Dedicated to classics and hits.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam (2013) by G.W. Bowersock

Image result for kingdom of himyar
The Yemeni-Arab Jewish Kingdom of Himyar
Book Review
The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam (2013)
Emblems of Antiquity Series by Oxford University Press
by G.W. Bowersock

I'm very interested in the history of the ancient (i.e. before Christ) world and the time after that until the emergence of Islam in the 700's.   The history of the ancient near east after Rome and before Islam is obscure on a number of levels.  First, the super powers of the time, Byzantium and the Sassinian (Persian) Empire, aren't themselves particularly well known in the West, and any kind of English language historical interest is essentially non-existent.

  The story that The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam, takes place on the fringe of that Byzantium/Sassanian opposition, in what is today Yemen and the horn of Africa.  The time period describe is the mid 6th century.  The players include a Greek-Ethiopian speaking Christian King who invaded an Arab-Jewish state who were oppressing their own Arab-Christian minority.   The fact that any of this places of things existed in this time and place might well come as a shock to anyone familiar with modern day Yemen and the horn of Africa.  In fact, scholarly consensus on the existence of the Arab-Jewish state located in modern day Yemen is itself a matter of some controversy.

   Bowersock treats this Arab-Jewish state as historical fact.  It was called the Kingdom of Himyar and the population- not just the rulers- converted to Judaism around 380 AD.   Other inhabitants of Himyar converted to Christianity at the same time.  The Jewish state was concentrated in the south, and the Christians in the north.  Meanwhile, what we would call the "Ethiopian" Kingd Com in Africa was Christian, but a different kind of Christian then the Byzantine's, so they had an awkward relationship.  The Jews of Himyar were a proxy for the Persians- the Persians being perceived as the historical "good guys" (vs. the Bad Guys of Rome and Byzantium).

   The point of this book is to assert the historical truth of the massacre of hundreds of Christians at the hands of the Jewish ruler of Himyar, Yusuf, in 522, which ultimately provided justification for the invasion of Arabia  by the Ethiopians in 525.  The point of this book is to point out that all this actually happened.  Bowersock stitches together the evidence from a variety of disparate and obscure sources- basically stuff that is just impossible to look at and often written in other languages.  Bowersock is also trying to make the point that this geo-political situation MUST have influence Muhammad and the development of Islam, which took place north, in the still pagan tribal areas of mid Arabia.


Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Butcher Boy (1992) by Patrick McCabe

Book Review
The Butcher Boy (1992)
 by Patrick McCabe

  I remember watching the film version of this book in theaters.  It was frightening and surreal, about the turmoil surrounding a neglected/abused boy-man growing up in rural Ireland in the mid 1960's.  Francis "Francie" Brady is the narrator and main character, speaking to the audience in a modified stream of consciousness which drifts between reality and fantasy without so much as a how-do-you-do as to which is which.  Initially, the combination of stream-of-consciousness and Irish dialect is confusing, but as the book moves through it's 220 pages, Brady's narration style becomes familiar.

  The plot of The Butcher Boy is like the photo-negative of a bildungsroman/coming-of-age novel where the character, instead of growing up, becomes gradually less mature and eventually criminally insane.  There are legitimately shocking moments in The Butcher Boy, which, aside from terrorism in the north, would seem difficult to conjure given the milieu of rural 1960's Ireland, but critics have postulated that The Butcher Boy is "about" the struggles of Ireland to become psychically integrated in the aftermath of Irish independence.

  It should be said that The Butcher Boy makes for incredibly sad reading.  It also contains disturbing descriptions of violence and sexually motivated child abuse.

Black Water (1992) by Joyce Carol Oates

Book Review
Black Water (1992)
 by Joyce Carol Oates

  Black Water is Joyce Carol Oates' take on the Chappaquiddick incident involving the death of Mary Jo Kopechne at the (negligent) hands of Ted Kennedy.   Oates took several steps to fictionalize this well known event- she moves it from 1969 to the 1990's, the scene from Cape Code to the Booth Bay area of Maine and of course the characters have different names.  Black Water is a novella, expanded from what was originally a poem, and the prose reflects the poetic background.  Narrated entirely by the victim as she drowns, waiting for the Kennedy-figure to rescue her from the car,  Oates employs a familiar light touch.  Surely Black Water is a meditation on politics, gender and celebrity but obliquely, without rubbing the reader's face in the harsher edges of the events.

  Like many selections in the 1990's portion of the 1001 Books 2006 edition, I was left questioning if this was even one of Joyce Carol Oates best efforts, let alone worth including in the 1001 Books project.  I think Oates fits into the category of a writer whose best work lies outside the traditional novel, making it hard to find representative works to include in a project centered on the novel. 

Jazz (1992) by Toni Morrison

Book Review
Jazz (1992)
by Toni Morrison

   Every Toni Morrison novel on the 1001 Books list is a breath of fresh air.  It is genuinely refreshing to read books that aren't about wealthy white people and their sad problems.  Character in Toni Morrison's novels grapple with real life.   Her writing style has always been realist with a touch of magical realism, but Jazz is more experimental, as reflected by the title, which both refers to the popular style of music and the location- 1920's Harlem.  It also reflects the more experimental style, as Morrison flits between characters and time to tell a complete story in a fractured way.  Like JAZZ itself.

  The themes of Jazz are familiar for Morrison fans, but her shift in technique gives everything a fresh vibe.  As in other works of contemporary post-modern embracing fiction, there is a jig saw puzzle aspect to the plot that differentiates it from other books (even those by Morrison herself) concerned with the same subject matter.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Underground Railroad (2016) by Colson Whitehead

Book Review
The Underground Railroad (2016)
 by Colson Whitehead

   Published in August of last year, The Underground Railroad has done just about as well as a serious work of fiction could hope.  He won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and a 2016 National Book Award.  Last month, The Underground Railroad was long-listed the Man Booker Prize and it seems like a reasonable candidate for both the short list and the actual prize itself.   Now that the 1001 Books project is in the end stages, I'm trying to turn my attention to contemporary fiction so as to develop an actual critical voice.

   I'm a semi-fan of Whitehead.  I enjoyed his first novel, The Intituionist (1999), checked out until 2011, when he published his zombie book, Zone One (2011) and then put The Underground Railroad on my "to read" book back when it was published last year.  Whitehead's career tracks many of the themes that I follow here- the border between "genre" and "serious" fiction, for one, and the decisions that a would-be canonical author needs to make during the course of his or her career.

  Whitehead has several advantages that would weight towards his establishing canonical status within his lifetime.  There is his background (Harvard University), his publication track record (regular but not overly prolific) and his choice of themes: historical fiction, genre fiction and mixing those two things with African-American themes.   Whitehead is fashionable, relevant and politically correct, all at the same time.

  Prior to The Underground Railroad you could say that the only thing his would-be canonical status lacked was a world-beating hit.   The Intitutionist was a great first novel, but not very thematically interesting.   Zone One was a best-seller, but c'mon- a zombie book?  That's too genre for canonical status, even in 2017.

   The Underground Railroad, on the other hand,  has got it all.  It is thematically fashionable, blending speculative fiction with the African American experience during slavery.  It's only become more relevant since it was published last year.  Recent events in Charlottesville Virginia have brought the pre-Civil War south back into the news.  Like all of Whitehead's books, The Underground Railroad eschews the rough edges of post-modernism for an approach that aims to include as many readers as possible.  Call it the Oprah approach to canon.

  I found The Underground Railroad a satisfying read, and I am not surprised at all the acclaim.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Asphodel (1992) by H.D.

Book Review
Asphodel (1992)
 by H.D.

   Do not be fooled by the 1992 publication date- Asphodel was written in 1921.  The lengthy delay in publication was due to the author's explicit desire that it never be published.  The final manuscript that served as the basis for this publication had "Destroy" written across the top in red ink.  Asphodel is a fellow traveler with the experimental writers of high modernism.  She had a lengthy relationship with Ezra Pound- who is one of the main characters in this roman a clef.   H.D. (Hilda Doolittle in real life) was an important figure in modernist circles during the important years: the late teens and early twenties.  Her "rediscovery" serves as the inclusion of an important female voice in the high modernist canon.   Like many works of high modernism, Asphodel, though a roman a clef, and essentially, a combination of literary gossip and classically infused stream of consciousness, is at times impossible to follow.

  The reader gains an impression of various locations and people, but there is precious little action.  Most of the actual events of the book seem to be the narrator, sitting, lost in reflection.  That's a key difference between Asphodel and, say, Ulysses, which isn't stream of consciousness from the perspective of the author, but a fully developed novel. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Arcadia (1992) by Jim Crace

Book Review
Arcadia (1992)
 by Jim Crace

      If you want to check the current relevance of a particular novel in American culture, check the Wikipedia entry.  If it doesn't have a page, that's a 0.  If it has a page that shows copious annotations over time, that is a ten.  Arcadia, without a Wikipedia page, scores a zero on the Wikipedia test.  Crace is an English author who hasn't quite made it to the point where American audiences pay attention.   I'm not particularly surprised, but I quite enjoyed Arcadia, which I can say of many of the selected works from the early 1990's that made their way onto the 1001 Books list.  This was a weak time for literature, and the taint of the high profile "artsy" movie version of many of these books makes me questions whether the title has been selected for literary merit or because the movie just makes the book too popular to ignore.

   Crace starts with a fairly straight forward Horatio Alger tale about Victor, a street urchin turned millionaire, living in an unnamed city that resembles London or New York, contemplating his existence as he turns 80.  He is assisted in his endeavors, which include dominating the supply chain and real estate of the Salt Market, by Rook, a grocer-labor activist turned fixer.   Rook has taken to feathering his nest with cash bribes from vendors which he calls, "pitch fees."

  Crace moves backwards and forwards in time, telling the story of Victor's unusual childhood, while focusing mostly on Rook as he prepares for Victor's 80th birthday party.  Events are set into action when Rook is exposed as a bribe taker and terminated from his position.  Immediately after, Victor decides to replace the market with "Arcadia" which is familiar to many in the guise of what we might call a "food hall."

   We are kept well apprised of the economic and political ramifications of the decision, and the action unfolds against the familiar backdrop of urban real estate development.

Black dogs (1992) by Ian McEwan

Book Review
Black Dogs (1992)
by Ian McEwan

  I guess everything with Ian McEwan is pre-Amsterdam vs. post-Amsterdam, Amsterdam being McEwan's 1998 smash hit, Booker prize winner.  Black Dogs was his second novel to be short listed for the Booker Prize.   Like many prize winning/prestige novelists working in the mid to late 20th century, there is a clear career trend of starting with shorter novels and graduating to longer novels.  Being allowed greater length and complexity is a privelge of authors with established track records, in the same way that pop artists who sell millions of copies can release double records.   Black Dogs is still prior to that period in the career of McEwan- it's not quite on par with the early work that earned him the nom de plume Ian Macabre, but it's not a sweeping meta-fictional historic epic, either.

  Rather, Black Dogs is about a pair of relationships and how they impact the narrator, an orphan seeking to delve deeper into the failed marriage of his wife's parents.  The events take place against the back drop of the fall of the Berlin wall in Germany, giving Black Dogs a temporal quality it would have otherwise lacked. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Hideous Kinky (1992) by Esther Freud

Book Review
Hideous Kinky (1992)
 by Esther Freud

   As the 1990's progress in the 1001 Books project, I begin to ask myself, at what point, exactly, does one become exhausted with depictions of white privilege?   For sure, every book written before the 1960's gets a free pass.  By the 1970's, the questions were being asked, but there was a deficit in replacement literature.  In 1992, when Hideous Kinky was published, Toni Morrison was a couple a years away from winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, and I was asking myself if this semi-autobiographical depiction of the early childhood of Sigmund Freud grand daughter Esther Freud in the wilds of boho Morocco, was really worth the admittedly minimal effort it takes to read.

  What really came to mind while I read Hideous Kinky was the antics of Ab Fab protagonists Patsy and Edina.  The Esther's character's mother seems to be a younger version of Edina.  Since the novel is written from the point of the daughter, there are no references to Freud's favorite patronage.  She is depicted living month to month on a remittance from her (presumably estranged) husband.

  I suppose the point is that this is an outrageous example of comically neglectful parenting, albeit well meaning and ultimately harmless to the children.  Like many of the "international best seller/film coming soon" books from this period, Hideous Kinky places privileged white people in unusual locations.

Oscar and Lucinda (1988) by Peter Cary

Book Review
Oscar and Lucinda (1988)
by Peter Cary

   The idea of describing a work of "serious' literature as, "An international best loved my millions..." was essentially unheard of up through the mid 1980's, but the emergence of film producers like Merchant-Ivory Productions an the Weinsteins ensured that any half way decent work of "serious"literature with a prize winning pedigree would be a solid candidate for a movie.  Oscar and Lucinda won the 1988 Booker Prize, and the Ralph Fiennes/Cate Blanchett movie followed almost immediately.

Oscar and Lucinda, like many 1001 Books participants from this period in time, is a variation on "historical meta fiction,"  set in England and Australia in the early part of the 20th century.  The nutshell of the plot, "Defrocked clergy man an wealthy female social outcast build a glass church and transport it through the Australian outback;"  gives a decent idea of the plot, but doesn't adequately describe the "meta" part of the historical fiction description.   The main "meta" aspect is an uncanny obsession with human psychology on the part of the narrator, giving a depth to the described events that would otherwise be lacking.

Oscar and Lucinda is also "about" the Anglican church in England and Australia in the early 20th century, gambling an the social mores of frontier society in Australia.  Carey proves his Booker Prize winning merit in the final hundred pages of the 576 page book (it reads much shorter), which is a legit page turning ending, more like something you'd expect from genre fiction, but with a twist, of course.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (1991) by Jung Chang

Book Review
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (1991)
 by Jung Chang

   The absence of titles from China on the first edition of the 1001 Books list is one of its greatest flaws.  Up to this point (the 1990's) the most memorable China-set novel on the 1001 Books list is Empire of the Sun, by J.G. Ballard, an Englishman.  At least Wild Swans is written by an author FROM China, even it was written in English, in England, after Jung Chang got out and never went back.  Although Wild Swans covers three generations, from the earliest part of the 20th century through the cultural revolution, the main attraction is Chang's description of the cultural revolution, details of which continue to be shrouded in mystery.

    Summarizing the cultural revolution isn't that difficult, basically, it was the largest country in the world turning into a Chinese version of Lord of the Flies.  Mao, worried about his power base, used children and teenagers to persecute his own officials, or "capitalist roaders" as they were called.  The victims of the cultural revolution were Mao's own loyal officials, the people in charge of implementing his revolution.  This came on top of his eradication of the capitalist/land owning class which preceded the cultural revolution.  Chang was the daughter of two upper level Chinese officials- both Mother and Father.

    She and her family aren't the most sympathetic types- but the chaos of early 20th century China makes the decision to enlist with the Communists seem like an easy choice to make.  After that- they were trapped.  Chang makes it clear how little even educated Chinese knew about the West in the 1960's and 1970's.  It is one hell of a wild ride.

Mao II (1991) by Don Delillo

Image result for mao II painting
Mao II print by Andy Warhol
Book Review
Mao II (1991)
by Don Delillo

  Before author Don Delillo entered into his brick-production period, he could write nimble little novels, and less nimble novels that were none the less under 300 pages.  Mao II, his tenth novel, shows him on the way to his "high Delillo" period of 100 page opening chapter set pieces set in baseball stadiums (Mao II opens with a Moonie "mass wedding" taking place in Yankee Stadium.");  but still not quite at the stage where his books are over 500 pages.

  Reclusive novelist Bill Gray is the center of Mao II.  Gray resembles a combination of J.D. Salinger (exclusiveness) and Ernest Hemingway (life style choices.)  Gray has been trying to finish his most recent book for decades, and his assistant, Scott, is worried because of what the completion and publication of his book will mean for their relationship, which can basically be expressed using the term "co dependency."

  After one hundred and fifty pages of hand wringing and existential angst, Gray gets roped into attempting to rescue a poet from a Marxist group of Lebanese rebels.   That's about it for the action.  Like many Delillo novels, it is the themes that the characters harp on in their quiet moments that provide the most lasting, memorable, moments.  Here, the effective theme is his prescient forecasting of a forthcoming "age of terror."  Spot on, that one. Good call.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Show Review: PRIESTS @ Ebell Club Highland Park

Image result for katie alice greer
PRIESTS Katie Alice Greer in a Merchandise music video.

Show Review:
@ Ebell Club Highland Park
Los Angeles, CA.

  If you can watch a PRIESTS show and not feel nostalgia for a dissipated youth, then you have no heart or soul.  PRIESTS hail from the Washington DC area, and they, I think, would have to be one of the flagbearers for the post-punk sound commonly associated with Dischord.   It's a sound and era I'm well familiar with, having attended undergraduate at American University in Washington DC, the home of Dischord.   It is a DIY ethos, and one that greatly influenced my own involvement in the production and distribution of popular music.   I fear that while the ethos has very much shaped the anarchic chaos of post-Napster music business, the sound itself is more of a museum piece than a living, vital situation.  If you want an example, take a look at SAVAGES, a band that has more Facebook friends than monthly listeners on Spotify.  That is nuts.  So people like to SAY they like Savages, but they don't actually LISTEN to Savages, is what that statistic tells me.

  So the question is, can PRIESTS escape from that box? Maybe.  They are a tight band- hardly an overnight sensation with records going back to 2012.  They've hooked up with a highly reputable management company, which shows that they have some understanding of the larger game (although the manager they selected is very DIY friendly.  The live show was very good- lead singer Katie Alice Greer has Karen O type potential.  Less clear is whether they can/will settle down and, you know, write songs with melodies and bridges and stuff.  Not very punk, but kind of a deal breaker in terms of gaining wider acceptance.  Not that they care about that bullshit!  I know they don't!

    Look at the progression of Jen Clavin of Mika Miko and Bleached, from punk screamer to proto-blueswoman. I'd never been to the venue- the Ebell Club in Highland Park, nor heard of the promoter, "Sid the Cat" who had his own merch, including t shirts which said, "I hope people show up," which I thought was kind of amazing.   The Ebell Club is like an old (in terms of year established) club for old(in terms of age) women- mostly white from what I could see.  A take on the Moose Lodge, with a classier "classical" vibe.  The room was very warm and the sound was excellent, parking was easy, I would go back, and see another show by the same promoter.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Midnight Examiner (1989) by William Kotzwinkle

Book Review
Midnight Examiner (1989)
 by William Kotzwinkle

   It's hard to take seriously a writer whose greatest claim to fame is the novelization of the "E.T." movie, but that is the situation with Kotzwinkle, who hardly covers up the fact in his more traditional books- "writer of the best selling novel of 1982" his book jackets proclaim.   I double checked to make sure that it was a novelization, and that Kotzwinkle hadn't written the underlying story that the film was based upon.

  While it's not fair to call him "forgotten"- after all- he is still alive and has his own website, etc., it is fair to say that he is a surprise inclusion in the 1001 Books project.  Based on Midnight Examiner, I still can't explain it entirely- he writes firmly in the 1960's American tradition of "wowee zowee," that shows influence from comic books an pulp fiction.  Midnight Examiner is based on classic supermarket tabloids like Weekly World News, those that would simply fabricate a fantastic headline for the hell of it.

  As I read Midnight Examiner, it did occur to me that this era was relevant to our own era of "fake news," but I'm not sure anyone is around who is reading Kotzwinkle to care.  With his combination of quasi-serious fiction, genre fantasy/sci fi and popular novelizations of popular films, Kotzwinkle is kind of a real-life Kilgore Trout, the (fictional) muse of Kurt Vonnegut's many novels.

Typical (1991) by Padgett Powell

Book Review
Typical (1991)
by Padgett Powell

   Padgett Powell is typically known as a writer from the "new South" or Southern literary tradition.  This is a line of literature essentially established by William Faulkner en toto, and then echoed by excellent writers like Flannery O'Connor and Carson McCullers.  Traditionally, this school was called "Southern Gothic" to indicate a level of creepiness that seems to go hand-in-hand with all the writers mentioned above.

  Powell, on the other hand, is more of a surrealist/post-modernist in the Donald Barthelme tradition, and Typical, which was his first collection of short stories, bears little in common with the other writers from the South, call it "Southern post-modernism."   Many of the short stories contained in Typical have little to no plot or even incident, characters go unnamed, statements go unexplained, none of it really makes sense but all of the stories carry an unabashed southern vibe, which extends to the outre practice of a white author using the word "Nigger" in more than one of these stories.

  I would have liked to get more out of Typical, and I would consider returning to Powell and going deeper into his fiction, but Typical didn't do it for me.

Show Review: Chris Stapleton & Margo Price @ Amsoil Arena Duluth Minnesota

Show Review: Chris Stapleton & Margo Price
 @ Amsoil Arena
 Duluth Minnesota

  I circled this show on the calendar when it came out for two reasons:  It was the first show on the run of dates Margo Price is doing with Chris Stapleton and second, Amy has a college friend who lives in the magical, little-known part of the world called Bayfield, Wisconsin, gateway to the Apostle Islands.   The show was in Duluth, and Bayfield is about two hours away.  Also, it was in the first week of August, which is pretty much the only time I can imagine taking a chance on the weather of upper Minnesota and upper Wisconsin.

    Chris Stapleton is a man at the top of his game- dominating country music while existing largely outside the grosser aspects of it's public "bro-country" persona.  This is not to say that Stapleton is an outsider- he made his Nashville industry bones the old fashioned way: He wrote hits for assholes who didn't deserve them (not Adele).   He spent 14 years in the trenches before he got his shot and then he took it like a guy sitting in a deer blind 100  yards away takes down a prize buck with his sited hunting rifle.

  Although Stapleton himself was not in evidence back stage, you could see that he is a class act- mainly from the craft service buffet, created by an east-Nashvillian with an excellent reputation as a chef.  I also heard that he personally reached out prior to the tour to make sure that any concerns on behalf of the support act were taken care of.  If you know ANYTHING about how opening bands are treated on tour by the headliner, you will realize how rare it is that a headliner would do something like that.

  The Amsoil Arena is a college hockey arena for the local university, University of Minnesota, Duluth, who are a fixture at the NCAA "frozen four" college hockey tournament.  Like everything in built up parts of Minnesota, it was linked together by tunnels and sky-bridges to other buildings in the Duluth Cultural-Entertainment complex- we spent most of our night in the dressing room of another, smaller arena which must have preceded the current one.

   Margo Price's opening set was warmly received by the already full arena.  The show was not a sell out, but according to available information, an arena sell out at the Amsoil Arena in Duluth Minnesota is rare to non existent.   By comparison, the next show on the tour, at a casino complex outside of St. Louis, was a sell out at just under 20k.

  Margo had just released her new EP, Weakness, and I returned from the weekend to this article, castigating "all those responsible" for releasing the new EP.  (Saving Country Music: Quit Releasing Music Via the Short Form EP- with 49 comments)   So mis-guided, that particular take, which is critical of the "surprise EP"- and I just wanted to take the time to say that literally every argument in that post, while perhaps applicable to other artists, is not applicable to Margo Price.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Regeneration (1991) by Pat Barker

Book Review
Regeneration (1991)
 by Pat Barker

  Pat Barker- female- fyi- English- won the Booker Prize, not for Regeneration, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize, but for a later book in her trilogy about World War I.  Regeneration was the first book in the Regeneration Trilogy.  Barker blends fact and fiction to tell the story of the treatment of English soldiers suffering from "shell shock" or post-traumatic stress disorder at two different hospitals.   Most of Regeneration takes place at Craiglockheart War Hospital, where Siegfred Sassoon- a real life war hero, poet and what we would call "contentiousness objector" has been confined after a public declaration against the war.  He is being treated by Doctor W. H. R. Rivers.

   Sassoon is a tricky case for Rivers- Rivers knows that Sassoon isn't "insane,"  but he can't be labeled sane without being considered a traitor and a coward.  It's a sticky wicket, and most of Regeneration involves resolving Sassoon's situation.  Then, in the last portion, Rivers moves to a different hospital, where he is exposed to the shock intensive methods of Dr. Yealland.

    It's easy to forget just how far we have come with the treatment of veterans with mental health disorders, and how far we have to go. Living in Southern California, and working in the world of criminal justice, I see how seriously the government takes the mental health of veterans.  It is no joke, seeing the impact of combat on soldiers, and this is the beginning of that story.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Downriver (1991) by Iain Sinclair

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This diagram gives a rough depiction of the elements of pyschogeography.
Book Review
Downriver (1991)
 by Iain Sinclair

   Iain Sinclar is best known for his affiliation with the "pyscho-geography" movement.  Psychogeography is an off-shoot of the Guy Debord created Situationist International movement, which also played a big role in other 20th century subcultures, like, for example, Punk and pretty much any late 20th century art movement that includes surrealist or dadaist aspects.  The idea of psycho-geography is to look at the impact that place has on the development of individuals, and as it is expressed by authors like Iain Sinclair, it dovetails nicely with post-modernist trends in literature.

   Downriver takes place in a slightly askew version of Thatcherite London, in various locations "downriver," the city being London, the river being the Thames and the places being in East London and environs.   I couldn't piece together much of a plot- although I read elsewhere that it was supposed to be about a documentary film crew making a feature about "vanishing London" in the "Thatcher era."    The highlights are individual episodes- particularly the Isle of Doges, where the Vatican has taken over the East London Isle of Dogs, "largely for tax purposes," and a gang infiltrates the drainage system to witness a spectacularly evil ritual.

  William Gibson has called Sinclair his favorite author, and it is hard to not think of one while reading the other.  Sinclair's prose is dense and very geographically specific- I found myself making a Google Map of the locations he mentioned and looking at the actual places, and their spatial relationship to the other places in the book, as I went along.

  I would highly recommend Downriver- I know from looking at the page views of this blog that this is the sort of book the people who read this blog would be interested in reading.

Friday, July 28, 2017

American War (2017) by Omar El Akkad

Image result for american war akkad map
The United States circa 2075 from American War by Omar El Akkad

Book Review
American War (2017)
by Omar El Akkad

  American War was published in April.  I read a positive review in the New York Times and decided to buy a copy since it was serious dystopian literature.  I maintain a positive interest in the literature of dystopia, specifically in regards to the border between literature and genre fiction (mostly science fiction/speculative fiction).   Dystopia isn't just an interest of mine, it is perhaps the dominant genre in the non-serious Young Adult market.  The Hunger Games is of course a billion dollar multi-media world-wide empire and it's success has spawned, essentially it's own sub genre of young adult dystopian fiction, and we are right in the middle of that cultural moment.

  You can add on top of that the overlap with Zombie fiction, which has also flirted with literary status while maintaining a solidly genre profile over-all.  What makes American War such a sparkling literary (as supposed to genre) achievement is his ability to right a genuinely moving character into the center of the book, Sarat Chestnut.  Akkad, with his background in global conflicts of the past decade, compellingly paints a near future, post-global warming catastrophe, where the core Southern states of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi are engaged in protracted, low level conflict over a decades old ban of fossil fuel usage that bears a striking similarity to current conflicts in Middle East locales like Syria and Iraq.

  The details of his near-future are closer to Orwell and Aldous Huxley than Phillip K. Dick and other genre antecedents of dystopia- more literary, in other words.  For example, in the world of American War, the bedraggled citizens gather in an unused museum atrium to watch Uffcy- a decayed version of UFC fighting.   It's impossible to really get at what makes American War such a worth while read without spoiling important plot details, but generally speaking, his ability to case the southern states of the old Confederacy as being morally similar to the oppressed citizens of places like Syria and Iraq is key.  In the end, American War isn't really speculative fiction at all, it's comprised entirely out of present day facts, projected into the future.   Reality, it turns out, is scary enough.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Stone Junction (1990) by Jim Dodge

Book Review
Stone Junction (1990)
by Jim Dodge

   There aren't many books that come with a foreword from Thomas Pynchon, but Stone Junction, "an alchemical potboiler" is one such book.  The endorsement is clearly stated and makes perfect sense, since Stone Junction and Pynchon's library contain a shared themes of conspiracy, underground cabals and 1960's era hippie counter-culture.  Regerttablly, Dodge was a one hit wonder- or rather- a one book author- with only some books of poetry to stand alongside Stone Junction.

   Stone Junction is basically a counter-culture spy novel/coming-of-age story.  Stone Junction is less elaborately plotted than Pynchon's stuff, the material actually resembled later day Pynchon books like Inherent Vice.   It was a pleasure to read, but it's sad that it stands alone.  I was concerned that I'd never heard of Jim Dodge before the 1001 Books introduction.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord (1991) by Louis de Bernières

Book Review
Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord (1991)
 by Louis de Bernières

    Louis de Bernières is an English author.  His most famous book is Captain Corelli's Mandolin, forever tainted by its association with walking human meme Nicolas Cage.  Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord is the second book in his "Latin American" trilogy, apparently based on his love for the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his stint teaching English in Columbia.  His take on magic realism is firmly grounded in the politics of "now," circa 1991.

  Señor Vivo is a philosophy professor, the son of a General, who takes a public stand against narco-business in a local newspaper.  He draws the wrath of the Coca Lord.  Magical realist flourishes aside, the violence and corruption depicted by de Bernières are very much real, or at least the reality that we are familiar with from television.

  I'm not sure it really stands up as a classic.  It's basically still within the 25 year quarentine zone that hovers around new releases and personally, I find it a tiny bit offensive that an English author feels so comfortable writing about Latin America in a magically realistic style, I mean who is he to judge?

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Wise Children (1991) by Angela Carter

The complicated family tree from Wise Children by Angela Carter

Book Review
Wise Children (1991)
by Angela Carter

 Angela Carter died of cancer shortly after Wise Children was published.  It was an early death, she was only 51.  We don't know what else she would have written, but fair to say that it was a premature loss.  Carter was not only a novelist, she wrote poetry, short fiction, translated works from French and a wide variety of anthologized non-fiction.

   Her novels are therefore only one aspect of her contribution to the republic of letters, but I'm sure it's fair to say she has a higher profile in England then she does over here.  Like Nights at the Circus, her 1984 publication that ranks as her top book, Wise Children features non-conventional families immersed in the world of early 20th century musical theater and vaudeville.  Unlike Nights at the Circus, Wise Children is firmly rooted in the real, and abandons the flights into surrealism and magical realism which characterized Nights at the Circus.

  Wise Children largely consists of the reminiscences Dora and Nora Chance, the illegitimate twin daughters of theater impresario Melchior Hazard.  Set in an unspecified "present," much of Wise Children takes place in flashback form, as Dora and Nora go through all the different permutations suggested by the flow chart above.

Gravity's Rainbow (1973) by Thomas Pynchon

Gravity's Rainbow
by Thomas Pynchon

  I would argue that Gravity's Rainbow is the second best novel of the 20th century (Ulysses by James Joyce).   No author has more directly influenced by cultural development than Pynchon, from roughly college, when I read Gravity's Rainbow for the first time, to today.  The reading I did for this post was, I think, the third time I've read Gravity's Rainbow, but it was the first time I bought a "reading copy" and sat there with a pen in hand, making notes page-by-page, so that I could delve deeper into the mysteries presented.

    What I was discovered was more linkages between Pynchon's books, details of the intricacies of the plotting that had previously escaped my notice, and observations about Pynchon's influences.   Starting with the last first, I was very much struck by the similarities between large swathes of Gravity's Rainbow and the writing of William Burroughs circa Naked Lunch.   A critical character in Gravity's Rainbow is Doctor Weissman/Captain Blicero, a German army officer with a fondness for BDSM and gay sex.  The chapters involving Blicero and his proclivities seem like they were almost imported from the Burroughsian fantasies of Naked Lunch.   These heavy s&m sequences, which I basically didn't even remember reading about the first two times through, are likely the reason that Pynchon hasn't won the Nobel Prize for Literature- too dirty for the Nobel committee!

  Blicero, as it turns out, spent his formative years in the German Southwest, where he served in the aftermath of the Herrero massacre- itself a reoccurring theme in the work of Thomas Pynchon.   It is in the character of Blicero-Weissman that Pynchon really connects the idea of the exercise of power upon the body to his shaggy-dog rocket man plot.   One aspect that becomes very clear is that for Thomas Pynchon, the idea of "plot" has a double meaning- the first is the typically literary meaning, the plot of the novel.  It is the second aspect- that Gravity' Rainbow works out if you look at it in the sense of an x/y axis, where one plots points of data onto a map or graph.

   This theme is woven throughout many of the sub-plots of Gravity's Rainbow, and embodied by the closest thing this book has to a central character, Tyrone Slothrop, who has an uncanny ability to predict an imminent rocket attack via an erection.   The unraveling of this atttribute- with Slothrop seeking his own answers and a variety of world power trailing in his wake,  is the main plot point, and the easiest way to describe the plot of Gravity's Rainbow.  The title itself actually refers to the geometric space under the parabola of a rocket's trajectory, if I have that right- Gravity's Rainbow literally refers to the space one would describe under the arc of a rainbow.  Thus, geometry, and geometric space, the plotting of points on an x and y axis, and the sciences they have been inspired seem to be THE central theme of this book.

  The linkages between books are obvious, with reoccurring, tailismanic characters and shared narratives- the German extinction of the Herrero people in German Southwest Africa in the early 20th century being central to any attempt at a pan-Pynchon narrative of 20th century history.  

   I could go on.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Possession (1990) by A.S. Byatt

Book Review
Possession (1990)
 by A.S. Byatt

  Possession is another excellent example of a book that made "historical metafiction" one of the hottest genres in literary fiction, a trend that continues today.  Historical metafiction can be viewed through a variety of lenses, but  I think the easiest perspective takes into account that practitioners of historical metafiction tend to be well versed in literary theory as well as literature itself, that, like all genres that combine sales with critical acclaim, it strikes a resonant chord with prospective readers.  A.S. Byatt meets all those criterion, and the forward to the Modern Library edition also makes it clear that she was directly inspired by the success of Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose.

  Clearly for me though, the element which elevates Possession beyond turgid high concept post modern historical fiction is the author's ability to describe action, albeit the kind of action that collectors and professor of literature get up to in 1990's England when a career making discovery is at hand. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

Canons (1984) Edited by Robert von Hallberg

Book Review 
Canons (1984) 
Edited by Robert von Hallberg

   A canon is a collection of works, typically art works, considered to be the best representatives of their form.  The 1001 Books project is a canonical attempt for the novel as an art form.  The major development in the discussion surrounding literary canons in the last generation has been an assault upon the "classical" canon as being too white, too male, too exclusive.   This is a discussion that began in the 1950's, but really took flight in the 1970's and 1980's, when professional canon-establishers (professors, critics and readers) began to elevate contemporary authors from previously excluded groups.   This was a logical response to the more critical approach of denying the possibility of any canon, or deriding the concept of canonization as somehow irrelevant for a modern, enlightened era.

  Canons, published in 1984, represents the state-of-the-art of academic literary critics towards the idea of canons.  This came after the revolt of the 1960's and 1970's, and the introductory essay, Contingencies of Value by University of Pennsylvania professor Barbara Herrnstein Smith does a great job of summarizing the status quo circa the early 1980's- a position that has not been materially altered by new criticism in the last 30 years.    Smith describes the progress of serious literary critics and their attitude towards the project of literary canonization.

  She begins with the (much derided) "magisterial mode of literary evaluation," which is typically associated with the 19th century, and forms the "before" of canon formation. In the mid part of the twentieth century, the magisterial approach was attacked by critics, influenced by developments in philosophy and linguistics, which questions whether the type of critical project represented by the "magisterial mode" was even possible, let alone valid.  These critics ultimately foundered on the rocks of cultural relativism, and left people without a canon.  As Smith points out, this had the impact of keeping the existing canon in place.

  The "modern" period- which covers the early 1980's and beyond, acknowledges the validity of the concept of a canon, but vigorously contests the boundaries and representatives of canonical project.   That is where we are today, in 2017.   Canons are constructed by groups who are critical of the canonical project, but acknowledge it's importance, whether teachers who need to teach or critics who need topics to write about that people will read. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Get Shorty (1990) by Elmore Leonard

Book Review
Get Shorty (1990)
by Elmore Leonard

  Elmore Leonard is an interesting figure to use as a basis for discussing the yes or no canonical status of an author.  He clearly did not start out life as a canonical author- there was no burst of initial recognition and prize winning type plaudits.  Rather, he labored for years an average type genre writer- starting with Westerns, and graduating to Detective fiction.  He wasn't a stranger to Hollywood, either, with something like 10 movie versions of his books being released before the movie version of this book, Get Shorty, was released in 1995.   That was followed by well received versions of Jackie Brown (based on Rum Punch) and Out of Sight in 1997 and 1998.   In 2017, Leonard is firmly in canonical territory, with three separate Library of America compilations "Four Elmore Leonard Novels of the 1970's" etc.

  I think Leonard's canonical place was secured by those three films- the first of which was a commercial hit, and the last two were critical hits, with some commercial success, by notable directors.  I would argue that it is this book- Get Shorty, where Leonard delivers the blend of action, humor and philosophy that constitutes "classic" Elmore Leonard.  The humor and philosophy came later to his work- early books like City Primeval are short on anything except tough talk and hard living.

   The idea of doing a noir/detective novel about Hollywood was hardly original- by 1990 people were literally writing books about "Hollywood Noir," but the ability to blend humor into the mix clearly set  Leonard apart then, and continues to do so today.  Get Shorty the book (unlike the film) holds up 25 years later.

Vertigo (1990) WG Sebald

Book Review
Vertigo (1990)
 WG Sebald

   Vertigo is that rarest of entities: A book that is both experimental and commercial, and one that achieve both goals while being translated from a different language (German to English).  Still, it's hard to even describe Vertigo let alone summarize the plot, which may not exist.

  Vertigo is comprised of four stories connected... not at all? About different literary figures, one section concerns Stendahl, another Kafka.  The figures aren't named directly- Kafka is Dr. K, so it is left to the reader to figure it out.  The same could be said for the whole book.

The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) by Hanif Kureishi

Book Review
The Buddha of Suburbia  (1990)
 by  Hanif Kureishi

   The Buddha of Suburbia is another example of the way familiar literary themes can be invigorated by the introduction of novel perspectives.  Here, the novel perspective is that of a mixed-race Indian/English narrator, a stand in for the author,  growing up in and around central London in the 1970's and 1980's.  The Buddha of Suburbia is not the narrator, but rather his India immigrant father, who augments his office work  with a mid-life crisis that involves him leaving his wife and the narrator's mother for a different English woman.

    Karim, narrator and protagonist, is a bright, vibrant fellow, not gay but certainly bi-sexual, who decides to make his way as an actor.  He has amusing adventures along the way.  Like many characters coming of age in contemporary fiction, the growth process can look suspiciously like non-growth, or arrested development, but it is impossible to pin that on Kureishi, who does a good job blending style and really gives insight into the mentality of a second generation London area immigrant.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

At Home at the End of the World (1990) by Michael Cunningham

Book Review
At Home at the End of the World (1990)
 by Michael Cunningham

   At Home at the End of the World is a combination of a gay coming-of-age book and a contemporary relationship novel.  Each chapter is voiced in the first person by a different narrator.  The narrator rotates between the three main characters: Bobby, Jonathan and Clare with occasional appearances from Jonathan's mom.  The main childhood friendship is between Jonathan- essentially the main character and author stand in, Bobby- his straight friend, and Clare, who is the type of woman one might call a "fag hag" - in a non pejorative sense, of course.  

   Although these characters are 20 or so years older than I am, I recognized all of them, from the parents on down, as being accurate portrayals of urbanites in the late 1980's.   Unlike other gay-friendly lit titles from this time period, At Home at the End of the World explicitly deals with the AIDS crisis through the travails of a minor character who none the less features prominently in the unexpected resolution of the book.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Music of Chance (1990) by Paul Auster

Book Review
The Music of Chance (1990)
by Paul Auster

  Paul Auster is balls deep on the first edition of the 1001 Books list.  I was thinking about Auster while recently reading a book about the formation and maintenance of canons (called Canons), published around the same time as this novel.  The trend, in those days, was to oppose canons and critique the process of canon formation, often in the key of "dead, white men."  Ultimately, this critique foundered on the realities of institutional pedagogy: One has to teach something in freshman English, but it is this time period which gives us the concepts and vocabulary to accurately describe the canon forming process in the same way that I am attempting to describe it via the 1001 Books project.

  Most of the disparate essays in Canons deal with 19th century poetry, but one interesting essay on canon formation for American fiction between 1960 and 1975 makes some interesting empirical observations about what is essentially the current canon forming process.  The author's hypothesis is that the best place to start is the best seller list, and that you then overlay the best seller list with critical response- he doesn't differentiate between critical response before best seller status.

  If you want to apply this quick and dirty method to say, the current New York Times Hardcover Fiction Bestseller list, you see quick results.  Of the 15 titles on this list, nearly half are automatically disqualified because the best-selling author has no critical audience.  These are titles by: David Baldacci, Nora Roberts, Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy, Janet Evanovich, Dean Koontz and John Grisham.   To the extent that any of these writers are likely to sneak onto any literary canon, it will be with a single, early novel.   Almost every other author on the New York Times Hardcover Top 15 Bestseller list can be excluded with a single Google Search:  Elin Hilderbrand (writer of summer beach read novels according to her wikipedia page), Paula Hawkins (thrillers), Adriana Trigiani (YA fiction), Don Winslow (Police procedurals), Lee Child (Jack Reacher books).

  This leaves us with two possibilities:

1.  The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
2.  Beach House for Rent by Mary Alice Monroe

  Since the list is rolling, you have to imagine doing this  maybe 30-40 times over the course of a year, and then toting up points at the end, that would give you your best canonical candidates for fiction.   Looking at these two, Arundhati Roy, who ticks all the serious lit boxes AND doesn't write fiction very often, seems like the obvious choice.   If you were looking for one book to maintain literary relevance over the summer, it would be the Roy novel, and if you were going to bet on one book from this time period, it would be that one.

  Which all goes to say that the inclusion of so many Paul Auster titles on the first 1001 Books list represents another manifestation of this best seller/critical appeal overlay.  Auster sells books and he appeals to critics, this makes each of his books, even the non best-selling titles, candidates for canonical inclusion.  He, like other artists writing in the "present" benefit from the easy access to pre-canonical "best of" lists, typically organized by year.

  The Music of Chance is an interesting novel, like other of his books it blends dark action and European style philosophical musings, with a firm understanding of the role of genre in serious fiction.  His books are recognizable but slightly askew, they go down easy, but stay with you over time.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

The Things They Carried (1990) by Tim O'Brien

Book Review
The Things They Carried (1990)
 by Tim O'Brien

  The Things They Carried is like the real-life version of the fictional Vietname memoir/work of fiction that forms the basis of the film Tropic Thunder.  That fictional book was also called Tropic Thunder.  The Things They Carried is named after one of the interlinked short stroies about the author's experience fighting in Vietnam- the story describes the items carried by the soldiers during the tour of duty in Vietnam.  Poetic, it is not.  Lyrical, perhaps- but not poetic. Readers looking for cutting edge prose technique are likely to be disappointed. Instead, you get literal stories about phrases non-combatants may have thought to be metaphorical.

  One story concerns the platoon taking mortar fire in a literal shit field- so called because local villagers used it for the deposit of their feces over a lengthy period of time.   I would say that much of The Things They Carried is cliche, but of course, that is only because lesser lights have so often covered the same ground, particularly Hollywood, which had codified the Vietnam experience with it's code of mud, blood and incomprehensible combat objective.  All that is here in purest form, making it a must for Vietnam war buffs and fans of combat literature.

Arroyo Seco Weekend: Day 1

Show Review
Arroyo Seco Weekend: Day 1
Gold Course next to the Rose Bowl, Pasadena, CA.

  Yesterday I went to Day 1 of the new Arroyo Seco Weekend, a new festival- pitched somewhere in the Venn Diagram between Desert Trip, Coachella, Stage Coach and a food and drink fair.  Arroyo Seco Weekend raises the question, "Have we reached the point of a post-music music festival?"  The answer I think, for now, is no, but Arroyo Seco Weekend has raised the issue for resolution at a later date.

    The first argument AGAINST Arroyo Seco Weekend being the first example of a post-music music festival was the obvious monster draw of the night one headliner: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.  Like, I suppose, every human being living in the United States between the late 1970's and today, I like me some Tom Petty radio hits.  Not so much into the deep cuts, but man oh man his hits, and I've never been to one of his infrequent tour dates (Petty's Tour Archives on his website look like the IMDB page of Daniel Day Lewis:  2008. 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014...)  So while I wouldn't say I exactly jumped at the opportunity to attend, I wasn't hard to convince.   Mostly, my reluctance had to do with the location.  The only Rose Bowl area event I've been to was an exhibition match between Manchester United and the LA Galaxy. That event drew something like 80,000 people, whereas I was told that the capacity for Arroyo Seco Weekend was 25,000.

   As it turns out, logistical concerns were unwarranted.  I arrived late in the day, parked with ease, and walked 10 minutes down, essentially, the length of a golf course.  No line at the front entrance.  The interior layout was scaled down festival- closer to a Renaissance Fair size then Coachella.  Three stage- two major stages and one smaller tent. A huge difference maker between this and other Goldenvoice festivals was the amount and variety of food options.  It was entirely possible to just eat and drink something different every forty five minutes for the entire time you were there, albeit one had to be able to wait in lines between stops.

  The crowd was old to very old- the only demographic keeping the crowd from simply being "very old" was the number of young children- down to babies in strollers, there with parents. Long before Tom Petty took the stage, it was clear, to me, that Goldenvoice is on to something hugely lucrative, and it perhaps a formula that Live Nation, their major rival, simply will not be able to match.  It's hard to imagine the corporate, oxen-like Live Nation being nimble enough to pull off an analogous festival.

  Certianly, it would be fair to say that Arroyo Seco Weekend is pitched towards an older, "bougey" crowd, but it's not fair to say that it is anymore expensive than Coachella.  There was a clear absence of the elements that make Coachella today an exasperating experience for anyone above the age of 25: No EDM, no hip hop and no artist edgier than Broken Social Scene.   There was a heavy jazz/soul/funk vibe, with a noted New Orleans flavor (Preservation Hall Jazz Band and The Meters were two featured artists.

  If anything, I was surprised at just how democratic Arroyo Seco Weekend turned out to be- I was expecting tiers and tiers of access, exclusive seated dining experiences,etc.  Instead, VIP was just a roped off area at the side of the two main stages, a la Coachella in it's earliest days.  The Artist Access area was located on the Third Floor of the Donahue Pavilion in the Rose Bowl.   That was a needed oasis- as it moved toward Tom Petty's set time, the crowd around the main stage was close to unbearable.  A notable visual from this time period was people trying to fill up their inflatable sofa's by whipping them in crowded areas.

  Can I be the first to recommend Margo Price for Arroyo Seco Weekend next year?  I think she'd be a great fit!

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Trick is to Keep Breathing (1989) by Janice Galloway

Book Review
The Trick is to Keep Breathing  (1989)
by Janice Galloway

   Another sad book about sad 1980's Scotland, this one written by a woman instead of a man.  Joy Stone is the narrator and main character- she teaches drama, she's a "drunkorexic" though she is also depressed, and she spends basically the entire book being sad and bemoaning her fate.

  And although I see that sad white women need their own voice in literature, I also find these type of books pretty tedious.  I've known plenty of sad white women- rich, poor- young, old- my whole life has been spent talking to sad white women bemoaning their fate.  While I am sympathetic to the various problems that women face- I'm more sympathetic to those faced by women of color and women in the global south than the problems of women in wealthy industrial countries who are basically sad about a bunch of stuff because life sucks.  I know life sucks. Everyone knows life sucks, that life isn't fair.

   I mean, get over it, or I guess, don't get over it. I'm saying that in the full flower of understanding of the struggle faced by women like Joy Stone and her progeny.  I'm sorry you are sad, I'm sorry you grapple with mental illness. It's terrible. Is it the only thing you are going to talk about for the rest of your entire life?

William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles (2000) by Catherine Mulholland

Book Review
William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles (2000)
by Catherine Mulholland

  There is a foundation myth of the growth of Los Angeles, familiar to a generation of Americans.  It is expressed in the film Chinatown, by Roman Polanski.  The most famous academic version of the myth is Cadillac Desert- read by almost every American studies undergraduate class in the US.  The myth, which is described in the foreword to her excellent history of her father, William Mulholland, the architect of modern Los Angeles, goes like this:

   Once upon a time Los Angeles was a small Mexican village, after the United States took over, it wasn't long before a vast conspiracy, consisting of both public and private interests, launched a plan to steal water from a bucolic farming community hundreds of miles away.  This theft, engineered in secret, destroyed that community and constitutes an original sin that forever taints modern Los Angeles.

  I'm as guilt as anyone when it comes to embracing what is essentially a false story.  I've got a shelf full of books like Cadillac Desert- seeking to expose the corruption at the heart of the Southern California dream.  Well, Catherine Mulholland, daughter of William and esteemed historian in her own right, is fed up with that bullshit, and her book, William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles serves as a counter-point to the more established, critical view point.

  I wouldn't say that she wrote this book to settle scores, but she does settle some scores while also writing a dense, well written, well researched, well cited book about the growth of Los Angeles.  First things first, William Mulholland started work in Los Angeles digging ditches for the pre-Anglo water department.  He moved up to work as a supervisor for one of the private water companies which preceded the (in)famous Department of Water and Power.  The early chapters shed little light on the meat of the book, but they are interesting if you live in the Silver Lake/Echo Park area.   Tracing out one of the maps in the early chapters, I actually found the original water pipes that served the Elysian Park Reservoir.

  The meat of Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles has to do with the oft recounted tale of the "theft" of the water supply of the Owens River Valley.  This act has been repeatedly portrayed as the theft of water from a group of innocent ranchers and farmers.  Some of the parts of this story turn out to have been true-  Mulholland did use a private citizen to acquire the rights in secret, then that citizen sold the water rights to Los Angeles.

  The representation that the Owens Valley aqueduct was simply to serve the land owned by wealthy Angelenos in the San Fernando valley is shown to be false.   Mulholland and Los Angeles were plotting to secure an enormous supply of water for the entire Los Angeles basin.  Wealthy Angelenos bought large ranches in the San Fernando valley because they were cheap, and available.  The two facts are not linked in time or motivation.  Those land owners did, in fact, benefit from the water supply, but then, so did every person in Los Angeles.

  Another assumed fact that is shown to be false is the idea that the Owens Valley actively resisted from the beginning of the plan to steal "their" water.  Mulholland demonstrates that the active period of resistance- with some physical sabotage- was not linked to the construction of the aqueduct, but rather to the period after, when there was a vociferous debate as to whether the power generating capacity of the new aqueduct would be controlled by private or public entities.   The acts of sabotage were supported by those who advocated for the private control of the power to be generated, financed by outside interests who weren't opposed to the aqueduct, but just to the public control of the resulting power generating capacity.

  The rise of Los Angeles wasn't the result of a criminal conspiracy, it was an obvious solution to a pressing problem, and it was executed with a style and aplomb that is rarely seen in public infrastructure projects.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Moon Palace (1989) by Paul Auster

Book Review
Moon Palace (1989)
 by Paul Auster

  There is no denying that Paul Auster is still read, and that a generation of serious readers (in America, at least) have grown up with Auster's books readily available on the shelves of libraries and book stores everywhere.   Beginning with his existential detective trilogy, Auster seems dedicated to intertwining the tradition of the 20th century European philosophical novel (Novels where nothing much happens) with the active plot mechanic of a writer who is very aware of the "state of the art" of fiction writing.

  In short, he writes savvy, intellectual fiction with some commercial appeal.  His characters very much reflect the dramatic self obsession which has grown to define our American culture, and his presence in the fictional precincts of New York City ensure that even his most failed characters have an aspirational side for readers of contemporary literature.

  Moon Palace has an intricate plot for a 300 page long novel- the narrator, M. F. Fogg, is an orphan, raised by an uncle, an itinerant jazz musician.  He attends Columbia University and descends into a "I would prefer not to" style of genteel poverty.  He is rescued from his plight by Kitty Woo, a "manic pixie dream girl" from before that term was coined.   Perhaps the brilliance of Moon Palace is contained in the fact that this description of the first act of the book provides no clue to the second and final act.

  I'm not sure that Auster's book stand up to much discussion or description- the gossamer strands of his jewel box plotting means that even the barest description of events risks compromising the pleasures of the read.  Not all fiction is like this- you can describe a work of experimental fiction- like Ulysses by James Joyce, without changing the wondrous impact of the prose itself.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Amongst Women (1990) by John McGahern

Book Review
Amongst Women (1990)
 by John McGahern

  John McGahern is another excellent answer to the question, "Why bother with the 1001 Books list?"  There is not doubt that McGahern is an excellent novelist, with a compelling ear for dialogue and superb grasp of the mechanics of the "country novel."  That he could publish such a book in 1990 and have it considered a masterpiece is even more a testament to his skill, since the cool, quiet realism of country life in 20th century Ireland is far, far from the precincts of post-modernism and magical realism.

  Amongst Women is about Michael Moran, an IRA guerrilla turned farmer, living in the middle of the 20th century, out in the country, with his second wife and his children from his first marriage.  Moran and his family live quiet, respectable lives, but Moran also lives with a tightly suppressed anger that occasionally bursts forth in a manner that we today consider border-line domestic abuse.  In the context of the mid 20th century, Irish milleu, Moran is far from being a boundary breaker, and as the novel proceeds, McGahern softens Moran's character over time in a way that will ring familar to anyone with the experience of a stern patriarch.

  What could be a one dimensional tale about an abusive patriarch is instead something far subtler and richer. 

Sexing the Cherry (1989) by Jeanette Winterson

Book Review
Sexing the Cherry (1989)
by Jeanette Winterson

  Jeanette Winterson is both a post-modernist and a Feminist (capital F.)  Sexing the Cherry is her take on the "meta-historical" novel, though in her case it is more of meta-historical work of experimental fiction. Sexing the Cherry is the kind of novel where you feel compelled to say that the author "plays with" various ideas because it is not clear what he/she thinks about the characters, or what the characters think about themselves.

  The fantastical elements of Sexing the Cherry align closely with the "freaks and geeks" sub-genre of 20th century literature. The protagonist is the Dog Woman, a giant freak of hideous visage. Their travels take place across time and space, with no explanations of the how or why.


Saturday, June 10, 2017

Billy Bathgate (1989) by E.L. Doctorow

Image result for nicole kidman billy bathgate
Nude Nicole Kidman in the terrible failure movie version of Billy Bathgate, the 1989 novel written by E.L. Doctorow.
Book Review
Billy Bathgate (1989)
 by E.L. Doctorow

  When a good book begets a terrible movie, what influence does that bad film have on the reputation of the book?  Presumably, a terrible movie version will never help the long term reputation of the underlying book, it can only not impact the reputation of the book or negatively impact the reputation of the book.  Billy Bathgate, published in 1989, was out in theaters in November of 1991, where it was a HUGE HUGE bomb:  Budget: 48 million Box Office Revenue: 15 million.

   Huge bomb. If the file came out in November of 1991, and the book was published in 1989, the film rights had either been pre-sold or were sold immediately after it was published.  Billy Bathgate the book was a price winner, so it is fair to say that in November of 1991, it was still in paperback- in fact- it's safe to say that a "movie edition" of the paperback was in stores.  So the movie comes out, and it's terrible- that surely must hurt the reputation of the book- because the film is named the same as the book, and many people who never heard of the book now know ONLY that it is a terrible movie.

  Billy Bathgate is a fun, but by no means world-beating piece of historical fiction, about the titular character, who is a young boy coming of age in picturesque early twentieth century New York City.  It's often categorized as a "post modern historical novel" (by Wikipedia, no less.)  I have no idea why this book would be called post modern.  What Billy Bathgate is, is a historical novel, written in 1989, by an author with two decade long track record of matching critical with popular success.  Does that combination somehow render him post-modern?  Honestly, I asked google about it, but couldn't come up with an easy answer.


Thursday, June 08, 2017

A disaffection (1989) by James Kelman

A disaffection (1989)
by James Kelman

   It's almost like a joke to complain about the over-representation of sexless white males in the precincts of "serious" literature.  This book is one example.  A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, featuring a literal 40 year old virgin as a narrator, is another recent title which fits this description.   I'm not a reader obsessed or repressed with sexual matter, but it seems to me that these sexless, white-male narrators are the fore-runners of the "Beta Male."

   Scottish author James Kelman represents Glasgow on the world literary scene, and Glasgow stands for post-industrial urban decline (see the Glasgow Effect).  He write in Glaswegian brogue, not as hard to understand as the dialect of Irving Welch, but noticeable.  Patrick Doyle narrates A disaffection, he is a school teacher from a working class family, and the guy can not get laid.  CAN NOT get laid.  The book is about that problem, and Doyle's (sad) efforts to end it.

  Sad 40 year old virgin, that is A disaffection by James Kelman.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Like Life (1990) by Lorrie Moore

Book Review
Like Life (1990)
by Lorrie Moore

  It's the 90's, people!  I was born in 1976, and by 1990 I was starting high school and reading the kind of books you would expect a precocious teenager in the Bay Area to read:  Mostly the Beats, the French existentialists,  Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson and "new" journalism.  I read... the New Yorker, my parents had a subscription. I never read the fiction in the New Yorker- I still don't- I'm just not a huge short story guy (Like Life is a collection of short stories) and it appears that my sentiments were shared by the editors of the 1001 Books project.  Fewer than ten titles in the 1001 Books list to date have been short story collections.   Lorrie Moore may be it, now that I think about it.

  I think, personally, that people are going to be revisiting the time immediately before the digital/computer/cell phone revolution of the past decade.  In Like Life, Moore is writing about "now" (several of her stories appear to be set in the near future, where global warming and climate change lurk in the back ground.  But, I can already say that I am tired of sad white folks.  Whether they be English, American or Australian, Scottish, Irish, Canadian or South African.  Rich or poor, living now or in the past, I am tired of them and their problems.   Boo hoo, I say.

  In a sense, that is also my demographic, but it's like, I don't want to read endless fiction about sad yuppies (or sad working class) Americans living in LA or New York, or, as some of the characters in this book are, the Midwest.  In fact, I think Moore is here as a representative of fiction written by Midwestern authors, so in that sense, maybe she is someone I should be reading carefully.  Perhaps she is a muse of the Reagan Democrats and Trump voters of Wisconsin and Michigan. 

Saturday, June 03, 2017

The Busconductor Hines (1984) by James Kelman

Book Review
The Busconductor Hines (1984)
 by James Kelman

  The Busconductor Hines is what you might call "Scottish kitchen sink realism," about said Busconductor (as supposed to Bus Driver) working on the Glasgow city bus system.  For those who don't know the "Glasgow Effect" is the unexplained phenomenon by which the life expectancy of people from Glasgow is ten years lower than for those living outside of Glasgow.

  The events take place over a few days,  Hines loses his job, and gets it back at the end... I think.  He's got an unhappy wife, a young baby (or Bairn as he calls it) and a shitty bedsit in Glaswegian slum.  Hines needs to wake up super early to get the work, except when he has a super late shift.  For whatever reason, he has trouble getting up on time.  That was a personal trait I've never understood, like, either you need to get up and you do, or you don't need to get up, and you don't, but Hines is very much a connoisseur of the alarm clock, and Kelman treats the reader to an "Eskimo words for snow" situation describing the various ways Hines fails with his alarm clock.

  The Busconductor Hines was Scottish writer James Kelman's first novel.  He would go on to win the Booker Prize in 1994, and Hines is, I think, the only novel on the list that captures the (now familiar, to me, I think) Glasgow patter/slang.   Kelman also throws in a hefty gob of graphic sex and enough swearing to bring down the wrath of effete English literary critics.  In this way, he is a clear antecedent of Irving Welsh.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

The Temple of My Familiar (1989) by Alice Walker

Book Review
The Temple of My Familiar (1989)
by Alice Walker

    There is a fairly typical, pan-artistic discipline career path followed by artists who achieve a significant combination of critical and popular success in the mid to late 20th century:  The breakthrough work is typically conventional, but something that brings new life to the form.  After that, the artist rebels against the early success.  Musicians start side projects, or change their sound.  Authors create pseudonyms or publish works that radically push against what is "acceptable" within the form at the time.  Studio artists switch art forms or abandon successful themes.  Continuing to mine the veins that brought you initial success is frowned upon among communities of successful artists.

  The Temple of My Familiar is a good example of an author taking flight after publishing a career defining hit.  The Temple of My Familiar contains a multitude of plots and characters, and delves deeply into past life and recovered memory theory, while containing characters of (almost) all races and genders.  I wouldn't call it a masterpiece, but it is a very interesting book for those interested in the mind of Alice Walker.  Walker was never "just" a novelist- her career spanned journalism and academia.  Before she struck gold with The Color Purple, she almost single-handedly revived the memory of early African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston (she literally uncovered her unmarked grave in Florida.)

   Walker also directly addresses the irrational hatred of whites by African Americans, though she attempts to explain it away by using recovered memory instead of copping to what is essentially a rational attitude for any African American (I don't agree with it, I just understand the why.)

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Melancholy Resistance (1989) by László Krasznahorkai

Book Review
The Melancholy Resistance (1989)
 by László Krasznahorkai

   Krasznahorkai is the second Hungarian language author to make the 1001 Books list.  The other author is Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertesz, so that makes Krasznahorkai the SECOND most famous Hungarian language novelist in English.   Unlike Fatelessness, Kerteszs' straight forward Holocaust memoir, The Melancholy of Resistance is an avant-garde, paragraph-less fantasia about a nameless town plagued by a mysterious circus, a dead whale and a shadowy mob of hooligans.  Did I mention that this book has no paragraphs?

  Aside from the total lack of paragraphs- there are chapters, thank god, The Melancholy Resistance avoids any kind of signaling to the reader so that the story unspools "in real time."

An Artist of the Floating World (1986) by Kazuo Ishiguro

Book Review
An Artist of the Floating World (1986)
by Kazuo Ishiguro

   Kazuo Ishiguro's career is a testament to the strength of the novel as an art form.  He was the child of Japanese emigrants to England, grew up in England, never went to Japan, wrote books written in English, set in Japan, then wrote books about England- won a Booker Award for Remains of the Day.  Remains of the Day got made into a movie that turned into a world beater, both critically and in terms of box office receipts.  

    The extent to which An Artist of the Floating World is "about" an actual historical Japan- it is set in an unidentified Japanese city during the American occupation period after World War II- is a matter of some debate.  Ishiguro grew up in post War England- not Japan.  Floating World is written in English. Masuji Ono- the aging painter who narrates Floating World, is coming to terms with his ill-fated participation in the Japanese war effort via his propaganda posters- the Shep Fairey of his day, as it were.

   In the present, he grapples which arise as a result of his un-analyzed role in Japan's disastrous experiment with totalitarianism.  One of his daughters is on the eve of marriage, and he worries that his history will destroy the match.  He makes his way to his former compatriots- including one who was actually imprisoned directly as a result of his denunciation, and eventually acknowledges moral culpability in a very, very, very, Japanese way.

  The question of "authenticity" as it relates to an obviously good novel written by an English language author of Japanese ancestry who was raised in England is a curious one.  I would argue that Floating World demonstrates that the novel- either written in English or translated into English- becomes, in the late 20th century, an art form which transcends the original language. 

A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989) by John Irving

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Actor Ian Michael Smith played Owen Meany (Simon Birch) in the movie.  Smith suffers from Morquio syndrome, a type of dwarfism. 
Book Review
A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989)
 by John Irving

   A Prayer for Owen Meany is one of those "popular, critically acclaimed artist at the top of their game" releases that is well received upon release, but ages badly.  The aging process was not helped by a movie version that was so bad that Irving forced the makers to rename the film (Simon Birch).  In 2017, reading A Prayer for Owen Meany was a tedious experience.  First of all, it's something like 650 pages long- well over a thousand pages in the large print edition I accidentally checked out from the library.  Despite being 650 pages long, Owen Meany doesn't cover a whole lot of territory- basically it discusses the friendship between John Wheelwright, the mini-scion of a regionally important Maine family, and his dwarf-like best friend, Owen Meany.

   A Prayer for Owen Meany is about a lot of things:  friendship, religion, family tragedy, New England private school education, the Vietnam War and the Reagan era Iran Contra shenanigans.  Narrated from a present where Wheelwright is teaching girls school in Canada, a forty year old version, he recounts the shared life of himself and Meany through Meany's untimely demise (not a spoiler, Wheelwright makes clear in the first chapter that Meany has been deceased for some time).

   Irving is nothing if not consistent, if you wanted to change the names around you could almost put The World According to Garp, Cider House Rules and this book in order and call it one book.   Personally, I don't think that Irving is going to a canonical author a century for now.   His books just aren't arty enough and they are long, long, long.  His milieu, that of straight white men from New England coming of age in the mid 20th century, are highly unlikely to evoke the kind of revival interest among academics of the kind sparked by representatives of less familiar groups, none of the movie versions have made it to "classic" status.  No one is ever going to that John Irving is "cool" ever again.

  The main argument for Irving's canonical inclusion is his continued popularity with a mass audience.  As I'm writing this, the most recent edition of this book is a top 5000 Amazon title, followed closely by Cider House and Garp.  John Irving is still being read, in other words, and an author who combines critical and popular acclaim is likely to stay canonical as long as said works continue to be purchased by a large audience. 

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.

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