragraph.

 Grass came from a heavily German populated area of present day Poland called Kashubia.  Kashubians speak a Polish dialect, and are typically considered Poles.  However, because of the heavy presence of Germans in Danzig, and Danzig's role as the economic engine of Kashubia, Kashubians were not particularly "Polish."  Grass traces the mutability of ethnic and linguistic identity over the course of The Tin Drum.

 Oskar's own experience in World War II mirrors that of the Kashubians.  They were a friendly slavic population to the Nazi regime, and to the Soviets they were oppressed Poles awaiting liberation.   They were also in a good position to inherit businesses abandoned by ethnic Germans after Danzig was captured by the Russians.  One aspect of The Tin Drum doesn't really come across unless you actually read the book/watch the movie, that's the ribaldry of Oskar's adventures.  He is perceived as an asexual dwarf, but his sexual situation is very important to his inner narrative and takes up a good deal of the 550 page plus book.

  Like many of the other plot points in the narrative, Oskar's obsession with his parentage and the parentage of other characters in the book, including a brother who he maintains is his son, mirrors the obsessions of the Nazis, with their emphasis on racial hygiene. Although The Tin Drum is but one volume of the authors Danzig trilogy, it stands on it's own as one of the most enduring narratives of World War II as experienced by Eastern Europeans.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Henderson the Rain King (1959) by Saul Bellow

Eugene Henderson resembles a description of actor Brian Dennehy
Book Review
Henderson the Rain King (1959)
 by Saul Bellow

  You can tell when an artist has achieved financial stability because the work rate goes way down.  The percentage of artists who continue to turn out top flight works year after year in the period after they've achieved financial stability is a small percentage of financially successful artists, who are of course a tiny, tiny percentage of total people devoted full or part time to an artistic endeavor.   For Saul Bellow, that threshold was reached in 1953, when The Adventures of Augie March was published.  Augie March won the national book award and sold buckets, securing Bellow the kind of financial stability that allowed him to take several years to write and publish Seize the Day (1957), itself a novella.  Henderson the Rain King followed in '59.  It achieved success on a par with Augie March.

  For the first time, Bellow takes his action outside of the western hemisphere (Augie March had scenes said in the interior of Mexico.)  His hero, Eugene Henderson, is a larger-than-life type of fellow, think Brian Dennehy   Henderson is an unhappy rich white guy, on his second wife, his second batch of kids, aimlessly raising pigs on his families spread in Danbury Connecticut.   He resembles nothing so much as an 18th century English Aristocrat, the kind who didn't attend school or do anything except hunt and collect rents from their estate.  Bellow has updated the type- Henderson attended Harvard and flirts with the idea of returning to school to become a Doctor.  

  Like, Augie March, which integrated two centuries of bildgungsroman into a particular American milieu, Henderson the Rain King traverses the history of literature for elements while also making an indelibly contemporary statement.  Timely and timeless at the same time, that's literature for you.  On a whim, Henderson decides to travel to Africa, where he hires a guide and hikes out into the bush of Central Africa- it sounds like the Central African Republic or perhaps Southern Chad.   In the bush, he encounters two different African tribes, both with western educated leaders.

 His encounters with these leaders constitutes the core of the book, and both Kings are foils in the sense of an 18th century philosophical discourse.  Henderson is repeatedly asked what he is doing out in the bush, and his answers, and actual experiences end up being something like Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness crossed with Monty Python.  It's impossible to treat Henderson as other than a comic novel.  The description of Africans and their leaders aren't insulting, but they are hardly realistic.   Africa is like a a psychic projection of Henderson, like the whole thing could be taking place inside his head at a mental hospital.


Monday, December 14, 2015

The Romani Gypsy (2015) by Yaron Matras

Path of the Gypsy Romani migration out of India
Book Review
The Romani Gypsy (2015)
 by Yaron Matras

   It is really, really difficult to get reliable information about the Romani Gypsy because their language is unwritten.  They have suffered from all the indignities that minority populations have suffered in the 20th century.  Their entrance into Europe was largely as slaves in what is present day Romania. In recent centuries, isolate populations in western Europe have lost their language entirely and are placed in a situation similar to that of Native American tribes in the United States, trying to resurrect a language few speak fluently.

  The most useful parts of The Romani Gypsy are just the straight forward, historical facts that he lays out about their history and culture.  The Rom/Romani/Gypsy trace their roots back to western India.  They speak a language that is akin to contemporary Hindi or Urdu.  In India, they were a caste of craftsman and maybe travelling entertainers.  They left India at some point, and probably spent time in Central Asia under Turkic rule.  Matras is a linguist, and he uses hisorical-linguistic arguments in a way similar to the methods employed by Indo European linguists.

  After that, the Rom spent centuries in the Byzantine empire, where Greek entered the Rom language in a big way.  The fall of the Byzantine Empire was disruptive to the Rom, and many entered into Southeastern Europe with the Ottoman Empire  Their entrance into Western Europe and the consciousness of the West was in the 15th century, where Rom coming from Romania and southeastern Europe arrived in larger kin groups, often bearing letters of recommendation describing themselves as "Egyptians."

  Once they arrived in Western Europe, they attracted local camp followers.  In places like Germany, England and Spain local "traveler" groups developed semi-independently of the eastern European Rom. Besides laying out the true history of the Gypsy Romani migration into the West, he also does an excellent job describing hitherto undescribed beliefs of the Romani civilization.  These are practices common to both Rom and Traveler groups, and provide the strongest evidence besides shared vocabulary/language that they are all part of one ethnicity.

Rabbit, Run (1960) by John Updike

Book Review
Rabbit, Run (1960)
 by John Updike

  John Updike actually worked at the New Yorker before going full time as a novelist.  He personifies the idea of "New Yorker Fiction" in my mind,  He's white, he's male, he lives in New England. Rabbit, Run was the first novel in his tetralogy about Rabbit Angstrom, a former high school basketball star who has trouble to adjusting to life after stardom.

   At the beginning of Rabbit, Run  Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom is unhappily married to a young woman named Janice who is heavily pregnant and heavily drinking.  He works demonstrating a "slicer dicer" in a department store. Janice and Harry already have one child, a boy, who is a toddler.  He is 26.   Based on feelings of alienation and ennui, Angstrom abandons Janice in favor of the company of a part-time prostitute in the town next door.

  Although published in 1960, Angstrom is a quintessential 1950s character.  In the preface John Updike wrote for the collected Harry Angstrom novels, he mentions how he read Jack Kerouac and the writers of the Beat Generation "with horror" because they "abandoned their responsibilities."  At the same time Rabbit, Run is racier than I had imagined.  Sexuality is addressed as frankly as one would see in a Henry Miller novel, and there are female solliguys that owe a direct debt to the sexually frank passages in Ulysses by James Joyce (Updike acknowledges the debt in his foreword.)
 Updike is one of those "so square that he's hip again."  He's still awaiting something like a first revival after being canonized even before his own death.  Rabbit, Run is a sharp, fresh take on contemporary American life circa the mid 1950s.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Book Review: Doctor Zhivago (1957) by Boris Pasternak

Doctor Zhivago, another Russian novel where you need a scorecard to keep track of the characters.
Book Review:
Doctor Zhivago (1957)
 by Boris Pasternak

   You can't talk Doctor Zhivago without talking about the Cold War. Banned by the Soviet government prior to publication, a manuscript was smuggled out of the country and published in Italy (in Italian) in 1957.   The United States picked up on "propaganda value" of Doctor Zhivago and this led to the CIA publishing a Russian edition and smuggling back into Russia.  In the west, Zhivago was nothing less than a sensation, with a Omar Sharif starring, David Lean directed film and many millions of copies sold.  In fact, the library version I checked out was an illustrated Readers Digest edition- color illustrations!

   As you can see from the above diagram, the number of characters and their interrelationships can be difficult to follow, and this is made worse by Pasternak's refusal to stick with a single name.   The action spans several generations and takes place between 1903 and the end of World War II.  Mainly though, the Russian Civil War takes center stage, as seen through the eyes of Yuri, a Doctor and a Zhivago and therefore the Doctor Zhivago of the title although he is literally never called Doctor Zhivago by anyone at any time for the entire book.

 Yuri flees Moscow at the onset of the civil war, only to be captured by Red Communist Partisans and forced to work as a Doctor.  Near the end of the war, he deserts, only to find that his wife has left to return to Moscow.   He then hooks up with the wife of a friend, and spends an additional several years in the sticks before returning to Moscow, where he lives as a semi-vagrant derelict.

  It is easy to see why the Soviet's refused to allow Doctor Zhivago to be published inside Russia.  The Civil War is a disaster for everyone, and what comes next, the runaway inflation and disastrous economic policies of the so-called N.E.P. or "new economic period" are arguably worse.    With the exception of the period Yuri spends as the Doctor-prisoner of the Partisan army, Doctor Zhivago is almost a moles-eye view of the Russian experience of the early 20th century.

  Pasternak does a great job conveying the experience of loneliness, confusion and alienation that many experienced at the hands of the totalitarian Russian regime.  While readers are spared some of the more graphic details of mass slaughter and state-sponsored terror, Pasternak makes sure that you know about it happening off camera.  Any potential for glamour or fetishization of the Russian Revolution is defeated by Pasternak's prose.

Show Review: waterstrider @ the Satellite Los Angeles

Show Review:
@ the Satellite Los Angeles

     Waterstrider, from Oakland California, is one of the initial crop of artists signed to 30th Century Records, the new Columbia hosted record label of Brian "Danger Mouse" Burton.  Waterstrider was in town last night to play for a crowd that consisted almost entirely of Columbia/Sony Music employees, employees of the William Morris Endeavor Agency and family members.   Sporting a six piece set up and prominently featuring a skilled congo drum player, waterstrider evoked something like chk-chk-chk influenced by a decade of Arcade Fire records.   Waterstrider are very much the project of front man/guitarist Nate Salman.

  I have to confess that I am impressed by the vision behind 30th Century Records: Signing hard working rock bands that are flying under the radar of the current blog-tastemaker set.  Almost every major label affiliated imprint that I've followed over the last decade of my involvement in independent music has involved poaching bands that have already drawn said attention, often with the support of a struggling indie label that has no other successful artists.  Two notable examples of this typical approach have been Harvest Records and Mom and Pop- both Warner Music affiliated.

  On the other hand, I don't envy the task that 30th Century Records has set itself.  Having personally seen the sales figures for better known rock bands over the past few years, I can testify that there is very little music in record sales for less known bands.  On the other hand, there seems to be a ton of money out there for syncs and a combination of that with touring and occasional private gigs seems to be enough to sustain younger artists.


Monday, December 07, 2015

Lucky Jim (1954) by Kingsley Amis

Maybe an Angry Young Man, but certainly a deft comic novel.
Book Review
Lucky Jim (1954)
 by Kingsley Amis

  If you like contemporary English comedy, whether in book, television or film, you like Lucky Jim, you just may not know it yet.  Lucky Jim is a primary text for understanding 20th century English comedy.   Early Kingsley Amis is either a prime example of the "Angry Young Man" genre of English literature OR a temporal associate with some similarities and more striking differences with the "Angry Young Man" genre of English literature.   I actually had a conversation about this subject last night with inclusive results, ("The Wikipedia page on Angry Young Men lists Amis in the first paragraph,"  "Yeah, but did you read the actual article, it says that he isn't really part of it.")

  Another example of "Angry Young Man" English literature is Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse, which of course was published in 1959.   Generally, "Angry Young Men" literature can be described as post World War II "kitchen sink" plots with a wry awareness of changes in contemporary society and the role of class and education for young men.   The gender part of the term is crucial, English literature was hardly at the forefront  of sponsoring diverse voices before the 1960s.
  Lucky Jim is also an academic novel, which is a genre that is barely emerging in the 1950s- I can think of John Barth- who published The Floating Opera- which is certainly also an academic novel, in the United States, in 1958.   The academic novel is still out there in contemporary English language fiction and also exists in the literature in other languages.  These novels concern themselves with the minutiae of individuals who work as professors or assistant professors. their lives and loves.  The academic location is like an update of the English Country House novel of the 19th century- a place where people have ample time and energy for ridiculous emotional shenanigans.


A Town Like Alice (1950) by Neil Shute

A Town Like Alice was both an international publishing and film hit, no doubt helped by the exotic locales and strong female protagonist.
Book Review
A Town Like Alice (1950)
 by Neil Shute

   Seems like the main difference between fiction and literature is that the former has happy endings and the latter has unhappy endings.  This wasn't always the case.  Much of 18th and 19th century canonical literature has "and they lived happily ever after" type endings.   Books ending with weddings, double weddings, a sudden inheritance, etc.  It's not until you get into Thomas Hardy that literature begins to get regular unhappy endings.

  By the mid-20th century, high literature is associated with either an unhappy ending, no ending at all, or endings that aren't really endings.  A Town Like Alice is a rare exception which earns its way into the canon with a realistic treatments of World War II horrors with a story about economic development in the "Wild West" of Australia. Both elements are wrapped in a narrator who embodies a typical English reader of this novel: A wealthy, older, lawyer who is in charge of managing a vexatious trust until she reaches the age of 35.  The use of a trust instrument as a narrative framing device evokes 19th century authors like Charles Dickens, and does legions to ground A Town Like Alice in the tradition of English literature while covering vibrant new territory (World War II in South East Asia, the development of Australia after World War II.)

  A Town Like Alice is a very English example of the expansion of the canon to include the nations of the English commonwealth: Australia, New Zealand, Southern Africa, the Caribbean. "British Literature" which is a term I use to categorize books written by people in places like Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Canada, I suppose, becomes a much larger and certainly a more vibrant territory.   Another canonical aspect of A Town Like Alice is the strong female heroine (she is no mere protagonist.)  While many novels used women who could be described as "strong and independent" as the main character, none of those women could write a horse 20 miles through the outback or survive life as a prisoner of Japan in Malaya during World War II.

Friday, December 04, 2015

The Violent Bear It Away (1960) by Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O'Connor hanging out with peacocks, AS ONE DOES.
Book Review
The Violent Bear It Away (1960)
 by Flannery O'Connor

  O'Connor only wrote two novels, The Violent Bear It Away and Wise Blood.  They are equally amazing, and work quite well together.  The Violent Bear It Away almost seemed like a prequel to Wise Blood.  O'Connor is almost synonymous with the genre of Southern Gothic, so much so that you could say that her work epitomizes the genre.  I'm sure O'Connor would take issue with the use of such a broad term to describe her work, but ultimately when you are talking about a genre you are talking about it because there is a large audience for books described as such, not because an artist wrote a book for a specific genre.  As a genre Southern Gothic is weak in terms of the total audience size unless you include "every graduate student of literature" and sales of Anne Rice novels.  Certainly, the HBO Series True Blood is firmly rooted in the Southern Gothic tradition.

  The literary genre of Gothic extends back to the 18th century.  As early as the 1780s and 90s there was an English audience for books described as "Gothic" and these books inevitably involved castles in Southern Europe, supernatural forces and a late medieval/early modern time frame.   In the early 19th century, writers like Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters brought Gothic home with books like Wuthering (Bronte) and Northanger Abbey (Austen).  Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1818, and Bram Stoker wrote Dracula in 1897, creating two icons of 19th and 20th century popular culture.

    None of the 18th or 19th century examples resemble the Southern Gothic of Faulkner or O'Connor. 18th and 19th century Gothic is somewhat generic to geography.  Basically, you need a large house/castle in a remote location.  Southern Gothic is obsessed with the geography of the rural south.  Faulkner spent his whole career writing about one county in Mississippi.  Similarly, O'Connor's books are equally more so southern as they are Gothic.  The supernatural plays no part in her work unless you consider Catholicism and Catholic themes supernatural.

   Essentially, by the mid-20th century Gothic became a synonym for weird or outre subject matter and themes.  So, in that sense, The Violent Bear It Away is Gothic but really it's more like Southern Modernism or Southern Grotesque.  

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Billy Liar (1959) by Keith Waterhouse

Billy Liar

Book Review
Billy Liar (1959)
 by Keith Waterhouse

   Here's something I've learned about the music business: The American music industry is filled with Americans who love love English culture and also with the actual English who are often employed by music industry companies that either from England or have offices there.   This fascination typically starts around the time of The Who and runs right through to the present day.  Much of the money in the music industry has to do with making money internationally or taking an artist who makes money in one place and making money with them in another market or multiple markets.

  Thus, if you are a local musician looking to interact with a representative of the music industry itself, you can do worse then leading with something you like about English popular culture.  You get cool points for knowing about English things that these industry types (or actual English people) haven't heard of, which brings us to Billy Liar, which basically a forgotten early salvo in the Teen Age of popular youth culture.
Steve Guttenberg in the short lived sitcom Billy, a version of Billy Liar, the 1959 novel by Keith Waterhouse.

 "Forgotten," is a relative term. Billy Liar was an immediate hit upon its initial publication in England, leading to a play, a tv show, , a musical AND a short lived American television version starring Steve Guttenberg!   Billy is a young guy living in Yorkshire, dreaming of writing comedy in  for a television comedian.  He is prone to flights of magical thinking and misrepresentations, and much of the plot has to do with his actions as he plans to leave town for a vague promise of work in London.   Billy is one of the first characters in an English novel to be recognizable as a member of a youth sub culture.  He actually goes to a fully described record shop, The X-L disc bar that one would describe as "hip"- and this in 1958/59.

Monday, November 30, 2015

A History of Zimbabwe (2015) by Alois S. Mlambo

A map of Zimbabwe, formerly known as Southern Rhodesia

Book Review
A History of Zimbabwe (2015)
by Alois S. Mlambo

  Zimbabwe has been in the news for all the wrong reasons in the last decade as the sclerotic regime of Mugabe has systemically wrecked the Zimbabwean economy.  You wouldn't know it from the coverage but Zimbabwe didn't obtain majority rule until 1980, after a nearly 15 year long civil war fought between the minority rule state security forces and a variety of rebel groups.  Zimbabwe represents some of the worst excesses of racist minority-white rule with an extremely effective example of economic development and state building by that same terrible government. Zimbabwe was not colonized until 1890, when a literal column of white settlers funded by arch-imperalist Cecil Rhodes wagon trained into the territory that would become Southern Rhodesia and later Zimbabwe.  Many of the colonists were English south Africans who were fleeing what they felt was a South African administration that favored Dutch settlers.
For many years, European scholars refused to admit that the builders of the ruins of Great Zimbabwe were white in rather than the ancestors of the African inhabitants of the area.

  Although the white settlers perpetuated the idea that the area was unsettled, Zimbabwe actually had a thousand year plus tradition of multi ethnic states, most notably the Great Zimbabwe from which the modern state would take its name.  Minority white rule manifested itself in most unsubtle fashion.  Africans were systematically pushed off the best land in favor of white owners, who would often let the land lie fallow as a speculative investment.  For years, educated Africans pleaded simply to be elevated to "white" status, only to be rebuffed.  Eventually, the refusal of the white rulers to contemplate incremental transition to majority rule led to Southern Rhodesia declaring independence unilaterally and being treated as a pariah state, even by the similarly racist regime in South Africa.

  Eventually, the minority rule regime saw the writing on the wall, and power was handed over to Mugabe in 1980.  What followed was hardly a model transition to democracy, with continued fighting among native groups for power and massacres of Independence minded ethnic minorities within Zimbabwe.   The related issues of what to do with the former guerrilla fighters and the existing Zimbabwe defense forces led to disproportionate spending on defense.  Fear of the new regime led to an exodus by white citizens and Mugabe developed into a serial violator of human rights.

   Well into the new millennium, the problem of land redistribution continued to plague Zimbabwe, with war veterans expropriating white farms, and those farmers fighting back in the court system.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Grass is Singing (1950 by Doris Lessing

Book Review
The Grass is Singing (1950)
 by Doris Lessing

  The story of European imperialism in Africa did not end after the post World War II independence movements. Most Americans are vaguely familiar with what happened in South Africa: the apartheid regime and the actions by the African National Congress, leading to relatively peaceful handing over of power following negotiations in 1990.   The story in the area north of South Africa, called Rhodesia, then Northern Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia and then, after independence Zambia and Zimbabwe.   Zimbabwe became quasi-independent in the 1960s when a whites-only government was denied permission to form an avowedly racist post colonial state.  A two decade civil war followed, with the present regime taking power in 1980.  Most whites in Zimbabwe left at that point, and those that remained have faced sometimes violent attempts at land repatriation at the hands of the ruling party.

  Doris Lessing is FROM Zimbabwe and her experience was that of the poor white farmers of that place. There is nothing particularly problematic about her attitude, and it's impressive that a novel written by a white Rhodesian in the early 1950s has stood up so well over time.  I think the sexual undertones to the conflict between Mary Turner and her African murderer/house boy make this title less favored as a class room book (compared to Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.)   All three books represent a half-way point between a truly native African literature and the tourist colonialism of Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and lesser literary lights.

 I was quite taken with her descriptions of the lonelness of the southern African savannah or "Veldt" as it is know by the Dutch settlers.  Midway through the book, she becomes obsessed with the incessant heat, almost to the point where you could argue the heat and stillness drive her mad. Lessing is aware of the physical environment of her novel in a way that is unusual for a book published in 1950.

Self-Condemned (1954) by Wyndham Lewis

Book Review
Self-Condemned (1954)
 by Wyndham Lewis

  You can make a strong case that Wyndham Lewis is a canonical artist of the 20th century.  He invented artistic movements(Vorticism, the only "avant garde" art movement to emerge in England in the early 20th century), wrote roman a clef type novels which continue to maintain audience and critical attention and had a strong reputation as a painter.  On the other hand, he is generally a hateful human being and flirted with Nazism prior to the outset of World War II, which he, essentially, fled.

 Self-Condemned is a thinly veiled autobiographical novel about a Lewis type figure who gives up his kushy job as a University Professor in England to move to a mid-size town in Canada, where he knows no one and has no prospects.  The first portion of the novel is set in England, where Rene announces his decision, much to the shock and disappointment of almost everyone in his immediate and extended family.

  Most significantly his wife, Hester(called Essie) who is that sort of 20th century woman who is hooked up with a male "intellectual" without herself being one. Upon arrival in North America, they are literally confined to a hotel room, where the interactions between husband and wife assume the proportions of a Samuel Beckett play- claustrophobic and hateful.

  All of Lewis' major novels concern the interactions between hateful intellectuals and wealthy English, but none maintains the kind of focus on a pair of characters like Self-Condemned.  By the end of the book I really hated Rene, and I really kind of hate Wyndham Lewis, and I say that after reading Tarr and Apes of Wrath- his books about pre-World War I Paris and post World War I London respectively. Maybe though it's Lewis' success at evoking this strong passion that marks him as a great novelist.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Seize the Day (1956) by Saul Bellow

Book Review
Seize the Day (1956)
by Saul Bellow

  In the foreward to the edition I read, critic Cynthia Ozick notes that Seize the Day, a slight novella spanning a single day in the life of failed actor (and human being) Tommy Adler nee Wilhelm, is dwarfed by coming after The Adventures of Augie March, also written by Bellow and published the year before.  Augie March was Bellow's big hit with the reading public, and its success set him up for a lifetime of critical and popular attention.   Bellow dominates American literary fiction in the 1950s and to a certain extent his vision of the 1950s masculinity is one the public has come to accept as "true."

   Tommy Adler, the protagonist in Seize the Day, is a pure Bellow male loser- a would-be Alpha heading down towards the bottom of Beta.  Although Seize the Day takes place in a single day, much of the text is devoted to various musings by Adler about his past mistakes and his present predicaments.  Even though I don't consider myself either a typical 50s style American male or an abject failure, I am old enough and wise enough to relate to  Adler/Wilhelm and his problems with a wife who won't divorce him (or fuck him) and a father who sees him as a loss to be cut off the balance sheet.  That isn't my reality, but it very well could be.

  Once again, I'm confronted with the fact that I very much relate to the most out-of-fashion, "white-male" centered titles in the 1001 Books project.  When I brought Bellow up to a gathering of high school classmates- all university educated white men on the cusp of their 40s, I found myself advocating for Bellow, "No, I know he has a dowdy reputation, but if you are a white guy dealing with mid life issues like family, jobs and kids, you really should check him out."

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945) by Carlo Levi

Christ Stopped at Eboli is a memoir of the author who was exiled in this remote region of Italy in the period before World War II

Book Review
Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945)
by Carlo Levi

  I bought Christ Stopped at Eboli on my Kindle months ago and there it has sat, waiting for the inspiration of a vacation to give the impetus to finish.  Christ Stopped is a memoir about the author's time in internal exile in this remote region in Southern Italy.   Compared to the horrors that would engulf Italy and the rest of Europe during World War II, Levi's bucolic existence in Eboli seems less like a prison sentence and more like a rural idyll.

  Modern readers will be most interested in Levi's description of southern Italian rural life prior to World War II.  He describes a mixed bag of characters: peasants, rural land owners, other exiled intellectuals/dissenters.   As a medical doctor, Levi has ample opportunity to get deeply involved in the lives of those around him and this experience produces a quiet, enjoyable read.

  There isn't much in the way of "action" in Christ Stopped at Eboli.  The terms of Levi's exile prohibit him from leaving the immediate environs of the small village he has been sent to, so almost of all of what happens happens inside the small village.  There is no romantic involvement, and Levi remains a spectator from beginning to end.

A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014) by Marlon James

The attempted assassination of Bob Marley by CIA bankrolled gangsters is the central plot point in A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James.

Book Review
A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014)
 by Marlon James

  Bringing A Brief History of Seven Killings on vacation with me in Jamaica was like wearing a band t-shirt to the same band's concert.   Recent winner of the Man Booker prize,  A Brief History of Seven Killings is a blood-soaked retelling of an alleged CIA sponsored plot to assassinate Bob Marley and the subsequent move of Jamaican organized crime syndicates into the crack trade in New York City. The attempted murder of Bob Marley is a matter of historical record, and the alleged CIA involvement is an old story- after finishing the book I googled the subject and found the exact plot of the book laid out in a news story from 2010.

  The story is told through a multiplicity of different voices. The afterward by the author cites William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying as a direct inspiration, but given the rock and roll milieu it reminded me more of a Spin magazine oral history.   The lack of a central narrator or introduction to the back story of Jamaican politics makes the first hundred pages or so difficult to understand.  Basically, Jamaica has two political parties, the People's National Party and the Jamaican Labor Party.  The People's National Party was the part of independence, and at the time of the book (1979) they were firmly socialist and heading farther to the left.  The Jamaican Labor Party was the conservative opposition and supported on the down low by the United States government.

  Both parties used Kingston street gangs to control the vote in elections, and the 1980 election was the bloodiest of all time, with over 700 people losing their lives during the campaign.  None of this information is given directly in the narrative.  Instead you have the voices of the gang leaders, the American operatives and ordinary Jamaicans with various levels of involvement in the shenanigans.   Eventually these shenanigans lead to the attempted assassination of Bob Marley (only called "the singer" in the book) by gang members affiliated with the Jamaican Labor Party and bankrolled by United States operatives, most notably a Colombian explosives expert called "Dr. Love."

  Love is also the bridge between the Jamaican Posse-gangs and the Cali Cartel, and after the failed assassination attempt, the Jamaican Shower Posse (called the "Storm Posse" ) in the book moves into the crack trade in New York City.   James does a remarkable job giving full life into the type of characters that typically only exist as crude stereotypes in American art and popular culture- his portrayal of gay/bisexual Posse members is particularly memorable.

  After finishing the book I quickly checked to see who had bought the tv/film rights and was excited to learn that HBO has purchased the rights, and that the author himself was working on the adaptation. Can't wait for that tv show!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris (1958) by Paul Gallico

Book Review
Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris (1958)
by Paul Gallico

  Paul Gallico is another American author I'd never heard of before the 1001 Books project started.  He came up as a sports journalist, and his greatest hits make him sound like an early exponent of the "new journalism" where the writer became the story.  He broke into the national consciousness when he interviewed Jack Dempsey and described the feeling of being knocked out by Jack Dempsey.

 By the 1930s, he moved into fiction and struck commercial gold with The Snow Goose, which is a story about a man who nurses a Snow Goose back to life in a light house.  Sentimental, maudlin, a tearjerker, those are the ways that The Snow Goose was described by audiences.  He also wrote a book called The Silent Miaow, about cats, and another book of poetry about cats.   Paul Gallico was what you call "middlebrow." How then, do we account for his presence in the 1001 Books project?

 I would chalk it up to a popular American author writing a believable English character, and a working class English character at that- which is a difficult achievement even for native English authors.  His 'Mrs. 'Arris is a London char woman with a tony Kenishington area clientele.  One day she comes face to face with a Dior dress, which launches her on a multi-year quest to acquire a Dior dress.

  Her adventures are the kind of adventures you would expect from a 50s Hollywood film.  Not surprising- today Gallico is best remembered for writing the underlying story that the disaster film Poseidon Adventure was based upon.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Justine (1957) by Lawrence Durrell

Book Review
Justine (1957)
by Lawrence Durrell

  Lawrence Durrell is one of those quintessentially 20th century figures who criss-crossed the globe in the service of the increasingly decrepit British Empire.  He was born in India to English parents, briefly attended school in England and then spent the rest of his life hop-scotching between various locations in the Mediterannean, notably Alexandria, the location for Justine and the three related novels which followed it.  He also lived in Corfu, Cyprus, Yugoslavia and Argentina, mostly working on behalf of the UK government as a "press attache."  His most famous literary associate was Henry Miller.  Durrell famously cavorted with Miller and Anais Nin when the latter lived in Paris.

  His primary literary achievement is the Alexandria Quartet, and Justine is the first book in the series.  Durrell squarely occupies the literary space of "Englishman abroad," where an English protagonist butts heads with lovers and locals in some exotic locale, most often Mexico but also anywhere else in the entire world as well.

  Here, the locale is Alexandria, Egypt, historically a cross-roads of the Mediterranean where Egyptians share space with Greeks, Christians and Jews.  The Irish narrator goes unnamed in this first volume of The Alexandria Quartet, but the book largely concerns itself with the affair between the narrator and the married Justine, a beautiful and highly "exotic" Sephardi Jewess who is married to a rich Arab.

  Justine is written as a work of high modernist fiction.  There are no time cues and Durrell frequently shifts the action backwards and forwards in time without cueing the audience.  This technique turns the city itself into the main character, and its likely that any contemporary reader will be left with a greater feeling for the city than the characters themselves.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Baltic: A History (2011) by Michael North

The "Baltic" as used in this book refers to the area that today encompasses the present states of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and the states of northern Germany. Norway is also discussed because of it's historic links as part of Denmark and Sweden.

The Baltic: A History (2011//2015)
by Michael North
Translated from German by Kenneth Kronenberg

  A newly translated German language history of the Baltic region?  YES PLEASE!!!!  I actually snatched this volume from the "new titles" section of the San Diego Central Public Library.  I've noticed the San Diego Central Public Library is quick to acquire general histories of unusual places.  It probably has something to do with the fact that the general histories of less unusual places have all been written long ago.

 For the purposes of this book, the main reference point is The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World by Fernaud Braudel, published in 1949.  Braudel was the dean of the "annales" school of history, which eschewed the "big man" theory of history in favor of a bottoms up approach that emphasized the material life of the largest part of the population.  Braudel was also a pioneer at looking across national and ethnic borders to write broader histories of larger areas.   Thus, the idea of a book like "The Baltic" to mirror "The Mediterranean" is one that is more than a half century old by now.

   The first fact to keep in mind about "the Baltic" is that it encompasses most of coastal Northern Europe, from German and Denmark in the west to Russia and Finland in the east, and including the Polish coast and a variety of states and statelets that occupied present day Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.   Those last three are interesting because they were among the last pagan hold outs in Europe.  The most interesting chapters, and probably the only subject that I would pursue further, is this conquest and conversion of these peoples by a grab back of German, Danish, Dutch and Swedish knights, priests and kings.

  North devotes a chapter to each historical period, and the basic fact to understand is that the cultural area of the Baltic was German speaking until the 20th century, despite the rise of Sweden, Russia and the Baltic states themselves.  This German heritage has been occluded by a number of forces- you have groups like the Swedish and Russians who are interested in establishing their own cultural bonafides on the world stage and the Baltic states themselves, where the tides of 20th century history forcibly removed the German influence.

  On a grand scale, the 15th and 16th centuries were relative times of peace (but plague filled) and the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries were incredibly bloody and destructive.  Cultural currents were large and slow moving, and you can talk about Baltic Romanticism and Baltic Folk-Nationalism but not much else.  One surprise that emerges is the absence of direct French, English, Italian or Spanish influence.  These are the major players in almost any broad history of Europe, and it is a shock to read about an area where their influence was almost entirely filtered through Dutch, German and Scandinavian influences.  Thus, when you talk about a "Baltic Renaissance" you are talking about the Dutch Renaissance.   Modernist ideas come from Scandinavian architecture and furniture making.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

The End of the Road (1958) by John Barth

Book Review
The End of the Road (1958)
by John Barth

   The 1001 Books project has been an odyssey for me.  Starting with the utter unfamiliarity of 18th century literature, moving through the banality of 19th century Victorian prose and washing up on the shore of 20th century modernism.   Set against this backdrop, the mid 20th century feels like terra firma, walking up the beach and into the familiar terrain of a metaphorical mid to late 20th century Southern California beach town.   The world of John Barth and his contemporaries is one that I recognize.  For the first time, I'm simply filling in gaps in my formal and personal education instead of reading entire decades of prose for the first time in my life.

  Many of the books in the 1001 Books list from the 1950s onward are either books I was assigned to read in school, read on my own or saw on the book shelves of my parents and their friends.  Barth is in that third category: never got assigned his books, never got around to reading his books, but I remember seeing his name on the shelves of the Bay Area professionals and academics who tended to be the parents of my classmates (and my own parents.)

 The editors of the 1001 Books project are no Barth fans- including only the early works of The Floating Opera and The End of the Road are included.  Neither of these titles would be considered his most notable work- that would be The Sot-Weed Factor or Lost in the Funhouse.   The Floating Opera and The End of the Road are not formally a prequel/sequel/two book series type situation, but they are close enough in character, incident and theme to make their publication as a single volume in 1988 make perfect sense.

 Barth was an academic- working at Penn State when he wrote both The Floating Opera and this book.   In The End of the Road, the protagonist is a young (non tenured) college professor, suffering from a sort of obscure indecisiveness that one might call an existential dilemma.  He meets a young couple, he is a professor at the same college, she a conventional 50's house wife.  It starts as a fairly light hearted comedy of manners, but ends in a tortuously botched abortion and death for the unfaithful wife.  Jacob Horner might as well be the same guy as Todd Andrews, the lawyer-protagonist from The Floating Opera.  Both characters pretend to be indifferent to fate and eventually succumb to what one might call karmic just deserts.

  Both books are relentlessly dark, existential or nihilistic if you will.  Barth is more in tune with the French existenialism of the 1950s and I wonder how much he really influenced American authors of the early 1960s.  Did Ken Kesey read The End of the Road and The Floating Opera before writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest?

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Tropic of Capicorn(1939) by Henry Miller

Henry Miller, notorious pussy hound.

Book Review
Tropic of Capircorn (1939)
 by Henry Miller

  Tropic of Capricorn was written after Tropic of Cancer but is a prequel, rather than a sequel.  Both concern the life and times of Henry Miller.  His books are a combination of fiction, non-fiction, philosophy and obscenity.  He is the first major novelist to present a convincing, if male-centered and misogynistic view of sexual activity and the explicit sex that fills both Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn got his books banned in America until 1961.  The lifting of that ban in the early 60s ensured his immortality as an early avatar of American counter-culture.

  Tropic of Capricorn covers Millers time living and working in New York City in the 1920s.  Written at the end of the 30s, not published in the US until the 60s, Tropic of Capricorn is very much a novel about 20s New York.  Miller hints at his early ramblings in California but otherwise sticks entirely to his experience in the boroughs of New York City in the 1920s.  Miller is a famous literary asshole and his bare knuckled attitude towards life and experience is tattooed on every page of Tropic of Capricorn.  Only Miller himself is compellingly portrayed, even as the book Miller character proclaims that he quit working so he could write about the people he meets he is engaged in a fifty page soliloquy that takes up the last 50 pages of the book.  Henry Miller writes about Henry Miller and pussy.

  Miller talks more about pussy than a The Weeknd record.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

The Floating Opera (1957) by John Barth

John Barth, author of The Floating Opera (1957)

Book Review
The Floating Opera (1957)
 by John Barth

  American author John Barth is important both for his novels and for his criticism. He was an early theorist of post-modern literature and coined terms like "the literature of exhaustion" and "metafiction."  I'm surprised that Barth only placed two titles onto the 1001 Books list, this one and its companion piece, The End of the Road.  Absent are The Sot-Weed Factor, Giles Goat-Boy and the short story collection Lost in the Funhouse.  One of the persistent characteristics of the 1001 Books project is favoring English authors over American contemporaries.  It makes perfect sense since 1001 Books was assembled in England by largely English editors.  You might consider that 1001 Books thought highly enough of Henry Green to include five of his titles.

  The Floating Opera was Barth's first published novel, and it doesn't feature the meta-fictional techniques that he would utilize in later books like The Sot-Weed Factor and Giles Goat-Boy.  The main character is Todd Andrews, a second generation small-town attorney, single, in his 40s, living in a hotel down the street from his office.  The Floating Opera is written as a memoir by Andrews, recalling events leading up to his decision not to commit suicide 17 years ago.   Andrews is also concerned with the suicide of his father when he was a young man, and he weaves other reminisces about his earlier days into the main narrative of the days leading up to his decision to not kill himself.

  If, like me, you are looking for premonitions of his later writings about meta-fiction, you will be disappointing.  The Floating Opera is squarely within the realist tradition, with only the fiercely existentialist and nihilistic philosophy of Todd Andrews standing out as being cutting-edge for the time and place of publication.  Indeed, the original publication of The Floating Opera was contingent on Barth swapping out a very depressing ending for a less depressing ending.

  I personally identify with so few protagonists contained within the 1001 Books list that it was a shock to recognize myself in Todd Andrews.  The fact that this character is a white, American, solo-practitioner lawyer with no wife or family deeply speaks to how banal my own outlook happens to be.  One of the central ironies of post-war metafiction/literary post-modernism is how it failed to embrace the MAIN current in literature during the 20th century, the diversification of literary voices and perspectives outside those of upper class white men and women.   Indeed, metafictional technique remains largely a province of these same kind of writers today, if one considers contemporary authors like David Foster Wallace, William Vollmann and Jonathan Franzen.

  My own self-guided exploration of literature began with those writers some twenty years ago, but it wasn't long before I realized that these writers were swimming against the tides of history.  The thought that there would be a "next generation" of these writers seemed unlikely.  I think that I was wrong about that, looking back on my thinking of 20 years ago.  The fact is that there is an audience of people who will actually buy these sort of books and the publishing industry is set-up to locate, promote and distribute excellent examples.  You compare this to the struggle that break-through authors with a diverse or different voice face along the road to initial publication and it is clear that white, male, upper class authors who master cutting-edge literary technique still have a built-in advantage over others.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Exercises in Style (1948) by Raymond Queneau

Raymond Queneau

Book Review
Exercises in Style (1948)
by Raymond Queneau

 Exercises in Style is the retelling of the same two paragraph story in 99 different styles.  A man is on a bus, another man steps on his shoes, he begins a confrontation and quickly abandons it in favor of occupying a recently vacated seat.  Some time later, an acquaintance tells him to add a button to his jacket.  

  The styles are legion:  Surprises, Dreams, Hesitation, Precision,  Visual, Auditory, Gustatory, Apheresis, Reported Speech, Insistence, Ignorance.  The list goes 99 deep. 

Friday, October 30, 2015

The Unnamable (1953) by Samuel Beckett

Book Review
The Unnamable (1953)
 by Samuel Beckett

  The Unnamable is the final novel in his so-called trilogy, which also includes Malone and Molloy Dies.  The Unnamable is the most abstract of the bunch which seems to be "simply" a stream of consciousness narration from an immobile character who, I thought, was burning in some kind of eternal hell fire.  I can't find any support for my theory that the narrator of The Unnamable is literally trapped in hell, but I suppose you could explain the hell references as exaggeration for narrative effect.

  The saving grace of The Unnamable is that it is only about 130 pages long, otherwise you'd be looking at something as difficult to get through as Finnegan's Wake.  No plot, no characters, no location, no time, just the stream of consciousness narration. 

Book Review: The Long Goodbye (1953) by Raymond Chandler

Nina van Pallandt as Eileen Wade in the 1973 Robert Altman movie version of The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler.

Book Review
The Long Goodbye (1953)
by Raymond Chandler

     Phillip Marlowe had the distinction of being one of those characters in literature who was ahead of his time when he introduced to the public and lasting long enough for the world to catch up with him.
  Marlowe's world weary cynicism, well in evidence from the first page of the first book, has by the time of the 1953 publication date of The Long Goodbye, become a popular attitude, with Marlowe himself being a role model for a generation of hipsters across the globe.

   If you look at contemporary takes on detective genre as literature, artists like Thomas Pynchon and the Coen Brothers, it's easy to see how it is The Long Goodbye, rather than earlier detective-literature classics, that serves as the point of departure.     The Long Goodbye feels literary, less like a story written for a genre audience and more like a book written for an existing, appreciative critical audience as a defining statement of a spectacularly popular character, the private detective, Phillip Marlowe.  More than the plot, with its familiar mix of wealthy and intoxicated Angelenos getting themselves into murderous circumstances, The Long Goodbye is about Marlowe himself.  There are segments of the book that describe his life away from the action central to the plot, with several pages being devoted to his relationship with "normal" clients, i.e. not the kind of statuesque blondes that show up in Chauffeur helmed Rolls Royce's.

  I especially appreciated The Long Goodbye as I enter the period of literature typically called "post-modernism" where characters and plots begin to evaporate into thin air.  I'm not saying that every novel needs to follow some set of rule in regards to character and incident, but the often disorienting techniques of post modern literature make every such novel a struggle.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Malone Dies (1951) by Samuel Beckett

Book Review
Malone Dies (1951)
 by Samuel Beckett

  Malone Dies is the second book in Beckett's so-called "trilogy"- even the wikipedia page for Malone Dies uses quotes around trilogy because books one and two don't share much in common in the traditional definition of that word.  Both Molloy (first book in the trilogy) and Malone Dies share some thematic similarities- protagonists who are trapped in a single room with little or no ability to leave.    Where Molloy teeters on the edge of what you might call "post-modern" literature, Malone squarely occupies the space.

   In his most well known work, the play Waiting for Godot, he famously developed the "play about nothing."  The aesthetic principle of "de-construction"- taking apart a work of art element by element and then reconstructing it with some or all of the elements missing- is a hallmark not just of Waiting for Godot but also the three novels of the trilogy.  In both Molloy and Malone Dies there are essentially no characters or details of plot.  Prior of the publication of these works, the idea of a novel without a plot or character might be considered impossible but not after.


Book Review: The Last Temptation of Christ (1955) by Nikos Kazantzakis

Book Review:
The Last Temptation of Christ (1955)
 by  Nikos Kazantzakis

  First things first, the last temptation of Christ is to NOT go through with the crucifixion.   While he's actually being crucified at the end of the book he has a little dream state where he has faked, or not gone through with, his plan to be crucified and if living out life as a normal guy.  That episode right before the end of the book, which has him dying on the cross.  So that is the last temptation of Christ, and it has nothing to do with Mary Magdalene, although she does show up a fair amount in this book, which treats Jesus as a real historical figure and places him in the Roman Near East setting that is similar to the area in Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz.

  Although I'm not a Christian or Catholic, I can see how one might be offended with the depiction of Christ as very much a man, one who is arguably schizophrenic and certainly clinically depressed and probably manic depressive.  He also spends a lot of time thinking about Mary Magdalene and the book is explicit about her whorishness.    While the subject matter might be racy for some elements of the reading public, the writing style is strictly conventional.  Other than the fact that the plot explicitly deals with the life of Jesus Christ, The Last Temptation of Christ reads like a book written and publish in the early days of the 20th century, or even the late 19th.

   Besides the explicit treatment of Mary Magdalene's sexuality, Kazantzakis adopts a gnostic approach to the role of Judas Iscariot in the execution of Jesus.  Here, Judas is asked by Jesus to set up the crucifixion after Jesus has a vision that his sacrifice is required to save humanity (or something to that effect.)   In the New Testament, Judas famously betrays Jesus for a payment of silver, later he commits suicide in remorse.   It was a rapid rise and fall for Jesus- the whole of The Last Temptation of Christ takes place in one take, so to speak, with brief dreams, reveries and flashbacks.   

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Show Review: Blur @ The Hollywood Bowl

Blur as they were.

Show Review:
 Blur @ The Hollywood Bowl

  Last night, Blur played the Hollywood Bowl as part of their two city tour of the United States, theoretically in support of their recently released LP.  In reality,it was more of a two decades in the making victory lap, building on their 2013 show at the Coachella festival.  In between songs, Damon Albarn told a story- first, he said he'd been coming to Los Angeles for 26 years now (Damon Albarn is 47).  He described how, inevitably they'd drive past the Hollywood Bowl between their hotel and press ("Radio, yes it was always radio.") and they would pass by and he would say, "Oh, that'll never happen for us, I guess."
Blur now.

 It is, perhaps, a little cheeky to say such a thing after the Coachella performance in 2013.  In fact, Coachella appearances are often used to set up such a show at the Hollywood Bowl, and the timing here would seem to bear that out.  Damon Albarn has got around to other things with varying degrees of artistic and commercial success and all the other members have maintained various levels of public visibility.  I've personally experienced The Good, The Bad & The Queen in concert, like everyone I've heard the Gorrilaz singles ad nauseum  on alt rock radio and I've not heard his solo record.

  I couldn't help but reflect on the recent three part BBC 4 series on "Indie Music" that I've been watching courtesy a vpn program installed on my girlfriend's macintosh and watched on her apple tv.  And because we're watching it "live time," by last night I'd watched the first two chapters but not the third.  And I was sitting there, and watching Blur and thinking, "Blur is the third chapter to the BBC indie documentary."  I mean, not by themselves, but they are alongside Oasis, Pulp, etc.

  The first chapter of the BBC Indie Music documentary focused on the initial rise of local clusters of bands, labels and venues, from Manchester working down all the way to Coventry.  Here, indie music was essentially individual local scenes with labels inspired by the example of the Buzzcocks AND releases on major labels like The Sex Pistols, and they were largely "punk."

 The second chapter of the BBC Indie Music documentary focused on the development of a national and international infrastructure for the distribution of indie bands through both indie labels and major labels.   Critical here were the fanzines, the Rough Trade network of record stores and visionary United State record executives like Seymor Stein of Sire Records.

  The second chapter also discussed the parallel development of dance music within the indie framework. A major revelation from the second chapter of the BBC 4 Indie Music documentary is the incredible commercial success of dance-art acts like the KLF and the status of artists like Rick Astley as "indie" artists.

  More than any other band of the final indie renaissance of the early to mid 1990s, Blur stood astride all of these developments.  They broke through with a dance number, found English success with a number of albums that wittily dissected the foibles of modern life and failed to find the kind of commercial success in the United States that would have solidified their success as an institutional modern rock act along the lines of U2, Jack White and the Foo Fighters.

  So this performance, coupled with the recent Coachella appearances, doesn't "writer a new chapter" but it add a kind of coda.  If one considers recent scientific flirtations with the idea that there are millions of different dimensions, each with its own reality, surely there are more than a few where Blur plays Dodger Stadium, but living in a reality where they play the Hollywood Bowl, even if they don't sell out the Hollywood Bowl, isn't a bad place to be.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Under the Net (1954) by Iris Murdoch

Iris Murdoch

Book Review
Under the Net (1954)
by Iris Murdoch

  Under the Net was the first novel of Iris Murdoch.  Under the Net is a real audience pleaser, mixing elements of a philosophical novel with those of picaresque and utilizing an appealing milieu of post-war London and Paris. It remains her most popular novel (she published over 20 during her lifetime) and is a mainstay of "Top 100 novel" lists of all types.  Her protagonist is Jake Donaghue, a translator of French best-sellers and sometimes writer who is determined to work as little as possible.  He bears a strong resemblance to Murphy in Samuel Beckett's novel, Murphy.  Upon his return from Paris, Donaghue is ejected from his rent-free apartment by Madge, who is set to marry or at least co-habitat with wealthy bookmaker Sammy Starfield.

  This eviction sets in motion the mechanics of the plot, which expands to include a pair of sister singer-actresses, a friendly philosopher, the owner of of a fireworks factory, a socialist rabble rouser and various mis-adventures in and around London and Paris, culminating with Donaghue taking a job as an orderly in a hospital- the exact same position accepted by Beckett's Murphy in that book.  Murdoch was frank about acknowledging the creative debt, but her book is light and airy, where Beckett's Murphy was as dark as novels come.

  Although none of the characters serve as a direct stand in for Murdoch herself, the entire novel is a great example of why people found her so interesting- she combined intellectualism with a sexy, fun lifestyle in a way that anticipated the sexual revolution of the 1960s.  

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Show Review: War on Drugs @ The Greek Theater in Los Angeles, CA.

Adam Granduciel of the War on Drugs played the Greek Theater in Los Angeles last night.

Show Review:
War on Drugs
@ The Greek Theater
Los Angeles, CA.

  I'm at the age (39) where I see people who look "old" to me on the street and ask those around me, "Do I look like that?"  The problem is exacerbated in Southern California, where the sight of a 50 year old millionaire riding a skateboard dressed in clothes that would look more appropriate on a 15 year old is not uncommon.  Similarly, you might be looking at a 50 something woman with the body type and personal style of a teenager.

  Perhaps that explains why my initial reaction to seeing The War on Drugs singer/band leader Adam Granduciel was asking my show companions, "How old is he?" He's 36, but he could easily pass for a 50 year old in my neighborhood. If, like me, you are in the category of casual The War on Drugs fan, you probably know that Kurt Vile was in The War on Drugs and left to pursue his solo career.  I've actually spent a fair amount of time listening to Kurt Vile, and almost none listening to The War on Drugs aside from the single I've heard on Sirius XMU.   The similarity in vocal delivery between Kurt Vile and Adam Granduciel is impossible to ignore.  The differences are in the style of music, with The War on Drugs featuring a Springsteen wall of sound era luxuriousness (two keyboardist and a saxophonist/french horn player) and Vile adhering to a more spartan "man and his guitar" sound.

  The wall of sound was very much apparent at The Greek Theater last night, with the combination of a sustained organ being counterpointed with a more staccato piano.  Granduciel plays the part of the 80s heartland rocker to the hilt.  I can't remember the last show I've been to where the audience cheered BEFORE the guitar solo (also after.)   The audience being very much into what Granduciel and the rest of the band was dishing out was the headline of the night.  The War of Drugs are the kind of middle of the road rock band that is almost extinct and last night was the equivalent of traveling back in time and watching one of the last big dinosaurs walking the earth.

  Newish successful rock bands are few and far between, and in 2015 it doesn't seem fair to criticize a rock artist for anything retro about their sound.  The fact that The War on Drugs exists, and that they sold out the Greek Theater last night is all that needs to be said.  Also, that they have hits, and they should continue to write hits, and that if they do that they have a chance of making it onto radio and filling stadiums.  The Greek Theater has over 5000 in capacity, and they sold it out, so they are already on their way.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Invisible Man (1952) by Ralph Ellison

Young Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man (1952)

Book Review
Invisible Man (1952)
 by Ralph Ellison

  Invisible Man is one of the greatest one hit wonders of all time.  Ralph Ellison lived an entire life after it succeeded. He did write non-fiction, and a novel was published post-posthumously based on notes he left, but Invisible Man was it in terms of novels published by Ralph Ellison in his lifetime.    I have a great deal of respect for the one-and-done artistic career.  The way I see it, most artists who put something out there for a public audience: studio artists, novelists, musicians, film makers, actors- are super, duper lucky if they have even one work attached to their name that earns them a living, secures long term attention or both.   And then there are those who secure a living but fail to earn "respect" from the appropriate critical community.  And of course there are those who receive critical respect but fail to earn a living.  It's a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation, and good luck even getting to the point where you get to be damned one way or the other.

  Thus, for an artist to hit it one the head with one try and then to have the good sense to pack it in for the rest of their life without attempting to match the earlier work- that is the ultimate.  And that is what Ralph Ellison accomplished with Invisible Man.   He spent the rest of his life teaching.  Boom. Done.  Invisible Man really is an incredible accomplishment and it holds up in a way that other mid century African American bildungsroman's like Native Son and Go Tell it on the Mountain.  Where the narrators in Native Son and Go Tell it one the Mountain are cowering in the shadow of the overwhelming power of 20th century racism, Ellison's unnamed narrator is a community organizer not afraid to stand up to his white superiors in the New York Communist party.

 Not that his bravery goes unpunished.  The framing device for his narrative is that he is literally living underground, off the grid, stealing power and living in the sub basement of a partially abandoned building.  Ellison takes the reader back through the education of the narrator at a historically black college, where he takes a disastrous turn chauffeuring a wealthy white donor around the campus.  He is dismissed after an illusion shattering conservation with the head of school, and sent to New York.
  There, he has an eventful day working for a company that specializes in white paint and eventually falls in with the Communist Party, recruited on the strength of an impromptu speech delivered on the street during an eviction.  Although the term "Invisible Man" is one applied by the narrator to himself, by the end of the book it feels like his status is self imposed, the product of his vast disillusionment with both fellow Africian American activitsts and his white superiors in the Communist party.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Ancient Road System of the Anasazi/Ancestral Pueblo

The ancient road system of the Anasazi/Ancestral Pueblo

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Book Review: The Quiet American (1955) by Graham Greene

They made a version of The Quiet American in 2002 with, amazingly, Brendan Fraser and Michael Caine.

Book Review:
The Quiet American (1955)
 by Graham Greene

Graham Greene Book Reviews - 1001 Books 2006 Edition
England Made Me (1935)
Brighton Rock (1938) *
The Power and the Glory (1940) *
The Heart of the Matter (1948)
The Third Man (1949)
The End of the Affair (1951) *
The Quiet American (1955) *
Honorary Counsel (1973) *
* =  core title in 1001 Books list

   Seven deep into the Graham Greene oeuvre now.  Like The Heart of the Matter (1948) takes place in the developing world, there it was English West Africa, here it is French Indo-China (present day Vietnam).  Thomas Fowler is an English journalist covering the nascent Vietnam War.  He is married, but unhappily, and is involved with a young (20 year old) native woman, Phuong.  In the film, Michael Caine plays the role of Thomas Fowler so you can instantly see how the relationship which animates the plot- the love affair between Fowler and Phuong, borders on the inappropriate. Into the picture comes Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser in the 2002 movie), an American working undercover for the CIA.  Pyle is the kind of American who has learned everything he knows from books, and he is in the area to find a "third force" between the existing colonial administration and the communists.

  He also wants to steal Phuong from Fowler. Only 200 pages in length, you can't really discuss the plot without running through the entire thing.  It's not quite a spy novel, not quite a roman a clef, and it's definitely not the tradition marriage and property set up. The Quiet American is certainly the first significant work of English language fiction to be based in Vietnam.

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