Saturday, May 30, 2009

Devil In De-Tails

I stopped by Williamsburg's excellent bookstore Spoonbill & Sugartown a couple of evenings ago, picking up Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe and E.H. Gombrich's A Little History Of The World. Gombrich is, of course, principally known for The Story Of Art from 1950 but his Little History was never translated and published in English until its posthumous appearance in 2005.

It was intended as a book for children, originally published in German in 1936 as part of a series of "Wissenschaft für Kinder" and its tone is a bit coy but I suspect there will be insights and helpful summaries to be had for adults as well. It reminds me of Hans Magnus Enzensberger's The Number Devil, a fanciful presentation of some basic mathematics for children. The store, already a regular stop on my city rounds, went up a notch in my estimation when one of the staff mentioned he had attended and enjoyed an Escape By Ostrich show a couple of months ago.

This particular evening I was en route to see Tyvek and Cause Co-Motion, both of whom were as good as I have ever seen them. In complimenting drummer Josh Feldman on Cause Co's brisk and propulsive set, I employed some sort of locomotive image but their somewhat minimalist, lo-fi aesthetic begs a slightly different metaphor - let's say they are the musical equivalent of the coolest Go-Kart you've ever seen.

At this point in history, almost all rock bands are plainly operating in reference to and/or opposition to some existing sub-genre, set of aesthetic constraints, and so on - some renew them more convincingly than others. The opening band on this occasion, Imaginary Icons, come out of a late 70s UK post-punk tradition that they don't transcend quite as effectively as Tyvek and Cause Co-Motion do their respective jumping-off points, but they put on a fine performance with a bunch of good songs - I'd see them again.

Detroit's Tyvek occupy a more garage-y part of the lo-fi spectrum. Every time I see them, the line-up is slightly different - this time with only one bass-player and drummer (both roles have been duplicated on other occasions) but an electric organ added, the sound was thick and focused. No one in the room (and I may well have been the oldest person there, excepting The Homosexuals' Bruno Wizard) could possibly have seen the Velvet Underground in their prime, but I can't imagine this was any less compelling and certainly can't be compared to any experience that could be had sitting at home listening to records, however revered.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What Are You Listening To Lately?

Regrettably, few questions make me draw a complete blank more effectively than "what have you been listening to?" despite, or because of, the fact that I am listening to music more or less constantly and probably hear one or more new-to-me records a day. Perhaps trying to write some of it down will yield some useful results.

I know I listened to The War On Drugs' Wagonwheel Blues today – hardly more than an hour ago, and I enjoyed it just as thoroughly, more even, than every other time I have heard it. Adam Granduciel's unabashedly Dylan-esque lyrics and delivery duke it out with a wall of psychedelic-tinged acoustic and electric guitar, wheezing Al Kooper-ish organ and so on – a sonic rush that's kind of new and old at the same time. Much more exhilarating than the new Dylan album, though that has its keepable moments as well.
One of my favorite spots on Wagonwheel Blues is 3/4ths of the way through the 10-minute delirium of "Show Me The Coast" where the wide-screen sounding stereo mix suddenly collapses to mono and is slowly restored to stereo over the next half minute – subtle and hardly a footnote to the whole record but that spot (and the whole song) delights me every time.

Today and yesterday and the day before, I listened to copious chunks of this 17-CD Music of Islam collection. Too much to try to summarize it all but one of the high points I've gotten to so far is "Volume 5: 'Aissaoua Sufi Ceremony", recorded in Marrakesh, particularly the 40-minute long "Dikra Rebbania" which I'm guessing (based on musical intensity) is some kind of climactic point in the ceremony. Searching on the title phrase itself doesn't yield much other than links to the recording.

Without making any attempt to thoroughly bolster the claim, and very briefly acknowledging my own connection with the label, I don't think Chicago's Drag City Records puts out anything that is not good. Particularly high in my rotation of recent months have been the past two records by Bill Callahan (who you once knew as Smog), Woke On A Whaleheart and Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle. The latter gives perhaps a bit too much leeway to his more somnolent side, but the last 4 (of 9) songs have kept me thoroughly happy on their own. The closer "Faith/Void" (multivalent reference for you rock historians) is 9 minutes of subtly stunning repetitive bliss. Despite its ostensibly anti-religious message (the principal lyric is "It's time to put God away"), it is quite reminiscent of one of those rambling mid-70s Van Morrison mystic epics whose spirituality it echoes and simultaneously rejects.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Fisherman and The Jinni

It seems like the Cultural History section of a bookstore could contain almost anything – in practice, books about food and tattooing seem to predominate. I went through three of Mark Kurlansky's books (on the former subject) in pretty quick succession some months ago, beginning with Cod which I'd recommend to anyone as succinct and fascinating. The only problem with these semi-pop histories is they give one a lot of slightly glib and very repeatable "facts" that roll right off the tongue in subsequent conversation (the Basques arrived in the New World before Columbus but kept the source of their huge catches of fish a secret, and so on) without really rigorous footnoting. Additionally, they tend to see much of human history through their single lens. Nonetheless, persuasive and well worth reading.

In Salt even more so than in Cod, he purports to explain vast swathes of human endeavor in terms of the pursuit of a single commodity, one which is at least a fundamental enough item that the argument seems convincing. One thing I enjoy about history of this sort is when it takes for granted that you already know certain things or can pick them up by inference without a great deal of tangential explanation. For example, the chapters on China left me feeling I had a better grip on the succession of dynasties than any number of less successful attempts to read an entire book on Chinese history.

Even aside from what an enjoyable writer Kurlansky is, and how you feel about food writing in general (and oysters in particular), The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell is as engaging a history of New York City as any I have read. Also both this book in its picture of New York and Salt with regard to England make it quite clear how the story of pollution and destruction of the environment in the course of food production is by no means a problem that just appeared in the last half century.

Finally, last week I picked up Heather Rogers' Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage which completes the story of the cycle of production and consumption. It also combines a perfectly paced history of its subject with an inescapably alarmed conclusion about what we have brought ourselves to. Along the way (and this book is quite carefully footnoted), she eludicates some remarkable aspects of her subject. I particularly liked the story of "the invention of litter", part of a concerted campaign by an industry front group called KAB (Keep America Beautiful) to shift the blame for pollution onto individuals and away from the corporations who were (and are), by an enormous margin, the principal cause of the problem. KAB's productions include an early 60s "educational" film narrated by Ronald Reagan and those mawkish 70s television ads in which an American Indian sheds a single tear over a despoiled landscape.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Memories and Memoirs

Not to give them a swelled head or anything, but The New York Review of Books' NYRB Classics imprint is pretty consistently stunning – I feel greedy just surveying the list, of which I have a dozen or so.

One of their more modest publications is John Williams' Stoner, an almost unbearably sad story of a mid-Western academic, a professor of literature at a fictionalized version of the University of Missouri at Columbia who lives through the first 2/3rds of the 20th century. Raised by dirt-poor farmers who never appear to understand his pursuit of literature, he only manages intermittently to communicate his transforming love for it to anyone else, his career itself largely running aground on the shoals of academic politics. He marries badly and the marriage in turn generates a sole unhappy child. His deathbed scene where he fails to reconnect with his now alcoholic grown daughter is particularly devastating and I turned from this to Point To Point Navigation, the second volume of Gore Vidal's memoirs, hoping for a bit of wit and uplift, only to find the first 80 pages of that almost exclusively describing (and who can blame him?) the relatively recent death of his partner of 50 years, Howard Austen. Yet Vidal certainly doesn't regret a thing and John Williams asks us to think twice or three times about what constitutes a successful or unsuccessful life. Happiness, if you needed reminding, seems to come at best in flashes.

If you are going to read Vidal's memoirs (and you should certainly consider it), start with Palimpsest, the earlier volume, which follows a more conventional autobiographical chronology and structure through the first 39 years of his life. Picking up thereafter, Point To Point Navigation is rather loose and rambling and repeats a lot from the earlier book. The death of Howard Austen is in many ways its focus, but I didn't come away feeling that I knew him at all ("knowing" only in the sense that one can know anyone solely through reading someone else's description, of course). In addition to the recursive narration, hardly any chapter is more than three pages long, a device that mostly suits the fragmentary nature of the memoirs, yet seems even odder towards the end where a more sustained sequence (which is actually mostly long quotes from other people's biographical writings about Gore) is broken up arbitrarily by the chapter divisions. I'm plainly not selling this book too hard; read the collected essays United States (1952-1992), then Palimpsest then borrow this from someone and get through it quickly, wishing Vidal himself enough years for a third volume.

In Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory (first mentioned yesterday), he discusses the error of people who believe memoirs to be absolutely factual retellings of some ostensibly raw experience, unmediated by literary shape. There's no reason to believe Nabokov, the master of the unreliable narrator, would make such a mistake and, as such, his Speak, Memory scarcely needs to be approached differently than any of his fiction. It's a quick read and anyone looking to extend the experience might consider the two-part autobiography of Anthony Burgess Little Wilson and Big God and You've Had Your Time, Being the Second Part of the Confessions of Anthony Burgess.

I suppose anyone who lives long enough to write two volumes of memoirs is likely to experience enough of the slings and arrows of time passing to make it hard to avoid a few sad stories. British playwright Alan Bennett's two largely autobiographical volumes, Writing Home and Untold Stories, came out when he was 60 and 71 respectively. In the interval he had time to be diagnosed with and recover from cancer, the recounting of which slightly sobers the tone of the second volume, though he manages to be characteristically funny nonetheless. Writing Home is a frequently hilarious and at times brilliant collection of essays, literary criticism, diary excerpts and other short writing. One of its most moving and fascinating segments is a series of entries recounting the story of a more or less insane old woman who had nowhere to live but a small van type of automobile (one that didn't actually run) whom Bennett, through a combination of charity and inertia that I suspect we can all recognize, allowed to have her vehicle towed into his tiny London front garden, and live there for the last 15 years of her life.

My delight in Bennett's writing also served to make me embarrassed that I'd scarcely heard of him, though I recognize film titles like The Madness of King George and The Secret Policeman's Ball. Most recently, his play The History Boys ran on Broadway for half of 2006 to considerable acclaim, forcing me (though I did not see it) to reconsider my rule that no play called "Anything Boys" is worth seeing - perhaps I can still hold the line at the spelling "Boyz". Other "firmly in the zeitgeist" sightings include his early 60s satirical revue "Beyond the Fringe" being mentioned in Stephen Davis's history of The Rolling Stones, Old Gods Almost Dead, as a cultural event of parallel significance to Muddy Waters' 1958 tour of the UK with the Chris Barber jazz band.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Silk Road

Robert Byron's The Road To Oxiana is a funny and casually erudite travel diary, covering 10 months of travel in Persia and Afghanistan. The 1930s, from this distance at least, feels like the last time you could go somewhere in Asia and find its culture not yet Westernized, plus there was still an aristocratic class with the money and free time to meander around the globe, with all the positive and negative results of amateur exploration. The actual writing of the book is odd and varied and quite modernist. Paul Fussell, in his introduction, says the book is to travel writing what Ulysses is to the novel and The Wasteland is to poetry - a pretty heady claim! Byron was specifically in pursuit of certain kinds of Islamic architecture and art that were relatively underrated at the time by the European academic world (have a look at all the photos on this page to get an idea of what he was after).

Having, in a sense, read The Road To Oxiana on Paul Fussell's say-so, I was also reminded of his book The Great War and Modern Memory because the PG Six Band has occasionally covered Fleetwood Mac's "Dust" whose lyrics (despite the lack of credits on the LP sleeve) were adapted from Rupert Brooke, a poet who is usually mentioned in the same breath as Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen as one of the quintessential literary figures of World War I. Fussell's book is about the literary culture that grew up around the war and posits its profound impact on 20th century literary consciousness, particularly the almost inevitable predominance of irony as the only way to bridge the gap between the high-minded and neatly structured ideals of war that the British brought with them out of the comparatively peaceful 19th century and the indiscriminate, brutal and often pointless slaughter that was the reality. Also for those (like me) who feel woefully ignorant of the bare facts of WWI (Passchendaele, Somme, Ypres - at best one knows that one doesn't know the significance of these), you can pick up a lot of basic history along with your analysis of sonnets.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The British Prime Ministers Series of Winter 2009

I have been posting book reviews on the GoodReads social-networking site for about two years. I suspect they are read by no more than half a dozen people, nor could this blog claim a much higher readership, yet I have occasionally been faintly troubled - suppose it is not the same half a dozen people?. Not wanting anyone to miss these mots, I debated reposting some of that writing here, aware also that redundance and excessive cross-posting is bad internet manners. Finally GoodReads itself has somewhat solved the problem by a recent stylesheet change in which the reviews started appearing in a transparent popup window such that the underlying text now renders them illegible (and I always suspected the popup site design was a deterrent to reading them to begin with). So, exonerated of all charges of laziness, in fact performing a veritable public service by restoring my carefully crafted word-science to the notice of a select public, I commence.

I picked up Lytton Strachey's appealingly slender biography of Queen Victoria last fall at my favorite Upper West Side dollar book stall. I wasn't sure what to expect but the opening pages seemed like a hilariously gossipy approach to royal biography, yet in fine literary style, and I found myself zooming through. Summing up after finishing, "gossipy" is not quite the term, lest one encompass it in the same breath with Andrew Morton and the like, but I gather that Strachey's somewhat irreverent style set a new standard for biography that is still admired and emulated. You already know that he was one of the Bloomsbury Group with Virginia and Leonard Woolf, E.M. Forster et al. and his Eminent Victorians in some ways defined the modern notion of the "Victorian" age. This biography is consistently engaging and I'll recommend it to anyone who wants to know a bit more about 19th century British history (or who hasn't yet realized that they do).

It reminded me of a stack of rather weightier "tomes" on the subject that I pulled out of a dumpster at a posh UWS palace across the street from that bookstore where the old-time artistic and intellectual tenantry has been steadily yielding to financiers who don't read! - you can't even find The Economist in their recycle bins, it's all Country Living. Strachey's dozen page portraits of the predominant political figures of the time (Robert Peel, Gladstone, Disraeli) inspired further investigations, starting with a biography of Gladstone. I also start pursuing these lines of inquiry to satisfy my curiosities about sometimes rather fleeting pop culture references (conveniently there's an earlier entry here on this topic): for example, the English Prime Ministers of the 19th century, particularly Gladstone and Disraeli, are hugely significant (in highly fictionalized representations) in Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus Trilogy (the early 21st fantasy masterpiece you should move on to after completing Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy), so I have for some time wished I knew more about them.

Sir Philip Magnus' Gladstone: A Biography was my starting point and it proved to be an excellent use of a few days - constantly referring to wikipedia for clarifications like "Who was Bismarck?", "who fought the Crimean War and why?" and so on, went on a long way to dispelling my general sense of ignorance with regard to 19th century European history. It was, however, long, and the similarly chunky Asquith by Roy Jenkins is languishing on the coffee table with a mere 150 page bite taken out of it. The years of his premiership aside (which I never actually got to), Asquith is part of an interesting and historically noteworthy lineage – his descendants (by birth or marriage) include actress Helena Bonham-Carter and novelist Emma Tennant.

Benjamin Disraeli (who was both novelist and Prime Minister) is very much the bête noire of Gladstone's biography, but I thought reading one of his novels (Sybil, or The Two Nations) might provide more pleasure and interesting insight than adding yet another unfinished biography to my list. One of Disraeli's oft-commented upon "qualifications" for office was his ability to flatter Queen Victoria; the rapturous description in here of the Virgin Queen's ascent to the throne amidst tweeting birds seems almost a caricature of such flattery. As literature, Disraeli's novels have been challenged by the test of time - huge undigested chunks of his theories of history alternate with the plot, improbable characters come up conveniently to explain things in long monologues, but this was also well-written and funny enough of the time. The Two Nations of the title are the rich and the poor - Sybil herself is one of those impossibly virtuous and graceful Victorian novel heroines. As the daughter of an artisan, her nascent romance with the second son of an aristocratic family would seem to be impossible because of the class divide, but rather than their ultimate union being achieved by the exact democratizing social upheaval which is the ostensible theme of the book, it turns that her family actually are of the aristocracy, having been swindled out of their hereditary lands, a deceit that ultimately comes to light. So the happy ending, such as it is, more reaffirms the existing social order than anything else. This contradiction is, I believe, characteristic of Disraeli's slightly muddled set of beliefs and opportunistic approach to making his way in politics at the time he wrote it.