Sunday, September 25, 2016

Times Literary Supplement, March 7th, 2003

The cover story reviewer opens by lamenting that "English readers without French" have had to make to do with an 1856 translation of Berlioz's "Orchestration Treatise" until Hugh MacDonald's 2003 new translation and commentary. Though the subject seems narrow, the review makes it sound like anyone with an interest in orchestral music would find much to enjoy and learn.

Christopher Hitchens reviews an anthology on the Berkeley Free Speech movement, with particular attention to the central figure Mario Savio and a dose of scorn for the contemporary version of campus leftist politics.

Pierre-Jean Luizard's La Question Irakienne is said to offer "an original interpretaton of Iraqi history" which focuses on the Sunni minority having taken power in the 1920s (with the assistance of the British), thereafter exerting a rule ranging from aristocratic to authoritarian over the Shi'ite and Kurdish 80% of the population.  He notes that those distinctions are more tribal than sectarian since the Sunnis who controlled the country were largely not religious.
The chapter on Saddam Hussein describes how he "plotted and murdered his way to the top," leaving so few of the experienced military alive and in power by the time of the Iran-Iraq war that the remainder were less than competent. Both writer and reviewer (we are just before the U.S. invasion) believe that in a post-Saddam Iraq, the military would have to be "closely controlled...completely reorganized...their power...very greatly reduced," a prescription somewhat at odds with the current view that the wholesale replacement of Hussein's army contributed to the failure of the U.S. endeavor and it would have been better to keep some of them.

John V. Tolan has written a book called "Saracens" on the rise of Islam and the European perception of it - some Christians regarded the Muslim invasions as divine retribution for the schisms within their faith.  A pair of books on Zelda Fitzgerald allow a discussion of the rise in her literary stock over the last third of the 20th century. Eric Homberger's Mrs. Astor's New York (Yale University Press) sounds like a very entertaining look at the development of New York's high society over the course of the 19th century.

Times Literary Supplement, February 27, 2004

George Steiner declares that then 46-year-old Pierre Bouretz's 1,249 page Témoins du Futur (Gallimard, translated 2010 by Johns Hopkins University Press) has "alter[ed] the intellectual landspace." As one only two years younger than Bouretz and profoundly impressed by Steiner as a teenager, such an accolade would seem to be a career apogee.
The book covers the thought of Hermann Cohen, Emmanuel Levinas, Ernst Bloch, Leo Strauss, Franz Rosenzweig, Gershom Scholem, Walter Benjamin, Martin Buber, and Hans Jonas (several of whom I won't pretend to have heard of) and specifically their engagement, as mostly secular intellectuals, with the Jewish Messianic tradition.
At least, I think that is what the book is about; Steiner can take almost any starting point and be off and running with his tremendously erudite and wide-ranging discussions. One only hopes the book itself has observations as bold as "Bouretz's investigation seeks out the fatal logic, the doomed appositeness of the flowering of Jewish the context of Imperial and Weimar Germany, a context which was to prove its annihilation."

Next up in this issue - a biography of Salman Schocken (1877-1959) whose publishing house, located and relocated from Berlin to Tel Aviv and New York as the century progressed, exemplified his profound and life-long commitment to Kultur, but made his money as one of the pioneers of the modern department store (according to the review, the Polish Jews of his native Poznan invented the model) and is probably best know for founding the liberal Israeli daily Ha'aretz.

Gershom Scholem, who reinvigorated the Kabbalah in the 20th century is the topic of a pair of reviews and we leave the focus on 20th century Jewish intellectuals with a look at Dutch cartographers of the 16th century, a history of the Sicilian mafia, the letters of James Thurber and a review of Cloud Atlas.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Times Literary Supplement, May 30, 2003

My New Year's resolution is to read, summarize and discard a 2-foot high pile of literary reviews I have had sitting around for well over a decade.

Here is what I learned this time:

Lorna Hutson reviews a book by Alastair Fowler, a distinguished Renaissance art historian, who argues that single-point perspective was not the Copernican revolution that is presented in introductory art history classes, so much as one of several ways of seeing which gradually became predominant. Fowler then goes to apply this observation to the analysis of contemporary literature arguing, for example, that there are sequences in Shakespeare's plays that are not intended to represent strict temporal succession - Hutson seems not quite ready to reach the same conclusion about literature.

"Potent Brews: A Social History of Alcohol in East Africa 1850-1999" by Justin Willis describes, among other things, how beer became firmly established as the signifier of success and wealth in preference to indigenous home brews (there's more to it than that)

A poet of whom I have never heard, Tom Raworth, is prolific enough to have a 600 page compendium published.

A feminist literary critic named Terry Castle issues a collection of essays called "Boss Ladies, Watch Out!" in which she vents her frustration with what she considers the dreariness of feminist literary criticism as it developed in the 1980s.  In regretting that the proliferation of academic study of 18th and 19th century women writers has inflated some reputations, she mentions a number of books that I have never heard of and may or may not ever read: Sarah Fielding's "David Simple", "The Female Quixote" by Charlotte Lennox, Eliza Fenwick's "Secresy" ("excruciating") and Sarah Scott's "Millennium Hall" (called proto-feminist, even as it describes "the supposed consolations of living in a grim all-female community where one does nothing but sew all day and read aloud from Scripture with one's pious fellow virgins." Castle also regrets the amount of time she spent on the Gothic genre but this reminds me that I have not read "The Mysteries of Udolpho" and "Melmoth the Wanderer" and still might like to. The reviewer, John Mullan, says overall the collection is excellent and one should not be put off by the title, or the jacket blurb from Susan Sontag which employs the adjective "sassy."

Malcolm Muggeridge and George Orwell had some (previously) unpublished correspondence from the last year or two of Orwell's life.

This being 2003, high-brow journals were obliged to devote some space to The Matrix and Harry Potter - in the case of the former, attempting to make sense of the second of the trilogy before the third had come out was inevitably an uphill battle.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Times Literary Supplement, May 21st 2004

I enjoy the TLS for the quality of its writing and erudition and I like being reminded that when I think I know a few things, relatively speaking I know nothing. Many of the reviews are taking on fairly arcane differences of opinion on a subject of which I have scarcely an inkling - so, in that spirit, here are some things of which I have now heard.

Margaret Cavendish (neé Lucas, 1623-1673) was an exceptionally prolific writer at a time when women scarcely wrote at all. Dubbed "Mad Madge", in a presciently Fleet Street manner, for her forcefully held somewhat unconventional opinions, she has since become increasingly well-regarded.

Michèle Le Doeuff's "The Sex of Knowing" addresses the gendered nature of simply being educated. The review of the book begins by explaining the term "bluestocking", once an insult applied by aristocrats to the Cromwellian men who wore their comfortable home woolens to Parliament (picture contemporary rural representatives being called "the sweat pants brigade" or something to that effect), it later became applied only to women. The book itself discusses examples like the epikleros, a Greek term for "a daughter of a man who had no male heirs" and so might inherit [wiki]. The author coins the term "epicleracy" to describe the set of women for whom that was case being more likely to be allowed to be educated.

Wace, a mononymic writer of the 12th century, is best known for "the Roman de Brut, a verse history of Britain, the Roman de Rou, a verse history of the Dukes of Normandy". He wrote in Norman, an Old French regional language, part of a group that includes variations in the channel islands of Jersey and Guernsey -  Jèrriais, in the former, is still in declining use. Scholars of the 18th and 19th centuries attempted to impose an additional name, so he is sometimes called Robert Wace, though the historical support for this is disputed.

Nicholas Basbanes on the "gentle madness" of book collecting - someone I need to know more about!

Frances Hodgson Burnett, an Englishwoman who moved to America, wrote dozens of books, made lots of money, had a celebrity life, gave us "Little Lord Fauntleroy".

John Fowles' journals of the 1950s might be worth a look as another alienated Englishman of that era - his first literary success did not come until age 37, so he had lots of time to be resentful.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Open The Door!

The Virago Modern Classics series so consistently pleases me that it makes the well of the world's good books seem quite bottomless. Part, though not all, of their stock in trade is the elegantly written bildungsroman by someone who then never quite equals her debut, from a time when people somehow made good writing seem a lot more effortless. Catherine Caswell published only one other novel after 1920's Open The Door!, but remained a woman of letters, writing two biographies, most significantly one of D.H. Lawrence of whom she was an early supporter in her role as newspaper critic, and a correspondent to the tune of several hundred letters.
The story itself traces 12-year old Joanna Bannerman to age 30, through a young widowhood and eventual happy remarriage; though it is not a quest simply to get herself hitched, rather a detailed and compelling accounting of her emotional and intellectual awakening generally. Raised in Glasgow in the late 19th century in an evangelical Christian family (a term which carried somewhat different connotations then than now, but still involved a rather narrowly circumscribed worldview and a lot of preaching to the benighted), her father has just died at the outset, an eventuality that then, as in modern American sitcoms, seemed to trigger a more difficult but also somehow more "interesting" time for the children. In 1890s Glasgow, the first order of business is to get to the more cosmopolitan Edinburgh, whence eventually to London.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

My Jazz Weekend

I have all these records and from time to time I feel I should justify that by listening to them. Accordingly, I attacked the jazz shelf, reaching not for the canon, but rather for the sentimental favorites culled from the rather unstructured way one found about things in the pre-internet era with the limited pocket money of a teenager.

First up was Weather Report's Tale Spinnin'. I imagine there are purists and rejecters of "fusion" who won't have much to do with them, and their sole hit ("Birdland" from 1977's Heavy Weather) does feel a bit gimmicky. However, on this record, the sheer exuberance of the playing (particularly of trap drummer Leon "Ndugu" Chancler, poached from a Santana session at the studio next door) and the rhythmic complexity, far from any plodding funk moves, is something I've always found kind of dazzling. Also I think the integration of the electronic sounds with the more conventional jazz instrumentation puts it on the same shelf with Herbie Hancock's landmark Sextant.

Following that was Return to Forever’s Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy. I don't know if the science fiction title reflected Chick Corea's Scientology involvement but to a kid who read nothing but Michael Moorcock for a year, LP titles like that were not off-putting. I have always considered the record itself their own perfect fusion moment. Falling between the Brazilian Flora Purim and Joe Farrell phase of Light as a Feather (which I love) and the "progressively" more noodle-y releases of the Al Di Meola era, this one owes a lot to the comparatively unsung guitarist Bill Connors. Hyper-complex rhythms played at hyper-speed, timbres continually exploding with ring modulation and wah-wah – I wouldn’t begin to know how to sell someone on this any further, but have never tired of it myself.

I should think mention of The Paul Winter Consort must mostly evoke yawns and slight shivers of discomfort, as visions of comfortably Episcopalian New Age events at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and Saving The Whales, present themselves. I can't help you with that, but will periodically return to "Africanus Brasileiras" which closes the group's 1970 live album Road where the pan-cultural stylistics implicit in the song title do not result in some kind of lumpy porridge; there's a lilting intro, derived from a Ugandan folk melody, which leads into a roof-raising take on Luis Gonzaga's "Asa Branca" with everyone in the group singing harmony. The result quite transcends the original, itself a lovely and key piece of the north Brazilian forró style, which we can hereby credit Winter with disseminating 20 years before David Byrne.

I have many shelf inches of 1950s vocal records of jazz standards and can't always reach past them for the more esoteric stuff. Last night, perennial favorite June Christy's first solo LP (after her Stan Kenton years), Something Cool (1955; yes, I have the 10" release from the prior year as well) was the perfect way to treat my neighbors, sometime after midnight, to the sound of me hollering along with her takes on "I Should Care", "Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise" , "This Time the Dream's On Me", "I'll Take Romance" and so on. Christy was for me an adult discovery, in part because of my probably not atypical impatience as a young person with the perceived corniness of standards. However, these are melodies I love and they carved formative neural grooves, owing to the up-tempo, instrumental be-bop versions, sixteenth notes overflowing, through which I first discovered them all (working my way back to actual country music via the Flying Burrito Brothers and Grateful Dead along a similar axis). Hearing them actually sung with words, and learning to appreciate the elegance of that style of lyric writing has been a fantastic benefit, unforeseeable at the time.

The June Christy record (to my surprise, as I glance at the credits) has a song called "Lonely House", co-written by Langston Hughes and Kurt Weill. Now I imagine I know everything, especially about mid-20th century America, but could certainly not have told you those two collaborated (look up the somewhat forgotten Broadway musical Street Scene for more info!). This morning’s breakfast platter was the title track from Gary Bartz's I've Known Rivers and Other Bodies , which has lyrics adapted from one of Langston Hughes' best-known poems. Bartz is not that polished a singer which lends the whole thing a quality I admire. The record is from the double-LP Live at 1973 Montreux series that also gave us McCoy Tyner's superb Enlightenment; this is music that made me what I am and now it may be slightly rubbing off on you!

After listening to that, I briefly addressed Oregon, continuing the Paul Winter theme. They have also perhaps not aged that well, and interestingly the track I return to most frequently, Canyon Song from the record Distant Hills, is uncharacteristic because Colin Walcott is playing a drum set instead of his customary tabla drums - so they’re kind of trying to rock out with 12-string acoustic guitar, acoustic bass and oboe, which gives it a charm I've never quite managed to summarize – listen for yourself.

Finally, as laundry reared its dreary head, I put on Cannonball Adderley's Things Are Getting Better, from 1958. I've never quite "gotten" jazz vibraphone (Milt Jackson on this one) but I consider that my failing. Adderley's tart alto is supported by Art Blakey, who automatically makes a record good, and some characteristically fine piano from Wynton Kelly. This is a thrift store find of the past decade, but the 1970s association is with NRBQ's second album, Scraps, on which they do a medley of the title track from this record and the Mercer-Allen 1944 standard "Accentuate The Positive" - nice to finally understand everything that was going on in Terry Adams' head at the time.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Air Above Mountains

One of my formative musical experiences was seeing a Cecil Taylor solo piano performance when I was 17 (in Helsinki,no less!). There was no possibility of following individual notes or harmonies in the deluge coming out of the piano - instead it seemed to call for a new way of listening, something like seeing the fractal patterns of coastline seemingly too irregular to make sense of from a closer vantage point. Currently recreating the experience by listening to the two-part Air Above Mountains, recorded around that time. I've been on Taylor binge the past few days, including such famous ensemble works as Unit Structures, but something about his solo work provides the real transcendent experience.