Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, June 01, 2018

The Glass Bead Game (1943) by Herman Hesse

Book Review
The Glass Bead Game (1943)
 by Herman Hesse

  The 22 hour audiobook version I listened to could charitably described as tedious.  The Glass Bead Game was published in 1943, and Hesse won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946.  A new English translation in 1969 was part of the general 1960's era rise in interest in Hesse within the English speaking world, and in 2018 The Glass Bead Game remains in the canon as Hesse' most substantial (550 plus pages) work.

  Part bildungsroman, part biography, part science fiction and part utopia, The Glass Bead Game combines all these genres to tell the story of Joseph Knecht, a member of a monastic order living several centuries into the future.  This is a world that has turned it's back on the violence of the 20th century- Knecht is part of an order of secular monk types who call themselves Castalians.  The Castalians eschew worldly trappings and dedicate themselves to lives of study, either as specialized scholars or teachers.  The group obsession of the Castalian order is The Glass Bead Game- which is described as a "synthesis of human knowledge" but never described in a mechanical sense.   The impression I received is that it was a combination of board game and debate competition.

  Almost the entirety of the book involves the characters making lengthy speeches to one another, ususally while sitting in an office or other neutral space.  There is- I think- a single female character.  Knecht spends most of  the 500 pages yearning to escape the restrictions of monkish life and devote himself to his passion: teaching young boys, the younger the better.  Although I'm sure this wasn't the intent of the author, Knecht sounds like a pedophile with his young boy obsession- the more isolated the is with said boy- the better.

  And indeed his death finally comes after he achieves his goal, retreating a mountain top with the son of a friend, only to meet his death trying to match the youthful vigour of his charge by swimming with him in a dangerous river.   The end of the main narrative is followed by a collection of poetry written by Knecht, which I found unlistenable and three sub narratives purportedly written by Knecht himself, imagining himself living in different historic time periods.   It is a strange way to end a novel, let alone end a novel that was written just before the author won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Cutter and Bone(1976) by Newton Thornburg

Book Review
Cutter and Bone(1976)
 by Newton Thornburg

  The editor who wrote the caption for this book for the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die called it a "lost classic," and considering how long it took me to track down a copy to read- an LA library ebook of a belated 2015 reprint- I'd be inclined to agree that is both lost and a classic of crime fiction.  Amazingly, there is an equally obscure movie version called Cutter's Way, which stars- wait for it- Jeff Bridges as "Bone" who is, if I'm not mistaken, a major reference point for his character "the Dude" in the Big Lebowski. I have to watch the movie, which is available to stream on

  Like all late 20th century noir/detective genre stories which rise to the level of literature, the plot is secondary to the scene and character development.  Here, the Cutter and Bone duo are a corporate rat race drop out(Cutter, John Heard in the movie), currently making his way as a sometime gigolo among the casual vacation goers of Santa Barbara, and Bone(Bridges), a paraplegic amputee and Vietnam war veteran, living off his disability check.   They are both living in a one room shack with Mo, who has a baby, and is herself on the run from life in a wealthy suburb and a college education.  The three of them spend their time drinking, smoking and taking pills, and none of them seem particularly inclined to deal with anything.

  Coming home from a bar one night, Cutter sees someone awkwardly dumping a large package into a trashcan.  He wakes up the next morning to read that a local 17 year old is murdered.  Despite his avowals to authorities that he didn't see anything, Cutter blurts out "it's him" the following day reading a story about a Midwestern millionaire in town for a business conference.  Bone then launches a dubious extortion scheme, which eventually leads the duo and the victim's older sister, and a virginal UCSB student named "Monk," on a cross county adventure ending in Arkansas, the home of said suspect and Midwestern millionaire. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Unless (2002) by Carol Shields

Book Review
Unless (2002)
by Carol Shields

 I'm beginning to get a little uneasy about completing the 1001 Books project, or at least the 2006 original edition.  According to the post counter I'm still over a hundred books short, and it is unclear where those last 100 titles are going to come from.  There are half dozen from the pre 1700's period.  Under five titles from the period between 1700 and 1900.  There are maybe 30-40 title max left in the 20th century and perhaps a half dozen left from 2000-2007.  That leaves a 50 title gap.  I'm troubled.

  Stone died of breast cancer in 2003.  Unless was were last published novel, and it largely reads like a defense of Shield's own success as a writer of "domestic" fiction.  Reta Winters, her narrator, is a 44 year old writer, of work which sounds similar to what Shields herself produced, living comfortably in suburban Canada with her Doctor husband and three children.  Her life is cast into (relative) chaos when the oldest of her daughters suddenly drops out of college to become a full time beggar on the streets of Toronto.

 Winters is, to say the least, puzzled by this decision, and most of Unless consists of Winters seeking understanding while going about her day-to-day business with friends and family.  I've become reasonably enthusiastic about Shields and writers like Shields directly because of the 1001 Books project.  There is simply no way I would have delved into this vibrant contemporary world of "domestic literature" without the impetus of the project.

The Making of Zombie Wars (2015) by Alexsandar Hemon

Book Review
The Making of Zombie Wars (2015)
 by Alexsandar Hemon

  I read The Making of Zombie Wars  under the mistaken assumption that it was another effort by an author of literary fiction to write a work of genre fiction.  Hemon is one of the most well regarded young authors in American fiction, with a string of prize winning and nominated books.  A Bosnian immigrant, Hemon has drawn comparisons to Conrad and Nabokov, and is acclaimed as a prose stylist.   The Making of Zombie Wars represents a change in tone for Hemon, who is known for his existentialist protagonists and books that dwell on the impact of immigration and dislocation on the life experience of his characters.

  Joshua Levin, the would-be screenwriter at the heart of The Making of Zombie Wars, is not an immigrant, but he works as a teacher of English as a second language, which brings him to the orbit of typically Hemonian characters: Immigrants from the former Yugoslavia who are adopting to life in the west with varying degrees of success.  I'm not wholly unfamiliar with this world- one of my college era friends was a Croatian immigrant from St Louis, and I always admired the combination of European world-weariness and Midwestern enthusiasm that characterized her behavior back then.  I recognize her in Hemon's milieu.

  The Making of Zombie Wars is rude and occasionally funny.  I'm not sure that slapstick is Hemon's best move, but it increases the likelihood of him scoring a mass market hit a la a Chuck Palahnuik. 

Veronika Decides to Die (1998) by Paulo Coehlo

Book Review
Veronika Decides to Die (1998)
 by Paulo Coehlo

  Paulo Coehlo is squarely in that category of "international best-seller" whose titles sell equally well in any number of languages.  The rarest sub-category of the internationally best selling author are those who write in a language other than English, and Coehlo, Brazilian, who writes in Portuguese, is one of only a handful of internationally known Portuguese language authors, and certainly the most internationally popular of that handful, with second place going to Nobel Laureate and non-best-seller Jose Saramago.

  For some of Coehlo's most popular titles, The Alchemist is one that come to mind, the question of whether it is literature of mass market fiction is relevant.   Veronika Decides to Die, with it's more somber theme of suicide and institutionalization, is not in that category- the literary pedigree is easy to see, but Coehlo's status as a popular author haunts any reading of his more serious work, like Stephen King writing a stream-of-consciousness novel in the style of James Joyce.

  Like many of the authors who grace both best seller and best of the year lists, Coehlo writes books that are moderate in length- I haven't checked but I'll eat my hat if any of this top five books runs longer than 250 pages.  Coehlo knows his way around a third act twist- and perhaps the inclusion of Veronika Decides to Die is down to his ability to interject such a move here, in the midst of a book which is directly based on his own experience being institutionalized in Brazil during his youth.  Coehlo also performs the meta-fictional trick of including himself as a character while not overdoing it.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Crime and Punishment (1867) by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Book Review
Crime and Punishment (1867)
by Fyodor Dostoevsky

  This was my third time through Crime and Punishment, and I feel like my second time listening to the audio book edition.  At 25 or so hours it isn't as long as you would think it would be, given the fearsome reputation and repeated use as a punchline for confessions about otherwise literate people and what classics they haven't bothered to read.   Crime and Punishment is a forbidding task beyond the length, featuring the pay-by-the-word style that is a part of any work written originally as a serial; with the complexity of Russian character names and a surpassing fondness for the declamatory style of various characters making long winded speeches, spelled by the narrator making even more long winded speeches.

 Today, Crime and Punishment gets credit for being an originator of the "true crime" genre- not entirely deserved given the gap between the original Russian publication and the widely known English translation in 1914.   I think this half century gap between publication in Russian and dissemination in English is often overlooked when Dostoevsky is lumped in with other 19th century English and French language authors.  The fact is, no one, or hardly anyone, in the west had read Dostoevsky before 1900, and real acknowledgment of his status as a master didn't come until 20 years into the twentieth century.  

  The tale of Raskolnikov, the existentialist student, and his senseless murder of a pawn broker and her assistant, take place almost at the beginning of Crime and Punishment.  The rest is more about "Punishment," and what punishment means, and how it is inflicted.  There is, at the heart of Crime and Punishment, something that could be described as a detective story, as investigator Petrovich compensates for the lack of evidence and weakness of the Russian judicial system to torment Raskolnikov into confession and imprisonment.    However, in true nineteenth century fashion we are also treated to hundred page subplots involving not only Raskolnikov's immediate family, notably his sister, but also the plight of a totally unrelated family, and their teen aged daughter, who is the love interest for Raskolnikov.

  Despite the panoply of characters, Crime and Punishment has a claustrophobic air, with characters closeted together in a fashion that strongly suggests the conventions of the stage.  There are some notable out of door scenes, particularly the trampling of Marmeldov in the winter snow by a passing team of horses, but most of the activity takes place in the rooms of the poor and not-so-poor of St. Petersburg. 

Show Review: Lonely Island @ The Rose Dinner Theater in Pasadena

Show Review:
Lonely Island
@ The Rose Dinner Theater in Pasadena

    When I received word that the Lonely Island would be playing a warm up show at a Pasadena Dinner Theater (The Rose: Where Music Meets the Soul (TM)) over Memorial Day Weekend, I leapt at the opportunity to attend.   I've driven or walked past this venue, formerly a Gelson's Grocery Store stuck in the bottom corner of a movie theater/restaurant/shopping complex in Pasadena, across from the convention center, twenty times in the past several years, and always wondered what a venue located in a grocery store would be like to experience.

   The answer is, perhaps predictably, "Laughably terrible."  To accommodate the legions(!) of excited Lonely Island fans the normally present dinner tables had been removed from the floor, leaving the lines of sight of a space not made for standing crowd viewing, and a hugely over crowded, non ADA accessible "VIP Platform," featuring luminaries like JB Smoove and failed sitcom star John Mullaney.  Adding to the moderately oppressive atmosphere was the omnipresent security staff, behaving like the artist performing was Chief Keef or Takeshi69 and not a joke-rap trio featuring three adults from the San Francisco Bay Area.

  I don't have any prejudices against joke-rap or novelty music in general.  If you take a look at the history of the Billboard pop chart, novelty numbers were charting number ones before rock and roll existed as a chart phenomenon.  Acts like Alvin and the Chipmunks and Sheb Wooley (Purple People Eater) have just as much to tell us about the history of recorded music in America as Elvis Presley or The Beatles, maybe more, since the novelty numbers preceded rock and roll.

  The upcoming Lonely Island appearance at a comedy festival in San Francisco, billed as their first live performance, had puzzled me, since I distinctly remember seeing them perform at the Festival Supreme in 2013.  Here is a review of that show from  At the time, Spin said, "Lonely Island snuck a tight mini-set inside Tenacious D’s climactic performance, which included the duo’s giant robot, the Metal, and an oversized alien."   After reviewing the poster for that edition of Festival Supreme, I see that Lonely Island was not billed.  The 2013 appearance was a "surprise" and unbilled, and so, in conclusion, I see why they are billing this performance as their first ever.

   Fans of Lonely Island are sure to love the show, which features bespoke animations for almost every song.  They handle the absence of the numerous guest singers using a variety of techniques.  Sometimes the accompanying visual simply displayed the missing artist.  Other times, one of the Lonely Islanders would take the place of the missing performer. For the Justin Timberlake triptych performance, Asa Taccone used a Justin Timberlake puppet- acquitting himself quite well on the puppetry. As befits their origin as a viral video phenomenon, the bespoke visuals were themselves an attraction of the live performance.  Considering the awful sight lines of The Rose Dinner Theater in Pasadena, watching the screen was more rewarding then watching the stage itself.

  The group itself was, as the saying goes, "tan, rested and ready."  I'm not at all clear at what they've been doing besides Andy Samberg starring on Brooklyn 99.  My understanding is that they have "a deal" with Fox, of the sort where one can sit around and not do anything.  Clearly, some of that time was spent making the videos for this performance, and I suppose puppetry lessons for Taccone.   Only one of the songs came from their succesful(?) movie Pop Star, with Samberg as movie protagonist Conor 4 Real.

 Much of the material reprised their greatest SNL hits, Jizz in My Pants, Lazy Sunday.  Less of the material drew from their non-SNL albums, of which, amazingly, they have two, plus the Pop Star sound track.  A highlight was a new song, about the "Bash Brothers," Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, which has seemingly been written for the San Francisco audience of their upcoming comedy festival.  In Pasadena, in front of a sea of Los Angeles based comedy nerds, the song only got intermittent laughs, but I was hooting.

  The end of the set, about an hour long, had a surprise guest, but I won't ruin the surprise here. The Rose Dinner Theater in Pasadena is a crazy place to have a show.  Wild. 

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