Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965) by Kurt Vonnegut

Book Review
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (1965)
 by Kurt Vonnegut

  Like Robert Heinlein, Kurt Vonnegut is one of those authors who emerged from the genre ghetto of science fiction to obtain something like critical acclaim.   I didn't live through the 1960's, so I can't testify to how I went down, but I know that growing up in the Bay Area in the 1980's and 90's, Vonnegut was very much a well read author whose works were much in evidence in used books stores and private homes alike.  He never made much of an impression on me. I read a ton of science fiction in junior high school, and in college I read most of the beats and the existentialists but I took a pass on Vonnegut and his ilk, except as he was presented in school.

  God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is the first of four titles by Vonnegut that made the 2006 edition of the 1001 Books list.  He lost two of those in the 2008 revision, and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater is one of those two.  I think, probably that God Bless You made it onto the 2006 list because it is a "first"- the first Vonnegut book to feature his alter ego, Kilgore Trout, and even though it wasn't the breakthrough hit of Slaughter-House Five, it introduces many of the themes that he would ride to glory in the later 1960's.  One aspect of God Bless You that is striking is the near absence of anything that you could remotely call "science fiction."  Other than a brief stop by the main character at any out of the way convention of science fiction writers, God Bless You is firmly grounded in the present.  No aliens, no time travel, just everyday reality.

Arrow of God (1964) by Chinua Achebe

The Igbo people live in the part of Nigeria called Biafra, scene of the terrible Nigerian civil war that ended with millions of Igbo casualities.
Book Review
Arrow of God (1964)
by Chinua Achebe

    Wrapping your head around 20th century century African history is a chore.  You've got the distinct historical periods of colonialism, independence and the present day.  You've got the different colonial overlords and most all of the African nations that emerged after independence were multi-ethnic, with the ethnic groups often coming from entirely different language groups.  Not to mention the radically different pre-colonial experiences, ranging from the well developed states of North Africa and Ethiopia, to the looser Arab influenced Caliphates of the Sahara, to the loosely affiliated mini polities of Central Africa.

   Chinua Achebe is the one Igbo most Westerners know, and Arrow of God is the third book in his so-called Africa trilogy about the experience of the Igbo under English colonialism.  As in Things Fall Apart, Achebe depicts a reality that is far from the "primitive African tribes" rubric of Western stereotype.  True, the Igbo weren't organized into a sophisticated polity prior to English colonization, but they were anything but "primitive African tribes."  Rather, they existed in a sophisticated web of "traditional values," of the sort we often glorify in the early 21st century.  In Arrow of God, Achebe writes about quasi-democratic political traditions which are balanced against the power of traditional deities, embodied in the main character of Arrow of God,  Ezelulu, the village priest in a small Igbo village.

   Ezelulu has a complicated relationship with English power, and the major theme of Arrow of God is this relationship and it's impact on Ezeulu's family and village. Achebe successfully destroys the rude stereotypes that persist in the west about African village life, and it is no wonder that he is firmly ensconced in the 20th century canon as any author.

Friday, March 04, 2016

Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) by Robert Heinlein

Part of the iconic cover art of the paperback version of Stranger in a Strange Land...millions of copies sold!

Book Review
Stranger in a Strange Land (1961)
by Robert Heinlein

   There is an urban legend that Scientology was the result of a bar bet between Heinlein and fellow sci-fi writer L.Ron Hubbard.  It makes a certain amount of sense, particularly right after you finish reading Stranger in a Strange Land, which is about a "Man from Mars" who returns to Earth and- wait for it- starts his own religion based on principles of free love and communism.   Stranger in a Strange Land wasn't any kind of a critical hit, rather it was the first science fiction title to ever reach the top of the Best Seller chart.  It sold millions of copies, and was the recipient of a longer "directors cut" version of the novel, which is now the standard, that runs over 500 pages long.

  Fifty years on, there isn't much shocking about Stranger in a Strange Land.  Early 1960s science fiction of this sort, and the sort written by Vonnegut, wasn't progressive in terms of gender politics, and much of the feminist criticisms of the free love movement lay lurking in the weeds of Stranger in a Strange Land's grok-heavy Martian inspired religion. Heinlein's few of the near future has a distinctly 50's vibe:  flying cars have arrived, but computers are absent.  Like most science fiction, Stranger in a Strange Land, whether it makes anyone think in 2016 depends entirely on whether that person is utterly unfamiliar with all the ideas that the book itself helped inspire in the 1960s:  free love, communes, alternative religion.

Show Review: Empress Of @ Teragram Ballroom LA, CA

Empress Of is Lorely Rodriguez
Show Review:
Empress Of
@ Teragram Ballroom LA, CA

     I look back at my time directly involved in indie music and I just have to laugh, because if you aren't a pro player in the music business, you only get one shot, and that was it.  And now I see how it all really works, how the actual players in the music industry view indie types and I think that if the bands out there struggling knew what waited for them after the once in a lifetime success actually happens, they would probably quit, or redefine their idea of success.   The truth of the matter is that unless you are a Rhianna level superstar, being on a reputable indie label is better than throwing in your lot with a major label.  The odds against success AFTER a young artist has been signed have skyrocketed.  Selling a thousand records in the first week of an album releases can be deemed a success.  For a young artist being courted by a major label, the 360 deal is essentially a reality.

   Empress Of AKA Lorely Rodriguez has about as much going for her as a young artist can have going for her:  She's on an imprint of XL Records(Terrible Records), an indie so successful it might as well be a major label at this point, her debut LP landed a "Best New Music" tag on Pitchfork when it came out late last year,  she can really sing, she does her own programming and she isn't batshit crazy like Grimes, who is the closest point of reference.  At the show I was told that she does her own production, that's impressive.  

  On stage, she lived up to the hype.  Like I said, she really can sing, and the beats evoke the blissful "electronica" era of The Chemical Brothers and Bjork, back when she was fun and wrote hits.  Several of her songs seemed to directly reference the Chemical Brothers, probably because she is using something like the same palette of sounds and beats they drew from.  Aside from her exquisite vocals she has a stage presence that manages to be both charmingly shy and energetic at the same time.  She has dance moves.  She has a two person backing band that livens up the programmed tracks with timely percussion.  In short,  she's got everything except a huge audience, but I'm sure that is in the works.  Now I'm going to track back and listen to the recently released record, and pay attention to what happens with the next record, because it could be huge, it could be amazing, it could be both, or it could be neither.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

The Ravishing of Lol Stein (1964) by Marguerite Duras

Book Review
The Ravishing of Lol Stein (1964)
by Marguerite Duras

  How many novels can one man read about upper middle class wealthy white women who are unhappy and act out that unhappiness by cheating on their husbands?  In the 1960s, it's like one out of every three books on the 1001 Books list.  Nothing says literature between 1950 and 1970 like an unfaithful, middle class house wife.

  Here, the eponymous protagonist is jilted at the altar by her husband to be.  He runs off with a much older woman, leaving Lol traumatized.  She quickly marries the next man she comes across, a musician, moves away and has three kids, returning to her ancestral home after the death of her parents (to inherit the estate.)

  In the United States is best known for the 90s movie version of her book, The Lover.  The Lover was a thinly veiled roman a clef about her lover affair with an older Chinese gentleman in Vietnam. Like other French, women writers of her generation, she was more explicit in her treatment of human sexuality than authors in other countries like the United States and England.  The overwhelming victory of the sexual liberation movement of the 1960s has obscured just how late prudery and Victorianism ruled the roost.

  Despite the titillating title, The Ravishing of Lol Stein lacks the explicit sex scenes of The Lover. While the characters spend much of the book in bed, they are just talking, the sex takes places off-stage.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

The Graduate (1963) by Charles Webb

Dustin Hoffman played Benjamin Braddock and Anne Bancroft played Mrs. Robinson
Book Review
The Graduate (1963)
by Charles Webb

  Existentialism was the signature philosophical influence on literature between the end of World War II and the mid 1960's.   Originally a product of thinkers who had actually witnessed the horrors of trench warfare in World War I and the various nightmares of World War II, Existentialism soon migrated to the cities and towns of North America.  By the early 1960's, Existentialism had extended far beyond the philosophical texts of the original proponents. In the middle and upper echelons of American society, it interacted with the rise in national prosperity and growth of consumer markets to create literary characters like Holden Caulfield, from The Catcher in the Rye and Benjamin Braddock, the protagonist of The Graduate.

  These youthful American existentialists too advantage of new-found freedoms for young people and used them to explicitly violate the mores of the world that had given them that freedom.  Because of the movie version, which swept the major Oscar categories in 1968, The Graduate, and Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin Braddock, are firmly ingrained in the American psyche, almost more so than other competing icons like James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause, or Caulfield.

  At around 160 pages, The Graduate is more novella than novel, but the book/movie popularity and the a la mode nature of the older woman/younger man sexual relationship make it a signature work of early 60s American fiction, kind of an overgrown New Yorker story.  

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