Thursday, January 18, 2018

3 Book Reviews

The Locusts Have No King --by Dawn Powell

The Locusts Have No KingA New York comedy of manners set in the Forties, it concerns a married couple comprised of a famous playwright and her husband, an academic who labors at his specialty in obscurity. Powell is one of the better comic writers we've had --a spikier Edith Wharton, shall we say--who provides momentum, atmosphere and rich, crackling dialogue in this many -charactered satire. This would be the sort of novel Tom Wolfe has been trying to write for years. We have here a situation where the fortunes of famous wife and unknown husband are suddenly and realistically reversed, a turn that reveals the shallow relations and loyalties, tied as they are to one's fortunes. Or lack of them. Fittingly, there are no actual heroes in this satire--even those who achieve much after a time of ironic and unfair adversity remain wholly human and subject to the fallible instincts of an egocentric world view. Dawn Powell is a joy t read.

The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock -- by David Weigel

The Show That Never Ends by David WeigelI was not entirely a progressive rock fan during the 70s, when the genre was at its peak and the music of the bands in this volume was at it's...busiest. I loathed the singers for the most part, thinking that while the frontman had decent enough voices, suitably trained to negotiate the usually overheated song structures, I could stand them rarely a whit. Save for Peter Gabriel of Genesis (and later as a solo artist) , the lot of them sounded over earnest, wide eyed with wonder, strangulated high notes offering the would be wisdom of righteously and insanely stupid lyrics.

 I always had a wager with anyone who knew Wallace Stevens or John Ashbery well enough, or The Bard for that matter, would feel compelled to harm themselves as a means to relieve the disgust that overwhelms them. On the other side of this genre, though, was generally good musician and an honest desire to extend rock's instrumental bearings toward more complexity. Yes, ELP,Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Genesis all moved in this direction, at best being brilliant wit the snap and zip of odd time signatures, odd keys and ensemble stretches consisting of many moving parts. 

It was delirious, and much of the stuff remains good, cranky fun. David Weigel , a politics writer by reputation, is also a huge fan of progressive rock, and here expands on a series of fascinating articles he did for Slate some years ago on the history of this odd and painfully dated brand of music making. He interviews many of the musicians, he investigates the places from which they rose, and comes to consider how it was that a good many British musicians , seemingly at the same time, came to employ classical music complexity in the service of a bigger and busier kind of rock and roll. His conclusion, though not explicitly stated, is that it seems a case of the young musicians "getting back to their musical roots", of rediscovering the European classical heritage and making it their own. The book is especially fun and fascinating for the music fan who's been wanting more to be published about this under considered music. Weigel , to his weigel, does not rate the bands--re realizes that he is a reporter, not a critic--and does his subject justice by sticking with the absorbing story laid out before 

CrackpotsCrackpots--by Sara Pritchard

Brief,  lyrically  written novella about an awkward young girl being raised by an eccentric family. Note that there is no child abuse or other hot button stuff engineered in to make the book appeal to the Oprah book clubs, just a humorous and bittersweet novel of a girl, beset with any number of glum circumstances and embarrassments, maturing to a resilient adult with soft irony that gets her through the day. Pritchard is especially fine as prose stylist who displays a sure and intuitive sense of to change tone, shift perspectives, to blend the rush of poetic effusion and the dirty fingernail reality that faces these characters and this young woman; Pritchard is about understated nuance and working against reader expectations.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

"Hospital", a poem by Charles Webb

The poem "Hospital" by Charles Webb is delirious magic, an enchanted gathering of roiling syllables and verbs and near  rhymes of a someone finding himself in a hospital when the drugs are wearing off. Or, perhaps, when the body is so wracked with pain and severe and flashing storms of associated agony that thinking  coherently is something mythical and out of  reach. This is a perfected bit of crafted babble, a three note mantra spoken and sung by someone doped up and being wheeled through institution corridors, from one room to the other, meeting employees in variations of the same work clothes running tests, taking samples, adjusting lights and dials on machines, writing items on clipboards and inputting data into computer stations, smiling, whistling pop tunes under their shallow breathing. The subject of the poem, the man being probed, interrogated, moved and otherwise made aware that something is wrong with him and he's not in control of this thinking, let alone his limbs, still attempts to put   everything in context, comparing odor to  odor, material things to other material things they don't resemble. This is not a coherent storyline, not a logical sequence,   it is, instead, a poetics of gathering your wits even as your best qualities of mind and  discernment slipped into the numbness pain killers provide.

Hot spittle, sizzling on pain’s grill. Hopsicle: bouncy, tooth-chilling, bad for you. Hopcycle: a gamboling bike. Opposite of hope’s fiddle. No “Soldier’s Joy.” No “Jolie Blonde.” Hive full of people in white coats (or green, or blue) commanding, “Swallow this,” inflicting tests that punish if you pass or fail—people hump- backed with sacks of doom they throw down on my bed, and bolt. Losspital: place where losers meet. Hospice: little. (How big do death-rooms have to be?) Hiss bottle, has pickle. Ass brittle—like the rest of me!
 “Have you ever,” a clipboard-man demands, “been hospitalized?” Been ossified? Alphabetized?
 Fossilized? Caramelized? I won’t leave here the same, or possibly, alive. Hot tickle. I’m not giggling. House pistol. If I get my hands on one . . . Horse drizzle, swizzle, sizzle—let me ride away!
 Some guy is fishing, on TV, for river-monsters toothier than tiger sharks. How can I rest with all these teeth gnawing at me? Cords yank out every time I turn. My monitor pings. “Sorry,” I tell the nurse who runs in. “Still not dead.” “That’s good,” she chirps, and jabs a needle into me. Hiss piddle. Hose poodle. Hat riddle: How’s a 10-gallon like a barbershop? Cop fizzle, sop griddle, lop pizzle, lot pedal, toss stipple. Glass house-pitiful you shouldn’t throw up in, stoned or not. Hostile

hostel, I won’t come back, I swear! Hose pustule, top tickle, Oz puddle. “Thank you,” I tell each doc,

meaning, “Fuck you for being well.”
Bop middle, slop griddle, rot victuals,
Hope’s diddle. The Grand Hotel

You enter immortal, and exit disposable
as snot.
It is a delirium and the mind, of course, is not out to lunch but aware of and making note of everything that is going on--the curse of it all is that the mind cannot finish a sentence, complete a thought, find a frame or a metaphor to contextualize an experience that is sufficiently unreal and dreamlike. The mind, though, can sustain a rhyming, punning set of extrapolations on what the deeper mind registers and finds dreadful.
Charles Webb manages to maintain that balance between an indecipherable cleverness, nearly falling with great weight and speed into resolute incoherence, but this, as I take it, being the record of a drugged up mind or perhaps a mind suffering an organic derangement, this is the struggle to remain at or near the surface of consciousness.This made me think of those many times I had in the hospital while younger, about to go under the knife, after the needles and the ether had been applied--the world was recast as one fish eyed lens and the soundtrack was such that it reminded me of slowing down a turntable and then increasing the speed again quickly. “ Hospital “ as a swaying, visceral rhythm that is not always pleasant--panic, giddiness, elation, more panic follow one another quickly, seamlessly, without pause or explanation. This poem is an achievement, a successful evocation of sensory overload.

Bump on a log

Infinite Jest is perhaps the most exasperating novel I've ever read, along with being the most chronically overrated in contemporary fiction. It may be argued that he novel is about the digressions he favors, and that such digressions place him in line as being the latest "systems novelist", taking up where Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo and Barth (John) have led the way, to which I'd say fine, and what of it? The AA and recovery material is potential good fun, and the aspect of powerlessness over a movie ought to be enough for a writer to mold a sure satire, but Wallace seems far too eager to surpass "Gravity's Rainbow" and
"The Recognitions" in his long, rhythm less sentences. The aforementioned editor I proposed would have handed the manuscript back with the observation that this set of multi-channeled satires has already been done by the previously mentioned authors whose works are not likely to be matched. Said editor would then advise that over-writing isn't the sure means to break with your influences, but that developing one's own style is.

There is a well argued rationale for the lack of editing in Infinite Jest, that David Foster Wallace was in the tradition of testing the limits of a what a sentence, a paragraph, a page can contain before the onset of the concluding period, the test being that a sentence can drift, digress, take long turns and circuitous routes to the finish a series of ideas,but even digressions have to be pared down to the ones that will have an effect, even a diffuse one that. Wallace really isn't in control of his digressions. Every so-called postmodern writer has to decide , and finally know what effect and point, or drift, they are getting at. 
Even in an style whose hall marks are pastiche, parody and high-minded satire, craft still counts for something, and a sense of the form a book is taking, it's architecture, has to come under control, or else the eventual point of the writing, to study, in an imaginative terrain, some aspects of the human experience, lost entirely. Any working novelist, whether a genre-hack , a royalist, avant-gardes of most any hue, ought to be in control of their materials, where Wallace, with IJ, clearly isn't. 

That control is more instinctual than mechanical, and the ability to know when to stop and allow the fictional incidents resonate in all their overlapping parts. Wallace doesn't trust his instincts, or his readers powers to interpret his material, I guess. There is always one more paragraph, one more digression, one more bit of undigested research for him to add. It's like watching a guy empty his pockets into a plastic tray at an airport metal detector. White Noise is written, of course, in a spare and professorial style that some might find maybe too much so. I didn't have that problem, and thought the style perfect for the comedy he wrote. It's a college satire, and was a remarkable choice on his part to convey the distorted elements of the story line, from the lush descriptions of the sun sets , et al. It's a prose style that is brilliant and alive to idea and incident: DeLillo has the rare genius to combine the abstract elements of a philosophical debate with imagery - rich writing that manages several narrative movements at once. His digressions meet and merge with his descriptions, and the result is a true and brooding fiction that aligns the comic with the horrific in a series of novels where the pure chase for meaning within systems of absolute certainty are chipped away at, eroded with many layers of a dead metaphor , slamming up against an unknowable reality that these systems , including literature itself, have claimed entree into. Heady, compulsively readable, vibrantly poetic.Mao ll, Underworld are among the best American novels written in the 20th century.

The Tattooed Girl by Joyce Carol Oates

Image result for tattooed girl joyce carol oatesJoyce Carol Oates is not my favorite writer, but for all the repetition of her themes of fragile women being imperiled by evil masculine forces they masochistically desire, she does occasionally publish something both compelling and well written. I detested "Beasts" and "The Falls" since she exercises her familiar dreads in contrasting lengths, the first book a slender novella, the latter a literal brick, both books sounding rushed, fevered, and breathless, as first drafts of novels usually do. Or a finished Oates novel, for that matter. She does hammer that nail effectively and brutally as often as not, however, as she did with  her novels "Black Water" and " The Tattoo Girl"; with the right configuration, her usual wit's end prose style and fascination with fragile psyches and marginally psychotic psychologies get as intense as fiction is ever likely to get." Zombie" is a rather potent little psychodrama, and it's the kind of writing Oates excels at. She gets to the heart of the fringe personality better than anyone I can think of. 

"The Tattooed Girl", from 2003, is likewise a well shaped melodrama. She depicts the thinking of women who allow themselves to be beaten and killed with seemingly scary exactitude. Oates can also be a bore, evident in We Were Mulvaneys and "The Falls". My fascination with her continues, though, since it's impossible to tell when she publishes another novel that will be gripping and unnerving. I agree with the assessment on Oates. She writes so much that she's almost as undercooked and sometimes awful as she is brilliant. Producing novels at such an assembly line clip seems a compulsion. We Were Mulvaneys read like it was meant to capture some of the weepy women's market and I put it down, and Beasts was a novella of abuse that was better left in the manila envelope, as it was a flat litany of sexual assaults that she's done better before. But just as you think Oates is all used up, she surprises you. "The Tattooed Girl" was an amazing book, as was "The Falls", with their portents of violence, domination, skewed rationalization of unworthy deeds. She has made an art of the dystopian personality, and it is here that she gets greatness.

 She merits a bit of respect, although you wish she'd stop trying to win the Nobel Prize so obviously with her tool-and-dye production and take longer to write a novel a reader didn't have to rationalize about. Editors hold much less sway in the preparation of a book, it seems. It's not just a matter of writers who write quickly getting away with redundant excess and awkward passages, such as Oates and Stephen King. Those who take their time also seem to avoid the more severe markings of the editor's blue pencil . 

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Huffington Post Rips Down an Article Sharply Criticizing Spotify — Here's the Original

The Huffington Post Rips Down an Article Sharply Criticizing Spotify — Here's the Original:

This is worth reading because it makes the case convincingly that musician creators are getting the short end of the stick financially from having their music featured on the Spotify streaming service. The caveat is that I find the author's recollection of the conversation with a Spotify executive about the financial relationship between the service and the creators who make their content reads a little pat. The executive comes across as too stereotypically dense and clueless and the narrator shows himself as a guy who too easily comes up with fast and stunning bits of pithy truth telling from which there is no response. It comes off as stunningly cliched TV drama, and I think Huffington Post was on reasonable grounds to doubt the veracity of the author's account of the meeting. Still, it's worth a read to glean the essential truth herin, that deserving artists are being cheated by the service . Spotify , from what I understand, is "making bank", as the kids say, and can well afford to pay these good people what their work is worth. Also, checking out the author's"I Respect Music" Website can help, perhaps, move the needle in the right direction.

The sublime "The Shape of Water"

Image result for THE SHAPE OF WATER"The Shape of Water" , directed by Guillermo del Toro, is a splendid Beauty and the Beast story, succeeding to be sweet, menacing, hopeful, thrilling and finally affirming in. Some of us might blanche at the story book particulars this movie obviously--it's hard to do anything fresh with his done-and-done again idea, no?--but del Toro is skillful in balancing the needed balance between the sweet and the dour, the joyful and the threatening. Additionally, this is very much an adult film, not for kiddies, as the characters have very real emotions that are expressed in very real language. 

That is, there is no shortage of f-bombs. Also done especially well is the handling of the sexual element that's usually obscured by sentiment and courtly sentiments; del Toro brings this aspect,and the entire premise,into a world we recognize, in this case the early 60s,in Baltimore. Time, place, premise and the use of nicely chosen incidental details and art design set up the way the tale is conveyed . Most importantly,there is a human connection here, with the theme of loneliness being a primal driving force to seek love or revenge superbly embodied in fully rounded characters. 

Visually, this is your typical del Toro production, with deep, rich , dark color scheme, seamless editing, controlled and effective contrast between the more human and banal world of the 60s and the more fantastical ,menacing interiors of the more sci-fi sequences. Stand out performances from Michael Shannon, a grand and messed up baddie, and Richard Jenkins, who seems incapable of doing bad work.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

These chops don't cut deep enough

Patrick Yandall would one of those jazz-inflected guitarists I would usually go nuts over.The qualifier "usually" gives you a hint of what I thought   of his new album A Journey Home. The San Diego-based musician is a veteran of the scene, active since the ’90s in many bands and collaborative efforts, and has released 20 albums of his music. His productive longevity is understandable, considering that Yandall is an excellent guitarist, potentially a great one. He is a master of groove, tone, and feel, a fret man able to fill space with Wes Montgomery-like octave chords, punctuate the beats with short blues riffs and , and, when the feeling merits, let loose with an impressive flurry of runs. In its best moments—and there are many sweet spots on this disc—his soloing transcends the often repetitive and simplistic structures of his self-penned material. After the fact, the grooves lack personality; they are placeholders, more or less, existing less to push Yandall  than they to keep his chops from getting too hairy for the average listener.  The guitarist restricts himself , keeps himself in check, careful not to offend. The conservative approach creates conservative results.In another discussion, we might call it being chintzy with the available bounty. A guitarist as technically gifted and as fluidly expressive as Yandall ought to be leaping over such barriers and cutting loose for real on a track or two. Stronger, more varied, more intricate compositions would aid toward that goal, if Yandall were so inclined. The songs on A Journey Home are simple, hardly a sin, and there are some good melodic ideas here,.But there is a formula smooth-jazz/light funk motif they fall into, with incidental keyboards, synths providing a few pale shades of color, an occasional piano solo (played by Yandall, who, as I understand, plays all the instruments). The drum tracks, honestly, are without soul. The burden falls to Yandall’s obvious virtuosity, which raises to the occasion on several tracks, especially on “Passion,” a Latin groove where the artist unleashes what he can do; hot riffs, screaming ostinatos, raging note clusters.  But alas, it is too short a solo, as it fades and we return again to the album’s steadfast sameness, waiting for another moment when the guitarist steps into the spotlight again. You might find yourself fighting an urge to fast forward through a mostly indifferent set of rhythm tracks to find some places where the music starts to cook again. Well, the guitarist anyway, if not the actual tunes to composed to hang his virtuosity on. Agreeably, Yandall,  does a good turn with the last track . a stone cold blues shuffle, “Blue Jay Blues,” highlighting a glorious walking bass, and a pulverizing solo from Yandall, with brief and sharp assertions, serpentine runs weaving between the one-four-five beats, some bittersweet BB King-like vibrato. This track is a rousing, strutting jam. One wants more.This ought to have been an outstanding album. As is, it is only good one, buoyed by Yandall’s spirited playing. A musician this gifted deserves the energy and inspiration an actual band of musicians can provide, and the improvisatory possibilities better material can provide.
(This was published in slightlydifferent form in the San Diego Troubadour. Used with kind permission)