Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Cat's Eye (1988) by Margaret Atwood

Book Review
Cat's Eye (1988)
by Margaret Atwood

   I did not have much appetite for a 400 page story about a (female) painter coming to terms with her past on the eve of her first Toronto area career retrospective.   That said, Atwood won me over with her (stop me if you've heard this before) crisp observations about the relationships between men and women, career and family, art and commerce.  And while the present for painter Elaine Risley is a familiar blend of musings about the art world,ex-husbands and children, the past is a more Gothic place.  Much of the early reminisces of Risley concern her ill treatment by a troika of classmates.  Later, her chief antagonist/tormentor emerges as her high school bff.  After that, she is witness to her friend's long decline and failure as an adult.

  It is far from clear that Cordelia, the tormentor in chief and high school bff will emerge in the later part of Cat's Eye, but I feel it is that relationship, rather than Elaine's emotional/sexual relationships with men, that defines the reader experience.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Radiant Way (1983) by Margaret Drabble

Book Review
The Radiant Way (1983)
 by Margaret Drabble

  I found The Radiant Way tedious.  I'm not a huge Margaret Drabble fan, and I don't really care about here milieu-  the lives of upwardly striving working-class born women who were promoted into Cambridge University in England during the 1960's and 1970's.  The introduction of merit scholarships into English higher education was a novelty then, and that gives this tale of three such women some socio-political weight.   So far, so good.  It's more the women themselves- all of whom are unhappy for the entire length of the book, spending their time wondering why they are so unhappy, or knowing why they are so unhappy and simply wallowing in it for chapters at the time.

  Drabble is a keen observer of human nature, I often winced knowingly at her characters observations about their disintegrating/disintegrated marriages and relationships.  At the same time, those aren't really observations I need to enrich my life, and nothing she is has to say feels anything but utterly familiar.   Also, I'm of the firm opinion that England and Britain stopped meaning much after World War II, so the fiction of the this time period seems less relevant than the fiction from the height of the British Empire.  Not better or worse, but less relevant for sure.  The Radiant Way is fiction from drab 1980's England, about the rather drab decades preceding the 1980's, and there is hardly a bit of color or beauty in the whole book.  Mostly just whinging. 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

London Fields (1989) by Martin Amis

Image result for london fields movie
Amber Heard plays Nikki Six in the hugely ill fated movie version of London Fields, the 1989 novel written by Martin Amis.

Book Review
London Fields (1989)
 by Martin Amis

 Fair to say the work of Martin Amis evokes both strong positive and negative reaction- then and now.  I have often said- to artists in personal conversation that this is a universal characteristic of great art, art that lasts the decades, stands the test of time- you know GREAT ART.  Love AND Hate,  Beauty AND Squalor.   That's another maxim I mutter- to myself only- walking the streets of Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, Orange County and San Bernardino:  The ugliness is a part of beauty.  Beauty contains both attributes- beauty and ugliness, because it is individual to the viewer.  If one person can say something is great, another can say it is terrible, and the observed work is both.

  London Fields is an exemplar of beautifully ugly fiction- another example would be American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis,  Bright Lights, Big City is another example- and Amis' other books.  Billed as a murder mystery written in reverse, Amis indulges in the kind of viruoso post-modern maneuvering that will surely characterize the generation of writers including Amis and those that follow.  The unreliable narrator isn't a technique deployed to generate interest in readers of 19th century periodicals, it is a literary device  that, by 1989, had already been analyzed to death.  The unreliable narrator means something, or maybe it means nothing, but you can see novelists- not just Amis- struggling with the very fibers of what a novel "is' even as they achieve dazzling heights in the field.

  Contrast these post modern antics to the more conventional coming of age type narratives that emerged from new sources: LGBT authors, African and Latin American authors.  At the same time, the mainline of Anglo-American fiction shifted away from more conventional set ups (marriage, relationships, families) and begins to deploy of tool box of tips and tricks developed by successful writers who also became successful teachers and theorists of writing.

  London Fields is also a good early example of another trend of 1980's literature- the emergence of the "Brick" -a 400 to 600 page work of "serious" fiction.  Amis is himself a pioneer of this style of book publication, Salman Rushdie, Don DeLillo (not quite there yet in his 80's books), The Bonfire of the Vanities.  As such he is somewhat responsible for a line that runs right up to today.  London Fields, written in 1989, is clearly contemporary fiction- 30 some-odd years on.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

#CHASEME: Danger Mouse, Run the Jewels & Big Boi Tease New Song From Baby Driver

This image was posted by Danger Mouse on Reedit today.

Danger Mouse, Run the Jewels & Big Boi Tease New Song From Baby Driver

   Danger Mouse and Run the Jewels are teasing Chase Me, their new song from Baby Driver, a new movie directed by Edgar Wright.  I've heard this song, and it is, let me tell you, fucking amazing. I have not seen the film but I have heard that it, too, is amazing.  (REEDIT #CHASEME)

The Sea (2005) by John Banville

Book Review
The Sea (2005)
by John Banville

  A plot description, which I have cribbed from the post-Booker prize win London Guardian review below, does not do The Sea justice:

The story, such as it is, is narrated by one Max Morden (not quite, we are told quite late on, the name he was christened with), a widowed art historian, who is returning to a seaside boarding-house he once knew as a child on the cusp of adolescence. He has arrived there in order to deal with, in some roundabout way, the death of his wife from cancer. But the reason he lodges at Miss Vavasour's comically moribund guest-house is also because, when he was young, Something Happened there, and the novel only reveals what that was at the end.  - London Guardian 2006
  It's not even entirely clear that "Something Happened" there until the last 10 or 20 pages.  For example, myself, not having read any summaries, was legitimately surprised at the revelation.  That The Sea won the Booker Prize was itself- beating Zadie Smith and Kazuo Ishiguro- surprising.   I think you can fairly ascribe the success of The Sea to Banville's ability to evoke the sparse prose of Samuel Beckett while developing a conventional narrative with a "twist" type ending.   That is a winning formula, evidently.  

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Life & Times of Michael K (1983) by J.M. Coeteze

Book Review
Life & Times of Michael K. (1983)
 by J.M. Coeteze

  Life & Times of Michael K. was the first Booker Prize winning book written by South African turned Australian author J.M. Coeteze.  His other Booker Prize winner was Disgrace, in 1999.  He followed that with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.  Since he 2003 he's published four more novels and some short story collections.   He stays out of the spotlight.   I'm a fan of Coeteze.  I'm not sure he deserves 10 titles in the 1001 Books list.  Does any author deserve that many entries?

  His ten titles from 2006 was cut to five in the first revision.  You'd expect a Booker Prize winning book to make the cut into the core 700 titles, and it does.  Like all of Coeteze's books, Life & Times of Michael K. is both deeply satisfying and disturbing at the same time.   Likewise, his South African landscapes are both familiar and alien.  Like Foe, another Coeteze written 1001 Books entry, Michael K. draws on the conventions of Robinson Crusoe- Michael K. isn't marooned on an island, he's isolated in a society at war, friend and family-less, desiring only his freedom.

   Descriptions of Michael K. often bring up the theme of human dignity, the will of the protagonist for freedom even at the cost of his own life.   He wants to sit quietly, not work for money so he can eat, and not, in fact, eat.  It is his failure to properly feed himself that for me was the enduring image of Michael K.   Although set in a civil war in South Africa, it might as well be a post-apocalyptic scenario.  South Africa, even at the best of times, always seems to be hovering at the edge of catastrophe.  Coeteze, writing before the collapse of the apartheid regime is careful to omit explicit references to race.  I had to resort to the Wikipedia page to discover that Michael K. is classified as "colored" or mixed-race, under the scheme of the apartheid regime.

The Book of Evidence (1989) by John Banville

Book Review
The Book of Evidence  (1989)
 by John Banville

   I would hope, by the time I made into the 1980's section of the 1001 Books list, that I would have at least heard of all of the major authors.  He actually won the Booker Prize in 2005 for The Sea, which is the year before I started this project.   So here I am, 2017, learning about Irish author for the first time, via an Everyman's Library dual publication of The Book of Evidence and The Sea.   It's embarrassing, but it probably is evidence that Banville hasn't really crossed the Atlantic ocean in any substantial way.   I can understand it- the authors that John Banville draws comparisons to:  Nabokov, Proust and James Joyce, all come from the stylish/experimental side of the novel family tree.

  Banville is on record saying he wants to bring the same depth of experience to prose that one experiences from reading poetry.    The Book of Evidence, which itself was short-listed for the Booker Prize, is a dark tale featuring a highly unreliable narrator, Freddy Montgomery, a classic existential anti-hero who narrates The Book of Evidence from an Irish prison cell, where he awaits sentencing for his senseless murder of a house maid in the course of even more senseless attempt to steal a 16th century painting from the estate of some family friends.

  Calling ole Freddy an "unreliable narrator" gets to the heart of what The Book of Evidence is "about" in a serious-critical sense.  Montgomery is writing out what he imagines to be his testimony in his upcoming trial- a trial that will never occur.  He addresses the Judge of his case and repeatedly observes that it is unclear which parts of his tale are true and un-true.  Since one imagines that untruth in this context would involve making one look better in front of the Court, it comes as surprise that Montgomery's own recollections could hardly be less flattering.

  The portrait that emerges is a man who is as close to unredeemable as exists in modern literature.  That his redemption never arrives won't surprise anyone familiar with serious literature.  At the same time, The Book of Evidence is a beautiful book, and Banville is an excellent writer.  He's worth looking up.


Monday, May 15, 2017

The Radiant Way (1987) by Margaret Drabble

Book Review
The Radiant Way (1987)
 by Margaret Drabble

  Margaret Drabble is one of he most intelligent chroniclers of educated, upper-middle class women living in 1980's England, for better or for worse.  She writes squarely within the mainstream of 20th century English fiction:  characters are highly educated, articulate and unhappy with their marital status.  The main difference between the character of The Radiant Way and any set of characters from a 19th century English novel is the absence of of an obsessive concern with the inheritance of property and the legitimacy of birth in The Radiant Way.

  Basically, what the women- three friends from "scholarship" backgrounds who meet while attending Cambridge University in the late 1970's, do is complain. Not without reason, of course.  And of course, the story of the English novel is the story about men and women complaining about their spouses, so Drabble is hardly unique.   I would argue though, that by the late 1980's, none of these type of novels- be they about Americans or Brits are really necessary.  As far as these talky, self-obsessed protagonists go, you might as well stop at D.H. Lawrence in terms of the way this genre of novel is interesting to an audience beyond the people portrayed (which presumably includes the England based editorial staff of the 1001 Books project.)

  It's hard to make the case that any mainline English novel written after World War II deserves inclusion.  That may be an exaggeration, but it's true that there is little exciting happening in the English novel after World War II.

Wittgenstein's Mistress (1988) by David Markson

Book Review
Wittgenstein's Mistress (1988)
by David Markson

  Two things you need to know about Wittgenstein's Mistress:

1.  It is an experimental novel, in exactly the same way as many of Samuel Beckett's novels.
2.  David Foster Wallace was a huge fan, and an essay he wrote on the genius of Wittgenstein's Mistress is appended to the 2012 paperback edition.

    Kate, the narrator, claims to be the last person on earth, and Wittgenstein's Mistress consists of her disconnected ruminations on a variety of subjects related to her personal history and art.  As DFW points out, repeatedly, in his essay, Wittgenstein's Mistress is like a literary representation of Wittgenstein's early philosophy, as expressed in his later disavowed, Tractaus Logico-Philosophicus
   At this point, it would be appropriate to maybe get into some of the analysis that DFW provides regarding the relationship between Wittgenstein, his Tractaus Logico-Philosphicus and the text of Wittgenstein's Mistress, but I think it would all be tedious, and I simply can't imagine a reader who would be interested, except the person who +1's all of the experimental fiction reviews on the Google Plus network.  Shout out to that person! Or bot! I'm fine if bots want to read this blog as well.  All hail our robot overlords, that's what I say.

Concrete (1982) by Thomas Bernhard

Book Review
Concrete (1982)
 by Thomas Bernhard

   There are so many Thomas Bernhard novels in the 1001 Books project between 1975 and 1990 that I missed Concrete, published in 1982, in all the hub-bub.   The editorial essay which accompanies the listing for Concrete in the 2006 edition of the 1001 Books project says that Concrete is in fact a "parody" of Bernhard's obsessive-compulsive style.  I would be hard pressed to agree with that assesment.  Like all other of Bernhard's novels, Concrete features a protagonist who speaks in a paragraph-less monologue, and shares all the common obsessions of all of the protagonists from all of Bernhard's novels on the 1001 Books list. To whit:

1.  Hate-loves his family.
2.  Hates Austria.
3.  Hates Austrians.
4.  Hates people.
5. Hates the modern world.

  That is Thomas Bernhard for you.  He hates modern life.  He hates modern society.  He hates the people around him.  He can't actually accomplish anything because he spends all his time indulging his peculiar obsessions  In Concrete, the protagonist is a wealthy heir who has spent a decade attempting to begin a monograph on an obscure composer.  This fact is essentially the only plot-like device in the entire book.  Other than the unwritten monograph, see above for the contents.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

The Satanic Verses (1988) by Salman Rushdie

Book Review
The Satanic Verses (1988)
 by Salman Rushdie

   I am now convinced that Salman Rushdie is the best novelist of his generation, maybe the best novelist of the 20th century and certainly one of the top 5 novelists of all time, alongside writers like Daniel DeFoe, Charles Dickens, James Joyce and Marcel Proust.  Before I started the 1001 Books project, the Rushdie slot would have been taken by a writer like Thomas Pynchon or maybe David Foster Wallace, but I have no doubt that Rushdie leaves Pynchon in the dust.  Rushdie's protean ability to absorb almost every aspect of the western AND eastern literary tradition within a single work is remarkable.  There is enough to unpack in each of his novels to keep people interested for decades in  unraveling it all.  At the same time, his work is never over complicated or technical to the point of being obscure.  His books traffic in the kind of universal human emotions, love, hate, anger, that people want to read about.

  Of course, The Satanic Verses is best known for provoking the Iranian government-clergy to pronounce a fatwa against Rushdie soon after the book was published.  The reasoning behind the fatwa is obscure but not that obscure.  The title of the book refers to an actual "incident" that happened during the life of the prophet Mohammed.  Basically, it was a time before Mecca (or really anywhere) had converted to Islam.  Medina was a city that had temples and shrines to many deities, standard in the ancient world at that time.  Mohammed was offered control of the city, provided he acknowledge three female deities. He agreed, only to later say that he had been deceived by the devil, who had interposed himself between Mohammed and his angel-contact. The verses he recited justifying his decision to acknowledge the three female deities, a clear violation of the Islamic adherence to monotheism, are known as the "Satanic Verses."

  These verses were part of the canonical tradition for several centuries, but were eventually stripped out both for technical reasons and reasons having to do with the doubt it placed in the idea that Mohammed was infallible.   Salman Rushdie, provoked the Shi'a clergy of Iran in the much the same way the Catholic Church would be provoked if one wrote a book about Jesus having sex with Mary Magdalene.  Obviously minus the fatwa.

  This rich historical background is just a single strand of the multi-layered plot, which interweaves fantasy, science fiction, post-colonial literature, posts-modern literature and the tradition of the 20th century English domestic novel into a rich tapestry.  Like many works of genius, description lessens the impact, but I would like to say that The Satanic Verses is not nearly as difficult to read as one might expec from it's reputation, and it is, in fact, a good deal of fun.

The Beautiful Room is Empty (1988) by Edmund White

Book Review
The Beautiful Room is Empty (1988)
 by Edmund White

   The coming-of-age stories of the LGBT spectrum are one of the limited areas where a "coming of age" novel can hope to bring something new to the table by the end of the 20th century.  Coming-of-age tales are contained by the formalism of the genre: first person narration by a character who closely resembles the author.   Edmund White represents the bleeding edge of the LGBT wave:  A white male, not particularly effeminate nor trans, from a privileged economic upbringing, with a very good education and a prestigious job in New York City as an editor.  The Beautiful Room is Empty is the second of his cis gay coming of age trilogy- this chapter covers the events from college until the Stonewall riots, which the author/narrator character takes part in.

   In 2017 there is nothing particularly revelatory in the terrain covered by White in The Beautiful Room is Empty- in the first novel- the best parts concern his becoming aware of his sexuality in the relative isolation of Cincinnati.  By the time he gets to New York City and pre-Stonewall Greenwich village, he is documenting a scene that is well known to all with even a casual interest in social equality

  White writes frankly about gay male sex, oral and anal, describing intimately such milleus as the Port Authority bathroom-which sounds like a virtual bachinallia of sucking and fucking (I'm just being descriptive) and the gendered practices of gay love making in pre-AIDS New York City.  Perhaps the most lasting importance of The Beautiful Room is Empty is to give a portrait-in-time of pre-AIDS New York City- a virtual Weimar Republic before the onset of AIDS terror.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

The Passion (1987) by Jeanette Winterson

Book Review
The Passion (1987)
by Jeanette Winterson

  The Passion is what Canadian literary theorist Linda Hutcheson first called, "Historiographic meta-fiction" around the time it was published.  This category contains many of the novels published between 1970 and the present that have garnered both serious critical and large popular audiences.  Writers who can be plausibly included as having works in this category are like a who's who of mid to late 20th century fiction: Peter Ackroyd, Isabelle Allende, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, E.L. Doctorow, Umberto Eco, John Fowles, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Thomas Pynchon, Salaman Rushdie, Neal Stephenson and Kurt Vonnegut all fit the description first provided by Hutcheson.

   These books are both self-reflexive and concerned with "real" historical events and characters. Unlike many of the other authors represented in a survey of historiographic metafiction, Winterson is a queer woman, so that makes The Passion different.  It is a tale of two losers caught up in the seismic shifts of Napoleonic Europe: The French army enlistee from the bucolic French countryside and the web-toed, canal-wise Venetian red head, daughter of a boatman, who makes her way in the world as a croupier, pick pocket and occasional prostitute. Her amoral adventures are presented matter-of-factly without lingering or moralizing.   The two stories are told separately and become intertwined in the disastrous aftermath of the French invasion of Russia, when the two flee together to Venice.

  And while The Passion certainly qualifies as reflexive and self-aware, it is not a difficult read- unlike, say, Nights at the Circus, with which it shares some similarities. 

Libra (1988) by Don DeLillo

Lee Harvey Oswald.  This picture appears on the cover of Libra, Don DeLillo's novel about the JFK assassination.
Book Review
Libra (1988)
 by Don DeLillo

  Don DeLillo wasn't the first American novelist to take a recent historical event and rewrite it from the perspective of the actual historical actors.  The Public Burning by Robert Coover, published in 1977, retells the story of the Julius and Ethyl Rosenberg Russian spying case from the perspective of then Vice-President Richard Nixon.  Libra is a re-telling of the assassination of JFK, from the perspective of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald and a colorful cast of characters.  DeLillo deserves recognition for the genius of selecting the JFK assassination as his subject.  No single historical event of the last half century has generated more fevered speculation among weirdos and obsessives than JFK's assassination and the resulting investigation.   To recap what you may or may not remember from your most recent brush with this story:

   Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK from the sixth floor window of the Texas Book Depository.  The Warren Commission determined that Oswald acted alone.  Oswald was murdered shortly after his arrest by Jack Ruby, a Dallas business man.  Many people have raised numerous questions about the "official" version of events, with key attention paid to whether there were multiple gunmen positioned the day JFK was killed, whether Oswald was led to act by government affiliates, particularly those responsible for the Bay of Pigs debacle in Cuba, what happened to Oswald in Russia when he defected, etc, etc, but most of the speculation is around the "fact" that Oswald acted alone.

  The counter-fact, that Oswald DID NOT act alone, is accepted as truth by three quarters of the United States population. (GALLUP)  In Libra, DeLillo firmly aligns himself with the community of doubters, drawing from the facts but giving them the kind of coloring that suggests that every potential participant in the JFK plot is a character from a Saul Bellow novel written in the fifties.  Some of that similarity may come from the fact that many of the Dallas and New Orleans based characters in Libra come from Chicago and left in the 1950's.

  The greatest irony surrounding Libra is that for a majority of Americans, it is Libra which is closer to the truth of "what happened" to JFK than the exhaustively researched and publicly assembled Warren Report.  

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Nights at the Circus (1984) by Angela Carter

Cover art for Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter
Book Review
Nights at the Circus (1984)
 by Angela Carter

   The Twin Peaks principle of popular entertainment might be that works that alienate a significant portion of the largest general audience ALSO create a higher level of audience appreciation among the remaining audience.  This heightened level of audience reaction among a smaller set of the largest general audience for a work of popular culture (a television show on a major network before the internet) is a key to maintaining a larger audience for a longer time period vs. works that appeal to a larger audience initially.  The Twin Peak principle is a specific example of the "cult" art work phenomenon, largely but not wholly confined to the 20th century, where a work fails to find an audience during it's initial release, and is only "discovered" years after the initial publication of the work.

   Nights at the Circus is an interesting literary example of this Twin Peaks principle, a work that is off-putting to large portions of the audience for literary fiction, but whose appeal to those who remain has formed the basis for an enduring audience. Largely written in a post-modern approximation of a Cockney patois from the early 20th century, Nights at the Circus is about a half-woman/half-swan and the American journalist who is trying to get the scoop, in the same way that Ulysses by James Joyce is about a guy walking around Dublin.

    Even if you are passably familiar with the Cockney dialect of the main character, Carter deploys many of the techniques of high post-modernism to obscure the development of the narrative, mis-identifying characters, relying on dialogue without any framing narration, skipping through time and space between chapters and generally omitting all of the signaling techniques that novelists typically use to guide audience expectations of what comes next.

  Which is not to say that Nights at the Circus doesn't have it's moments, when Sophie Fevvers- the swan woman, coherently recounts the circumstances of coming of age in a turn of the century whore house in London, or when the Circus is marooned in the Russian Tundra, the hostages of Russian peasant rebels who have decided that the help of Fevvers is crucially necessary to the pursuit of their cause.  It is clear that the number of works of "experimental" literature is declining as a percentage of the books included on the initial 1001 Books list.

  If you compare, let's say, the 1920's- with it's 67 titles within the 1001 Books list, there are very few books included that aren't experimental or cutting-edge in some significant way.   Authors with multiple titles in the 1920's portion of the list include arch modernists like Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf and Proust.  Many of the one time appearing French and German language authors from the 1920's are experimental or avant garde: Nadja by Andre Breton, Radiguet, Alfred Doblin, Chirico, Faulkner was writing in America in the 1920's. Even mainline non-experimental writers from the 1920's like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway continue to exercise a disproportionate influence on contemporary literature and criticism.

  Few of the titles from the 1920's are what you would call "block busters" or "hits," mostly because they hadn't really been identified back then, but there was a developed international market for fiction. In the 1980's, most of the books are commercial hits first, critic certified second.  Most of the titles from the 1980's are still in print, still being sold in book stores.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

The New York Trilogy (1987) by Paul Auster

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster remains relevant and in print- pictured above is an Art Speigelman drawn cover sequence for a recent re-print.
Book Review
The New York Trilogy (1987)
by Paul Auster

  The New York Trilogy is a collection of three "post-modern detective fiction" novellas, originally written and published separately in 1985 and 1986.  There is a limited overlap of characters, but the three novellas are not three separate stories about the same detective, a la Sherlock Holmes.  Rather they are three novellas that are thematically similar in that they blend elements of detective fiction with elements of the post-modern philosophical novel that is more often associated with French and German authors in this time period.  In any time period, ha ha.

  Although Auster was never part of my literary experience, I recognize that The New York Trilogy was and is popular, but I didn't find The New York Trilogy to be earth shattering work.  It may not even be the best book about an existenalist influence detective to be published in 1987, because that is the same year that Douglas Adams published Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency.

   I'm sure these would have made a bigger impression if I'd read them closer to the original publication date, but 30 years later it just seems like one of any number of self consciously existentialist detective novels. 

The Player of Games (1988) by Iain M. Banks

Cover art from the 1988 Culture novel, The Player of Games, by Iain M. Banks.
Book Review
The Player of Games (1988)
 by Iain M. Banks

  Scottish author Iain Banks wrote non-genre fiction without his middle initial.  For his genre work, mostly science-fiction/fantasy, he went by Iain M. Banks, as is the case for The Player of Games, his second book in his sequence of titles about "The Culture" a far-future, post-scarcity civilization of humans, humanoids and sentient artificial intelligence (mostly represented by Droids and intelligent space ships in this volume) who... well it's not exactly sure what the Culture are actually up to, since their money-free, law-free anarchistic society doesn't appear to have any formal or informal goals, but they seem to be a force for what one might call "good."

 Banks doesn't go in for a lot of exposition- a major point among works of genre fiction that got included in the first version of the 1001 Books list (The Player of Games was cut in 2008.)  Jurneau Gurgah is the game player in question.  He lives on some kind of floating asteroid designed to look like a Nordic fjord-scape.  He travels the galaxy playing games as a representative of The Culture, but at the start of the book he is in full recluse mode.  The games that he plays appear to be board games.  I was a tad surprised that it was the humble board game which extends to all galaxies and civilizations, but there you have it.

  In The Player of Games, Gurgah is recruited, under highly mysterious circumstances, to travel to the Azad Empire and take part in their civilization defining game (called Azad- the Empire being named after the game.)  It's the kind of game where winning means you get to be the Emperor, and the Azadis take it very seriously.  Compared to the Culture, the Azad are very uncool- they have three genders, and the Apex gender treats men and women as slaves, basically.  The Azad are also low key into torture and rape, and they generally resemble what the worst in humanity might look like as a galactic empire.

  For my money, the most interesting part of the Culture universe Banks has dreamed up is the presence of sentient artificial intelligence as co-partners- not servants of the Culture.  How we treat sentient artificial intelligence is likely to be a major issue in the coming decades, and Banks is one of the first authors to take such an idea seriously- beyond the level of analysis first advanced by Mary Shelly in Frankenstein.

Show Review: Stagecoach 2017 w/ Willie Nelson, Jamey Johnson, Margo Price & Nikki Lane

Margo Price and band prepares to take the stage at Stagecoach 2017, photo credit me.

Show Review:
Stagecoach 2017 w/ Willie Nelson, Jamey Johnson, Margo Price & Nikki Lane

  One of the major ironies of being a moderately successful pop artist is that your work day is everyone else's party.  Even for the biggest, most successful artists, touring is a grind.  The process of touring is a function of minimizing unnecessary costs over time, so if you are doing reasonably well as a touring musician, there are not a lot of days off- by design.  Every city you play is different, every lodging, every venue, you are playing in front of a live audience five out of every seven days, and then, to top it all off, every human you know in each city comes out and wants to hang.  Touring musicians, unless they are psychopathic-ally unable to be alone or chronic substance abusers or both, do not want to hang out with random people during their work day, they want to play their gig, maybe have a couple hours to relax, and then they want to go to the next city.  It's nothing personal, its basic humanity.

  No where is this dynamic more apparent than at a mid to large size festival, where you've got dozens of artists and camp followers, squeezed into unusual time slots, with a double or triple portion of friends and family from the surrounding area.  If you happen to be one of those camp followers, as I am, it should be more about the festival audience than whatever artist you may taking along behind.   I've long espoused the audience first perspective, and no where does that pay higher dividends than at the Stagecoach Festival, or "Cowboy Coachella" as members of Margo Price's band of trained killers were calling it over the weekend.

  Despite my love for the festival, I felt like it was over all a down year for the bill, particularly the headliners, with only the Saturday night Shania Twain post-Vegas headline slot feeling really festival worthy.  Dierks Bentley, and Kenny Chesney, headlining Friday and Sunday night respectively, were of no interest.  Friday had some "aww sorry I missed them moments":  Elle King, an ancient Jerry Lee Lewis, Maddie & Tae and John Moreland.   Sunday had Terry Allen, who I really did want to see.  But basically, Stagecoach 2017 was all about Saturday afternoon, with Margo Price, Tommy James, Nikki Lane, Jamey Johnson and Willie Nelson celebrating his 84th birthday, playing in that order between 4 PM and 8 PM.  

  In many ways, the 4 PM Margo Price set felt like the fulfillment of a promise made two years ago, when I came to Stagecoach for the first time.  It was in September of that year that Third Man announced the Margo Price record, that same week, my gf brought her into Monotone (who manage Jack White, who owns Third Man records) and then flash forward two years and here we are.  So it was satisfying to see it all go down, even if there was the normal frisson of anxiety that accompanies any live show by a band you care about.

  Obviously, the crowd at 4 PM was just filling in.  The Palomino tent for Stagecoach is the Sahara tent for Coachella, so it is a big space, and it can be half empty with a few thousand people watching.  The performance was workmanlike, not inspired.  I mean, how inspiring can you be at 430 PM on a Saturday afternoon?  I suppose it has happened, I can think of some memorable afternoon performance at Coachella- MIA's first performance was in the mid afternoon, but it's a tough sell.  The band was truly spectacular, a fact that everyone who watches picks up on, country fan or no.  I could just watch the band play for an hour without Margo at this point.

  The crowd was that amazing Stagecoach mix of races and classes, though mostly white with a sprinkling of darker skin tones and ethnic identifies subsumed by a unifying, American flag inspired visual aesthetic.   I'm hardly a member of that coterie of festival goers, but at least they aren't the annoying, drug-addled children who dominate the general population area of Coachella in 2017.  I would have liked to have seen more artists, period.  After Willie Nelson wrapped his set at 9 PM Saturday night, there was no one left to see except Shania Twain. It would be great if the second stage went a little deeper into the night.
Image result for nikki lane
East Nashville artist Nikki Lane also played Stagecoach 2017
  After Margo Price wrapped up, we ended up trouping over to the Mustang stage- to see Nikki Lane, who is something like an East Nashville rival- I'm using "rival" in a very casual sense not meant to fan the flames of gossip, but it would be ridiculous to not compare to East Nashville based artists who peddle similar varieties of vintage country.  For Lane, the emphasis is on the vintage. She sings with a twang that wouldn't be out of place on a Western Swing record from the 1940's.  She literally owns a vintage shop in  East Nashville.

  It's probably a leetle embarrassing that I've been following Margo Price and East Nashville so closely for the last year and a half and had yet to actually hear Nikki Lane sing.   And I was impressed by the voice, and the general look/style/aesthetic that she brings to the table.  But her band is not as good as the other East Nashville based bands I've heard.  Also, I think her twangy singing style is something that I personally enjoy but one that limits her upside.  The only place that twang has in contemporary Top 40 country is the accent of country artists who are belting out choruses or "rapping" in between verses.  I'm sure, though, that after Stagecoach I'll be paying closer attention, but my take is, based on the fact that she has three LPs out and the first one was in 2011, that it isn't going to happen for her in this iteration.   She needs a hit, and she didn't get one from the new record.  I'm saying this having heard the new Margo record and knowing that there is at least one, maybe two or three radio level hits on her next record.

  The Willie Nelson set was a total shit show, in the best possible sense of that term.  His set started out with 10 minutes of Bradley Cooper shooting for his Lady Gaga featuring Star is Born.  No sound, just Cooper "playing" on stage with a band.  The big story backstage was Neil Young literally driving up in his beater car.  He ended up hopping on stage for 45 seconds, alongside Margo, John Doe,  Jamey Johnson and others as Willie was serenaded with happy birthday.

  Afterwards, there wasn't much celebrating- we had gone early for the managers and bookers Stagecoach Brunch, so Shania's set would have required a full 12 hours at the festival.  The band did watch Shania Twain, then it was off to Tempe for the Sunday edition of the Stagecoach Spotlight tour with Jamey Johnson and Brent Cobb.  I would also like to again say that Brent Cobb is a very nice guy with an excellent attitude.

  A major difference between Stagecoach and Coachella is the artist village- for Coachella it's the beating heart of the industry scene, but for Stagecoach it is essentially deserted.  I sat in the artist area for hours, in the middle of dedicated trailers for Willie Nelson (he never even used it and eventually they turned it over to Steve Moakler), Maren Morris (she was there for about 15 seconds, sporting legit side boob), Margo, Nikki Lane and Brent Cobb and really it was only after the end of Nelson's set that anyone started hanging out.  Most of the main stage acts have their own tricked out tour buses and never leave, and the lesser artists were just stopping through Stagecoach on their own tours.

  Sunday I was disappointed that I didn't see Terry Allen.

Friday, April 28, 2017

The Afternoon of a Writer (1987) by Peter Handke

Book Review
The Afternoon of a Writer (1987)
 by Peter Handke

  It's hard not to compare The Afternoon of a Writer, A German language novella about an isolated and obsessed intellectual, with the contemporaneous work of Thomas Bernhard, another German language writer who writes novella's about obsessed and isolated intellectuals.   Nearly all of the German language works on the 1001 Books list from this time period can be described the same way.

  Unlike Bernhard's protagonitst, Handke's writer can pass for normal, he is alone as part of his writing process, and The Afternoon of a Writer is notable largely for the insight that Handke brings to that lonely world.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Child in Time (1987) by Ian McEwan

Book Review
The Child in Time (1987)
by Ian McEwan

  McEwan placed an ASTONISHING number of titles on the first edition of the 1001 Books list: 8!  Five of them were dropped in 2008.  Another title was dropped in 2010, leaving him with only two core titles:  Atonement (his biggest hit) and The Cement Garden (his first novel.)  McEwan is an author I've always had an attitude about- I've never read Atonement, never read Amsterdam, never seen any of the movies, would laugh at someone who expressed appreciation for his talents- typical hipster bullship attitude stuff.  But I was impressed by The Cement Garden- which is spoooky as hell, and this book- The Child in Time- which is his breakthrough in terms of his- I think- characteristic ability to warp the workings of time and space.  I think that's where he's headed in his big monster hits, though I can't quite be sure.

 It's true that your author's from the 1980's who combine critical and popular success tend to couple solid, if uninspired technique with power packed twists, much in the same way a movie works to develop suspense.  Here, McEwan starts with a horrifying event: the abduction of a 3 year old child from a grocery store check out counter in London, and traces it's impact on the life of the father, the protagonist, and his wife and family.    The Child in Time obviously lacks the immense swagger of his later blockbusters, but all the elements are there.

  But losing six out of eight original titles- would clearer evidence could one have of the extremely arbitrary and biased process of canon making exercise. "Yes, let's include eight books from a guy who literally everyone who buys this book will have already heard of, because he's popular right as we are publishing this book- that's a good idea."

Cigarettes (1987) by Harry Mathews

Book Review
Cigarettes (1987)
by Harry Mathews

  I don't think the editors of the 1001 Books list eliminated many authors who only placed a single title on the initial list.  Rather, I think most of the 300 books that got cut in 2008 were authors with two or more titles. Cigarettes is the only title for American author Harry Mathews- he was also the best known (only?) American representative of the Oulipo movement, a Paris-based group of writers who were interested in applying specific restraints to the writing process.   It's a movement that has been more directly influential in Europe- you can think of the Lars Von Trier producing/Harmony Korine associated Dogme 95 movement, for one.  You can also consider the restraint driven work of multi-platform American artist Matthew Barney.

     In Cigarettes, Mathews undertakes the telling of a more or less conventional multi-generational family drama set in 1960's New York City and environs, but tells it by making each chapter about a single relationship between two characters.  Some of the characters reappear in subseqeunt chapters, but never the same pair.  So it's, father/daughter, daughter/lover father/father of second family, mother/son, etc.  Within the chapters there is less experimentalism, with Mathews prose echoing other New York centered authors from the 1980's.  Mathews also sets his characters against the back drop of the growth of the re-insurance industry in New York City.

   Re-insurance is when a company buys a valid insurance claim from a disaster victim- warehouse fire, ship sinking in a storm, etc, and then exploits the claim for maximum value making a profit on the difference between what they pay the disaster victim and what the insurance company pays them.   Mathews also touches on the lives of artist, intellectuals and gay culture.  It is, in other words, a familiar blend of materials.

Show Review: The Stagecoach Discovery Tour w/ Jamey Johnson, Margo Price & Brent Cobb @ North Park Observatory

Show Review: The Stagecoach Discovery Tour
 w/ Jamey Johnson, Margo Price & Brent Cobb
@ North Park Observatory
San Diego, CA.

  Getting ready all this week for Stagecoach, particularly Saturday Night with a sequence of Margo Price, Willie Nelson and Shania Motherfucking Twain basically in a row.   The prep for that begins this week, with a couple of local dates on the Stagecoach Discovery Tour with Jamey "Kicked Out of Country" Johnson, Margo and Brent Cobb (He's Dave Cobb's cousin, not his brother, FYI).  Last night it was the first date on the tour, playing the North Park Observatory (f/k/a the North Park Theater).  I am a decided fan of the venue, if not the staff at the venue.

  Pre-gaming across the street at the Waypoint Tavern, I got a taste of the vibe for the night:  manly men wearing Johnson's trademark "Kicked Out of Country" t-shirt and some combination of work wear and/or cowboy books, with a much smaller number of cowgirls.   When the tour was announced, the question on my mind was who was Jamey Johnson- turns out he's a Chris Stapelton type with several great records and a spotty relationship with labels and publishers.  He's currently in the middle of a multi year dispute that has rendered him unwilling or unable to release a new record, but his passionate fan base provided a justification for his headliner status.  That and his enormous tour truck/bus combination.

  The shows at the North Park Observatory start impressively early, Brent Cobb's set started before 8, Margo played at 8:15 AM.  Amazingly, last night was her first date in San Diego since her last record came out, another testament to her competitiveness in so many mid size and small markets that she can afford to ignore San Diego completely. The crowd was assuredly there for the headliner, but they were very interested in both opening acts, far beyond what you'd expect from a similarly sized rock crowd.

  I would have liked to do more wandering through the crowd, but I'm planning to get my crowd work in tomorrow night at the Ace Theater in downtown Los Angeles, where the same tour takes the stage.  Good tickets still available!  Jamey Johnson has a two hour set!


Monday, April 24, 2017

The Black Dahlia (1987) by James Ellroy

The real life murder of Elizabeth Short AKA the Black Dahila, is the basis for the 1987 James Ellroy novel of the same name.
Book Review
The Black Dahlia (1987)
 by James Ellroy

  The Black Dahlia was a real murder case- of Elizabeth Short, in Los Angeles, in 1947.  The notoriety of the case extended to the realm of fiction, where it became a kind of short-hand for neo-noir.  James Ellroy was not the first or last author to write a fictionalized version of the case, which has remained formally unsolved (although informally the physician George Hodel is considered to be the murderer.) but his version is considered the best, even withstanding a disastrous Brian De Palma movie version to remain not just a certified platinum neo noir classic, but also one of those rare titles which elevated an author from "genre" to "serious" literature after publication.

  That elevation is almost always a combination of popular and critical acclaim, as was the case with The Black Dahila.  In his book, Ellroy successfully uses the Dahila murder as a metaphor for the decay, decadence and spiritual rot that has always existed at the heart of Anglo Los Angeles: an unholy combination of entertainment industry executives, real estate developers, racketeers and police that colluded to run the city for decades.

  That combination of nefarious forces is synonymous both with our historical understanding of Los Angeles and it's heavy representation in the field of neo-noir literature.   In 2017, largely as a result of the success of The Black Dahlia  and the other three books in his  L.A. Quartet really serve as the state of the art in this field, even decades after publication.

Legend (1984) by David Gemmell

Druss, the Legend 
Book Review
Legend (1984)
by David Gemmell

  I actually had to buy this book off of Amazon because the Los Angeles Public Library System doesn't own a copy.  I received a vintage Del Rey paperback- the kind associated with the lower levels of genre fiction, fantasy and science fiction in particular.  There is nothing about the paperback copy of Legend by David Gemmell that would seem to indicate greatness- it's got a picture of Druss, the Legend in question, swinging his battle axe, about to decapitate a barbarian.

   David Gemmell was an English journalist turned genre fiction writer, with a heavy emphasis on military stories involving vaguely non-politically correct Asiatic type hoards and conspicuously white Anglo Saxon/Scandinavian types waging heroic battles against said hoards.  To his credit, and probably the reason that Legend is the sole representative of the genre that Americans would recognizes as "Conan the Barbarian" type adventures, is Gemmell's grasp of the underlying mythical elements of real world history.   Although Legend contains some mildly explicit sex and highly explicit violence that marks it as a book published in the late 20th century, it is otherwise timeless, and could have been written at any time in the past hundred or so years.

  Gemmell obviously had (he dies in 2006) a firm grasp on both history, mythology and the study of both, and he was obviously familiar with Conan (first appeared in the 1930's in American magazines featuring pulp fiction) and his barbarian prodigy.   Part of the fun of Legend is spotting the influences.  Despite all of it's some fantastical flourishes, limited mostly to the presence of dueling psych warrior-monks within its pages, Legend is almost an alternative- earth history, set in the early Middle Ages, along the lines of a "last stand" narrative, like the Alamo.  

  To give one notable example, two characters enjoy a nice glass of orange juice together at the beginning of chapter one.  The biology and physics appear to be the same as that on Earth, there are no non-human sentient creatures and no fantastical beasts.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Pigeon (1987) by Patrick Suskind

Book Review
Pigeon (1987)
 by Patrick Suskind

   Pigeon is a little existential novella  about a lonely Parisian security guard.  He's been living in the same tiny walk-up flat for the better part of four decades when his routine is a pigeon, incongruously located in the hallway outside.    Like his other 1001 Books entry, Perfume, there is ample evidence of Suskind's skill as a prose stylist, even in translation.  Unlike Perfume, Pigeon is not story dwelling.  The obsessive protagonist resembles various narrators in the novels of Thomas Bernhard, minus the self-conscious intellectualism.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

World's End (1987) by T.C. Boyle

Book Review
World's End (1987)
 by T.C. Boyle

  T.C, Boyle is incredibly prolific for a "serious" novelist.  Since the first edition of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die was published in 2006, Boyle has published five stand alone novels, each of which has remained in print in an evergreen paperback edition.  The editorial language in the listing for this book in 1001 Books calls it Boyle's masterpiece, but without having read any of his other books (Road to Wellsville, anyone?) it seems like there is at least a chance that one of his subsequent novel deserves to replace World's End, which, in my mind, has aged badly, even since the 2006 publication date of the first 1001 Books.

 Set among several generations of the population of the Hudson River Valley in three different time periods:  The late 17th century, the period surrounding the second World War and the "high 1960's."  With the exception of the portion set in the 17th century, Boyle is walking in a well trodden meadow.  One book it recalls in particular is The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow, published in 1971, which also uses The Peetskill Riots as a major plot point.  Those riots were nativist/anti-communist protests of a Peace Concert in the Hudson River Valley by Paul Roebeson.  Like a Woodstock, that was very much ahead of it's time.

  And while there is nothing wrong with two works of 20th century American Fiction that focus on the Peetskill Riots as being emblematic of the American experience in the 1940's, I thought that Boyle's use of Native American characters bordered on the insulting.  There are some subjects where a wry meta-fictional touch isn't appropriate, and personally, I don't see the Native American soft genocide as a topic for a comic novel.  It is different for a writer who is actually Native America- Sherman Alexie, for example, an excellent Native American author who is very funny and not represented on the 1001 Books list.

  It is easy to defend Boyle by saying that he treats his Native American (or part Native American) characters with the same sense of wry detachment that he uses for all his characters, but its hard to imagine him treating enslaved African American characters- who do appear in cameo roles in World's End, with the same attitude.   As it stands, World's End is the first novel that really even discusses the Native American experience in North America- surely a rich vein of literature. A Sherman Alexie book at the least.  Since World's End is Boyle's only core title, it would mean dropping him entirely.  Maybe that isn't fair to Boyle, because World's End is only partially about Native American subjects.

  And, if you are going to start directly comparing books at this point in time- 1987, it's easy for me to say that, a book like Beloved would be one of maybe two or three books to remain on the list, were space needed for new titles.   Whats interesting about the core list is that you've got 700 titles, but those 700 all remained through 2010 and 2012, while the 300 books that were added to the list in 2008 were, I think, replaced entirely in 2012.   In other words, none of the 300 replacement books in 2008 remained after the 2012 revision.   You might also drop The Book of Daniel, since Doctorow has multiple titles on the core list. 

Event Preview: Jamey Johnson & Margo Price @ North Park Observatory Next Week (Tuesday)

Image result for stagecoach spotlight tour
The Stagecoach Spotlight Tour features Jamey Johnson, Margo Price & Bret Cobb
Event Preview
Stagecoach Spotlight Tour (TM)
 Jamey Johnson, Margo Price & Brent Cobb
 @ North Park Observatory
 Next Week: Tuesday, April 25th, 7:30 PM

  I have to hand it to Goldenvoice talent buyer Stacy Vee, she was down with Margo Price from day 1.  Well not really day 1, but who was, really.  But Stacy Vee was at the little industry show Margo Price played in Hollywood, and the Stagecoach offer came in super early.  So when Stagecoach decides to do a Stagecoach Spotlight Tour and asks Margo Price to be on it, she is on it.  That is how things work.   People will criticize Goldenvoice on various grounds, but the fact remains that they (via corporate parent AEG) the only viable alternative to Live Nation.  I mean they aren't an alternative to Live Nation, who can front a monster advance to any artist they please (but usually those who are capable of drawing at a mid size shed venue in any of the top 150 markets in the United States),  but you can structure a solid cycle of American tours around a big Goldenvoice show.

   It's the kind of support that can give rise to the decision to say no to a Live Nation offer.   The trade off for taking Live Nation money is that an artist is forced to work themselves to death to pay back the advance.   Also that it can get an Artist accustomed to the lifestyle that a massive advance can finance but not maintain.  I know these are 1% problems, but they are problems that any American musician achieving viability is going to face.

   The Stagecoach Spotlight Tour covers most of the major western markets:  Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland and Denver.  The logic behind this tour gets stronger the further you get from the epicenter of the Stagecoach festival itself, which happens in the middle of the two week long tour stints.

    Part of my continuing enchantment with Price's rise is seeing her touring numbers for secondary markets in the south-east.  She can play these locations, sell out theaters and take in a few thousand in merch, night after night, with most of the markets within driving distance of Nashville, an ideal location for a touring musician, geographically speaking.  She is also viable, though as yet unproven, in secondary markets in other geographic regions of the country: The Northeast, the Midwest and the West.   You compare that with the touring profile of a comparably successful indie rock act, and there is no comparison, Margo Price would crush them.

   Generating a certain level of ticket sales in these secondary market (in addition to some previously demonstrated ability to sell out smaller venues in major markets) is the essential pre-condition to generating a virtuous circle of touring activity.   Once that circle is established, all it requires is additional momentum, provided by more touring.   However, absent additional albums and tours, the virtuous circle stops spiraling.

  Tickets are still available for this show, next Tuesday at the very, very, lovely and nice North Park Observatory Theater- owned by the Affliction clothing company owner!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison

Image result for thandie newton beloved
Thandie Newton played the reverant to Oprah Winfrey's Mother character in her movie version of Beloved by Toni Morrison.

Beloved (1987)
by Toni Morrison

  I think any process of canonization which includes works within the last 30 years is suspects.  30 years of consideration should be the rule before any specific work of art is included in any canonical collection.  Before 30 years have elapsed, you really don't have a feel for the true impact of a work of art, particularly for those works which were commercially but not critically appreciated, or vice versa.   Its possible that there are books out there which were written in 1987 that the editors of the 1001 Books list were not aware of when they made the first edition of this list in 2006.

  The core collection of 1001 Books is 700 titles.  Chronologically speaking, 1987 is probably the cut off for that 700 number if you start from the beginning of time.  I would guess that the 300 replaced titles are disproportionately located in the 300 books that remain between 1987 and the 2006 cut off for the first book.  In 2006, they had no idea which books published in 2005 might qualify, and so how can they know which books might have to be replaced?

  I'm bringing this up because I would argue that Beloved, Morrison's 1987 gothic shocker, is a keeper- an obvious inclusion within the core list of 700 books.  Just to compare her to the other 1987 American authors that made the first edition of the 1001 Books list, you've got The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe, the collected New York Trilogy by Paul Auster (collected in one edition in 1987) and the Black Dahila by James Ellroy.   Looking at a list of those four entries, and I would cut all of them BUT Beloved.  I understand why the other titles have made it:  The Bonfire of the Vanities was a cross-platform phenomenon for a mildly "important" author,  Black Dahila is a stand out of 80's genre fiction and New York Trilogy is a clever work of metafiction.

  Beloved, on the other hand, is an important book, Morrison has stood accused of overwrought, feverish prose, but who are we to quibble with the style when the results are so august?  When Beloved was published, Morrison was at the top of her game, deploying elements of style to induce deeply felt emotions in the reader. 

Mayra(1986) by Joyce Carol Oates

Image result for young joyce carol oates
A photo of a young Joyce Carol Oates
Book Review
Mayra (1986)
 by Joyce Carol Oates

   You might consider Mayra a Joyce Carol Oates origin story.  Mayra, the title character, physically resembles Oates, shares a similar background and has the same experiences as Oates the writer.  Within the 1001 Books project, Oates is a huge loser.  She starts with four titles in the original edition, and that number is cut to a single title in the first revision.  This reduces Oates from a repeat player of some note to a one hit wonder, for the purposes of the list.  It also points to the way that many, if not all, authors with multiple titles- certainly all those from the 20th century and beyond- were subject to having their contribution halved.

  I'd be inclined to think that Oates was ill served- she is almost certainly an author who deserves more than a single title.  It's likely that she is a victim of both being prolific, still writing and not a major literary prize winner.  Oates is not going to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, she hasn't won the Pulitzer Prize.  She's also written non fiction and short stories throughout her career, and flirted with the career of a public intellectual in the television era.

  Like Anagrams by Lorrie Moore, Mayra hasn't aged well, except as it relates to a general up-swell of appreciation for Oates as she ages out of productivity.  Most of Mayra exists within the confines of the academic literature of the 1980's.  Her plight as a white woman, making her way in academia, has only muted relevance to the polyphonic explosion of viewpoints related to class and gender.   At least Oates, unlike Moore, avoids writing from a place of vested privilege.  

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Parable of the Blind (1986) by Gert Hofmann

Image result for the parable of the blind bruegel
The Parable of the Blind (painting)(1568) by Pieter Breugel, the book is based on imagined evets from 
Book Review
The Parable of the Blind (1986)
by Gert Hofmann

   The Parable of the Blind is a fun little novella about the (imagined) circumstances behind the painting of the same name, created in 1586 by Pieter Breugel.  The idea is that Breugel, unnamed in the book, paid to have models enact the painted scene, again and again, in the same way that one might imagine a Hollywood director having an actor do dozens of takes.  Here, the blind are stumbling into the river, a scene they repeated numerous times, as Breugel sits in his window and paints them.

   The rest of the book describes their attempts to get to the house of Breugel,  The Parable of the Blind is an impressionistic narrative, since the narrators, are blind beggars with no formal education.  To the extent it resembles anything else in literature, the closed comparison is Chaucer, call this "The Blind Beggars Tale."

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Anagrams (1986) by Lorrie Moore

Book Review
Anagrams (1986)
 by Lorrie Moore

   I wouldn't call Anagrams a core title on the 1001 Books list, one of the 708 books that have stayed through all editions of the 1001 Books list.  The editors of the 1001 Books list would call Anagrams a core title, because it is a core title on the 1001 Books list.  Moore is an author who has straddled the line between short stories and novels, balancing both with a career in Academia- thirty years at the University of Wisconsin and now at Vanderbilt University.   She is a professional academic, and Anagrams, her first novel, is a prime example of the genre of "professional academic literature."  It's a major trend, still on going, and it concerns itself with the lives of professional and would be professional academics, living and working on or near a university campus, and almost all of them white, from a middle or upper class background (though not happy about it) and straight.

  Brenna Carpenter, the primary protagonist in Anagrams, shares biographical details with the author- both worked as para-legals in New York, both worked in academia.  Moore is a precursor of the manic-pixie dream girl, though one might more appropriately call her a manic-depressive pixie dream girl.  She's quirky! She sleeps with students! She invents an imaginary daughter.  It's this last detail that, I think, is the crux of Anagrams.  The fact that her daughter is imaginary is stated once, baldly, as a fact, then for the rest of the book she might as well be real.  After the initial disclosure, Carpenter makes no reference to the fact that her daughter does not exist.

  Anagrams hasn't aged particularly well, except as a capsule of that mid 1980's, anti-yuppie, professional-academic sub-culture.  Despite the essentially sad subject matter, Moore maintains a light touch that harkens back to her personal history as a prize winner of short story contests from an early age.   The short story is really hard done by within the precincts of the 1001 Books list.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Extinction (1986) by Thomas Bernhard

Book Review
Extinction (1986)
 by Thomas Bernhard

   Within the precincts of the original 1001 Books list, Bernhard is a major 20th century German author, with six novels making the cut.  That number was reduced in half for the first revision in 2008.  Extinction, his last novel, survived the initial reduction, and that makes sense.  Extinction is by far Bernhard's longest work, and it serves as a kind of summation for his entire oeuvre.

  Loosely put, Bernhard's concern is to serve an indictment against the entire world, focused through his perspective as an Austrian national living in the aftermath of World War II.  Although the characters change, they all share a common narrative style: close, cramped, obsessively and repetitively teasing out all the potential consequences of a certain emotion or experience.   It's novelist as OCD sufferer,  While some of his works are divided into parts, chapters and paragraphs are non-existent.  Instead the reader - of any of his books - is forced to follow the narrator through pages and pages of densely written prose.

   Extinction is one of those novels that both infuriates and entralls.  Even though it is only 311 pages, Extinction took me weeks to read, because I could not keep my place.  Eventually I was forced to sit down and read it in 50 to 100 page gulps.  Every time I put Extinction down, upon resuming I would have to re-read the previous few pages.  Each page took me several minutes to read- unusual- since I usually read something more than one page a minute for a typical work of fiction (100 pages an hour).

  I've been bringing up Thomas Bernhard in casual conversation whenever possible- which is tough- but I've yet to find a single other person who has even heard of him.  He's worth checking out if only for that reason, since his books are widely translated and available.  The end of Extinction, where Bernhard tells his readers (via his narrator) that the only way to avoid the catastrophe of modernity is to "kill yourself before the millennium" rings eerily true in 2017.  Thomas Bernhard is not surprised by Donald Trump.  Nothing could be less surprising to him.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Matigari (1987) by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

Book Review
Matigari (1987)
 by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

  Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o famously abandoned writing in English in favor of developing a literature in his native language, Gikuyu.  Writing a foreword while in exile from Kenya, Thiong'o wryly notes that the Gikuyu language version was banned inside Kenya for years, but that the English translation could still be purchased while the Gikuyu language version was samizdat.

  Matigari is a creation myth, the eponymous hero an allegory of the people who fought for independence but were betrayed by post-independence elites.  Matigari, despite it's allegorical form, is a direct attack on the corruption of the post-independence Kenyan elite.  They are a group that are often singled out for criticism in Thiong'o's fiction.   Thiong'o's style is like the obverse of magical realism, non-magical fantasy.  The symbolic children of Matigari earn a living picking out garbage from the dump. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Lost Language of Cranes (1986) by David Leavitt

Book Review
The Lost Language of Cranes (1986)
by David Leavitt

   The Lost Language of Cranes is a father/son gay coming of age novel set against the back-drop of the AIDS era in New York.  It's a world where the closeted gay father  seeks furtive pleasures in a gay porno theater, while the son  slowly moves into his own gay adulthood while he works as an editor of romance novels.  It is a world permeated with Laura Ashley and Häagen-Dazs ice cream, the 1980's,  It also incorporates an African American lesbian with conservative parents, and the co-op movement in New York real estate.  A heady combination.  You can smell the Laura Ashley pot-por-ri.

 And of course, AIDS, which lurks in the background but never emerges as foreground.  No one gets AIDS, no one dies of AIDS.  No one talks about people dying from AIDS.  It seems a strange thing to say about the novel that represents gay New York culture in the 1980's.  Isn't AIDS THE story from that period?  

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Enigma of Arrival (1987) by V.S. Naipaul

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Much of the "action" of The Enigma of Arrival takes place in Wiltshire, England.
Book Review
The Enigma of Arrival (1987)
by V.S. Naipaul

  Naipaul's status as the child of an East Indian immigrant who came to an English colony in the Caribbean on an island with a long history as a Spanish colony before it's take-over by the English.  He is a kind of emblem of the British empire, with his DNA containing the entire story of the British conquest in the globe in the 18th and 19th century.  Of course, Naipaul is aware of this history, but it is an inheritance that doesn't control Naipaul and his prose.

  The Enigma of Arrival is an excellent example of the way Naipaul transcends his rich inheritance.  A largely auto-biographical work of fiction that mostly takes place in Wiltshire, England, where Naipaul rented a cottage for several years to work on his writing, after he had made enough headway to afford to work full time on fiction.

   Naipaul alternates between memories tied to his upbringing in Trinidad and subsequent emigration to England and the present of life in Wiltshire, where the decrepit estate which houses his rented cottage is slowly collapsing into ruin. His portraits of the characters in his little rural valley are so convincing that it is difficult to believe that is they who are the fictional element of The Enigma of Arrival.  The close observation of his neighbors is like an inversion of colonialism, the coolie returned to England to get a good look at the sahib,

  At the same time, Naipaul is well aware of the role that this Empire has had in his own education and his own present as someone who could afford to rent a cottage and write all day.  One of the major themes in The Enigma of Arrival is the way that struggling to escape Trinidad shaped his subsequent experience outside of Trinidad.   

Show Review: Sleaford Mods @ The Echoplex

Show Review:
Sleaford Mods
@ The Echoplex
April 9th, 2017

   England's reigning working class talk-rap duo delivered the goods last night to a crowd of predominantly older, male and English non working class fans, their first show in Los Angeles.  The easiest catch phrase to describe Sleaford Mods is "post-Brexit the Streets/Mike Skinner."  That capsule summary doesn't do justice to the magnetism and delivery of rapper/talker/singer Jason Williamson.  Sleaford Mods are a genuinely compelling live act perhaps because of their bare bones aesthetic.

 You can count me as convinced by their performance last night

Thursday, April 06, 2017

The Lover (1984) Marguerite Duras

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Jane March memorably portrayed the Duras character in the movie version of her novel, The Lover.
Book Review
The Lover (1984)
Marguerite Duras

  It's clear that the average length of a book on the 1001 Books list shortens over time. In the 18th century, novels often eclipsed 500 pages and were published in 10 volume sets.  In the 19th century, serial publication and the publishing convention of printing single novels over three volumes ensured that the length of individual works was often over 300 pages, with many books over 500 pages.  In the 20th century, books over 500 pages are notable for being "long."  Throughout the first part of the 20th century, the 300 page novel became the standard.  After 1970, the average length of each book begins to plummet.  By the mid 1980's, it feels like the average 1001 Books list is somewhere under 250 pages long.  The Lover, at almost a hundred pages, doesn't even feel like a novella, just a short novel. It's a truism that attention spans declined after the introduction of television, and I think the average length of books on the 1001 Books list clearly supports that contention.

  The Lover is another book on the "international best seller" sub-list, notably the publicity surrounding the popular film version, released in the mid 1990's.   The Lover is a spicy meatball for real, the autobiographical tale of the love affair between an underage, impoverished french girl living in Vietnam and her older Chinese lover, the scion of \a local business magnate.  The love depicted between the unnamed child girl and her 20 something lover is the kind of thing that gets you arrested in 2017, and I think that gives The Lover it's edge.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Old Devils (1986) by Kingsley Amis

Book Review
Old Devils (1986)
 by Kingsley Amis

  Old Devils was the Booker Prize Winning book that Kingsley Amis deserved for  a career that began with him as a fringe member of the "angry young men" of post-War English fiction, and ended with laureates, accolades, and a son who was arguably even more successful at being a novelist than his dad.

  I love this two sentence summation of the plot from Wikipedia:

       Alun Weaver, a writer of modest celebrity, returns to his native Wales with his wife, Rhiannon, sometime girlfriend of Weaver's old acquaintance Peter Thomas. Alun begins associating with a group of former friends, including Peter, all of whom have continued to live locally while he was away. While drinking in the house of another acquaintance, Alun drops dead, leaving the rest of the group to pick up the pieces of their brief reunion

   There you have it, people, Old Devils in a paragraph.  Old Devils is also very...Welsh, in the sense that it takes place in Wales, outside of Swansea, I believe, and Alun Weaver is a "writer of modest celebrity" in that he is the pet Welsh poet/public intellectual for the BBC.  He is also a compulsive philanderer, in his very British way.   Like his other 1001 Books qualifier, The Green Man, Old Devils concerns itself with a group of men who, one imagines, were known directly to Amis.  It doesn't seem like any of the characters are meant to be Amis himself.

  It's not hard to call Amis pere a dinosaur.  His characters are bloated, white, privileged, alcoholics and philanders.  Not the landed aristocracy of the 19th century novel, but the the class of 20th century professional intellectuals, some successful, some not so much.   He couldn't be further away from the hot trends in 1980's literature- no diversity, racial or economic, no post-modern pyrotechnics, no infusion of magical realism.  Just unhappy British people.  But it's so, so well done.  Amis manages to draw some universal truths out of a creative milieu that had been left for dead by a half century of literary progress.  And he won a Booker Prize, an award that did not exist when he started writing.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

The Name of the Rose (1980) by Umberto Eco

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Sean Connery and Christian Slater in the movie version of The Name of the Rose (1980) by Umberto Eco.
Book Review
The Name of the Rose (1980)
 by Umberto Eco

  The Name of the Rose is one of those super unlikely international best-sellers, which didn't just ensure everlasting fame and audience for the author, Italian semiotician Umberto Eco, but also single-handedly created the genre of the medieval detective story.   The Name of the Rose had to prove itself as a top seller four different times:  First, in the original Italian, where it was a best seller.  Next, in French and German translations, where it was a best seller.  Then, in England, where it was a surprise best seller, finally, in the United States, where it sold millions of copy and became a film starring a young Christian Slater and Sean Connery.

  Today, The Name of the Rose is very much in print (last edition in 2014) and still selling.  The copy I checked out from the Los Angeles Public Library was the Everyman's Library edition, published in 2006, the same year as the first edition of the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list.   Whoever would think that a book that is one part Sherlock Holmes and one part exegesis on the paths of heresy in Southern Europe in the 13th century would prove such a hit?  Part of the credit due Eco is his recognition that the Europe of the pre-Black Plague era was a pretty interesting place, intellectually speaking.  The other part is being able to write a tale that translated fetchingly into four different languages and finding an audience in all of them.

  Eco wasn't exactly a one hit wonder- other of his novels have proved to be best-sellers, notably  Foucault's Pendulum, but Eco never prostituted himself in an attempt to match the qualities which inspired the success of The Name of the Rose.  

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Book Review: The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980) by Bruce Chatwin

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The Viceroy of Ouidah was made into a film called Cobra Verde by German auteur Werner Herzog

Book Review:
The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980)
by Bruce Chatwin

   I believe that the genre of colonial fiction that Joseph Conrad invented was an important influence on the development of dystopian literature.  Right from the beginning, Conrad was an important influence on George Orwell, and he was certainly know to Aldous Huxley.   But more than that, the tone of the "white man in Africa" resembles the typical narrator in a dystopian novel, a sane man or woman (or robot for that matter) in an insane world.   Personally, I'm interested in depictions of the insane dystopias of colonialism.   And if you get right down to it, there are few darker than the odd European controlled areas of Africa, outside those controlled by major powers of England and France.
   Let's see, you've got the Herrero massacres of German Southwest Africa, as discussed by Thomas Pynchon both in V and Gravity's Rainbow.  There is the famous Conradian Heart of Darkness in the  Belgian Congo.  I understand why a critic might ask why read another narrative along those lines, this one covering the Portugese/Brazillian slave coast off the Kingdom of Dahomey in the 18th and 19th century, but I would say that this is a separate literary genre, alongside narrative written by Africans themselves.

  Colonial literature isn't simply about the historic circumstances depicted in a particular narrative, it is also a metaphor for the relationship that we have with the forces of consumer capitalism and the entertainment industrial complex in our own lives- they attempt to colonize our consciousness.   Thus, the narrative of colonialism also included the narrative of resistance to colonialism.

  I understand that The Viceroy of Ouidah has an episodic and feverish quality, and it switches narrative viewpoints between generations of characters

Book Review: California (2014) by Edan Lepucki

Will Edan Lepucki's California survive the Colbert bump? Probably.
Book Review
California (2014)
 by Edan Lepucki

  It was always my intent that I would be laying the groundwork for a straight forward "book blog" by using the 1001 Books project as a foundation for opining on contemporary literature, with a more prosaic goal of having a relevant opinion about whether should buy one new work of fiction over another.  Since new fiction typically costs upwards of 30 bucks in hardback, and usually being a tad under 300 pages... it's not a light recommendation.  If a reader wants to read three new works of high-quality, "literary" fiction a month, that is going to set them back a hundred bucks.  In my mind, the question is always is this (new work of fiction) potentially a canonical book.

  If you are dealing with a book that might be a canonical work, the thirty bucks can be justified on a number of levels, ranging from the cultural capital of being familiar with the resulting big budge film or tv version before it comes out, to potentially owning a small press first edition of a work later deemed to be classic, to cocktail banter and water cooler talk.

   Edan Lupicki was the surprise beneficiary of a campaign by Steven Colbert against, where he promoted the sale of Lupicki's debut post-apocalyptic relationship drama, California, through non Amazon channels, the prove the point that author's didn't need Amazon to have a best seller.   These are the kind of promotional fluke that often lead to books that take on an out-size amount of publicity in the "first novel" category,  As the New York Times observed in their (subsequent to Colbert) review of the book, Lepucki won the "literary lotto."

   And to be fair, she did, but she also wrote a dystopian relationship drama that seems like it anticipated the elevation of dystopian fiction from genre to literary fiction, a process that is very much in full bloom even as I write this, with film versions of Colson Whitehead's Underground Railroad and American War by Omar El Akkad coming out this week.  At the genre level, dystopia is dominant everywhere from comics, to films, to genre fiction.

   Lepucki delivers a carefully drawn, if not wholly transporting "low key" version of the upcoming breakdown in society as observed by two unusual millennials. The story is so simply drawn that giving away any element risks spoilation of the narrative, but I do believe there is depth under the surface, along the lines of what one might expect from a European style philosophical novel from the mid 20th century.   I know California inspired a virulent Colbert inspired "back lash" of people who claimed California was weak as a literary effort  but perhaps those readers weren't as attuned to Lepucki's well drawn details of life "before" including one memorable conversation which took place around a drained Silver Lake reservoir, the bottom covered in garbage- not too different from present reality.

  Because of the fluky nature of her rise to prominence, Lepucki is going to need to prove herself with a second hit.   Can she do it? California doesn't seem to particularly hard fought as a work of art.  Part of that is Lepucki's laconic, southern California inflected dialogue and prose.  It's clear that she is setting up the prospect of a "further adventures of" if not directly anticipating a sequel in her ending.  I'm sure her publisher will publish a sequel if that is what she wants to do.  What does Edan Lepucki do next, that is my question.

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