Saturday, September 29, 2018

Well, of course, these have been featured here before over the years in this space, but someone asked me to assemble a list of authors and books I'd recommend to someone looking for a novel that was both a pleasure to read and satisfied the measures required of being "Literary" . What is meant by the last word in quotation marks is brutally subjective, and perhaps we'll leave it for a future discussion, if not one of my caffeinated and barely comprehensible manifestos, ie, rants. In the meantime, three authors, three books that I enjoyed to a major degree. I hope some of you might read them and find pleasure as well.

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THE LEFTOVERS by Tom Perrotta

.I am inclined to agree that the HBO production was one of the best TV series in recent memory, but the novel by Tom Perrotta is no less brilliant, perplexing, comic and able to undermine a reader's sense of metaphysical sure-footedness. Perrotta is a cross between Don DeLillo and John Cheever, someone who brings weirdness into the suburbs and small towns and has us observe how oddly things come unglued. The plot here centers around a small, Cheeveresque suburb, but the difference is that these townsfolk, like the rest of the world, is trying to deal with the unthinkable fact that a quarter of the world's population has vanished, gone, literally into thin air, rapture-like. This is about how the folks try to reconstruct their daily routines both in personal lives in social structures and how different groups come to interpret that event which is, by its nature, sealed off from interpretation.

THE BIG IF by Mark Costello

First, this author isn't to be confused with another fiction writer named Mark Costello, who is the author of two brilliant collections of short stories called The Murphy Stories and Middle Murphy. Those books, a series of related tales involving the title character, is a sort of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man for a generation growing up in Illinois, and it is one of the most beautifully written sagas of dysfunction, alcoholism, and despair I've ever come across. This Costello does things with the language that take up where prime period John Cheever or John Updike left off and offer up a virtuoso prose only a handful of lyric writers achieve; it is the brilliance and beauty of the writing that makes the unrelieved depressive atmosphere of the two books transcend their own grimness. The prose in these two books demonstrates the sloppier pretender Rick Moody cannot help but seem. Buy these books and experience a devastating joy.The other mark Costello, a younger writer, has equal genius but a different approach to the world, and his novel Big If is quite good, and what makes it works is that Costello accomplishes the dual difficulty of handing us a small town/suburban comedy the likes of John Cheever would have admired, and the other is with the rich detailing of the other secret service agents who work with Vi Asplund. There is something of a domestic comedy seamlessly interwoven with a skewed Washington thriller, with the elements of each spilling over and coloring the underlying foundations of both. In the first part of the novel, we have an atheist Republican insurance investigator who has a habit of crossing out the "God" in the "In God We Trust" inscription on all his paper money, replacing the offending word with "us". Vi, years later, winds up in a job where "in us we trust" is the operating rational, as she and her fellow agents strive to protect they're protected from the happenstance of crowds, acting out on intricate theories and assumptions that can only be tested in the field. Costello is wonderful at the heightened awareness in the ways he presents his details, his comic touches, A beautiful agent who still receives alimony checks from her smitten ex-husband carries on a correspondence with him via the memo line of the checks, where he continually writes "come back to me". She writes "No, never" each time, deposits the check, knowing that her ex will see the reply when he receives the canceled checks. The book is full of these fine touches. We have a sense that it's the small things, the small frustrations as much as the larger disasters that conspire against our happiness. A fine book.

CRACKPOTS by Sara Pritchard

Brief, beautifully written book 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 a prose stylist.

Sunday, September 23, 2018


Robert Venturi
The Dean of Postmodern Architecture, Robert Venturi, has died, gone from the earth who's ideas and practice of architecture he sought to change. Slate, in a fairly comprehensive article discussing his ideas and the controversies surrounding the work, calling him "...the most influential architect of his era." A hard fact to swallow among his severest critics and those who just downright despised his buildings and his theories . There were many of them, more, it seemed, than there were admirers, and yet he continued to work, build, write, and thrive as an artist and as a theorist who's notions of what urban architecture should be, what it should symbolize, what it should be against. Venturi's basic foe was Modernism, all of it, in all manifestations, but in architecture in particular. Though his theories are more nuanced than I'm prepared to summarize here, what the late builder loathed was the whole Bauhaus concern with creating styles and emphasizing materials that would reform the way the working class viewed the world and would then, through some sort of revolutionary revelation, make better choices about their own fate both as an economic class and as individuals. Venturi felt the late stages of Modernism gave us buildings that were monuments to power, to their own form and grandness, to the gigantism of the theory that provided the rationale for their construction. These were not buildings for those who lived in the city; his task was to come up with something more relatable, an aesthetic more in sync with the rhythms and twitches of how citizens lived in the cityscape. true, the late Venturi probably had more influence on architecture than any other practitioner in recent memory, and he was a prickly subject to bring up among fans of Modernist buildings and the theories that attended them. I was hot and cold over Venturi--fellow PoMo-ers Phillip Johnson and Michael Graves were more my taste, in that PJ had elegance as a virtue and MG took his Circus Maximus influences and made the buildings seem like actual constructions, not stage props. Venturi seemed to worship the strip mall, the billboard, the ugly building upon which one later festoons with all sorts of incongruent ornamentation in an effort to make it less a conspicuous eyesore. He saw his post-modern style of architecture (and that of his wife, his collaborator, to whom he gave credit) as means to make architecture less elitist, to make less a process that constructs monuments to entrenched power and make it more relatable to the average Jake and Joanne. His tract "Learning from Las Vegas" is a compelling argument in favor of basic building structures laden with add-ons, but for this boy, much of his work I've witnessed live and in photo essays seem like nothing more than dollhouses on varying scales of obscene density. Oddly, Venturi had a desire for the cityscapes of what seems like an idealized past, where design and function where merged quite well with the lives of citizens living in neighborhoods and business centers that composed the urban landscape; it should be a place of timelessness. His own work is anything but timeless, and is, in fact, inscribed to a specific era, a time and place, with an aesthetic that hasn't produced a body of work that continues to intrigue or enthrall years after the initial rush of excitement. Things that age well, whether paintings or old buildings are those manufactured things that remain astounding to look at decades later without any explanation. One is simply intrigued, beguiled, smitten without needing to be brought up to speed as to what the painter/architect et al happened to be thinking when they took on their project. Hardly so with  Venturi, much of whose work has already started to look dog-eared. The problem, it seems, is that PoMo architecture was more fad than anything else, the structural equivalent of the lava lamp. Future generations will be baffled why so much public and private capital was spent erecting his faddish and flimsy constructions. Once a historical background is explained and the then prevailing aesthetic is outlined, they'll be baffled even more as to why bad taste dominated the last thirty years of the 20th century

Friday, September 21, 2018


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THE BOD ARTIST--by Don DeLillo
Don DeLillo is perhaps the best literary novelist we have at this time, which the career-defining masterwork Underworld made clear to his largest readership yet: at the end of all those perfect sentences, sallow images and long, winding, aching paragraphs is a narrative voice whose intelligence engages the fractured nature of identity in a media-glutted age. The Body Artist has him contracting the narrative concerns to a tight, elliptical 128 pages, where the Joycean impulse to have a private art furnish meaning to grievous experience is preferred over the dead promises of religion and philosophy. What exactly the woman character does with her performance body art, what the point is of the ritualized, obsessed cleansing of her body, is a mystery of DeLilloian cast, but it's evident that we're witnessing to a private ritual whose codes won't reveal themselves, but are intended as a way for the woman to again have a psychic terrain she can inhabit following the sudden and devastating death of her filmmaker husband. 
The entrance of the stranger in the cottage turns her aesthetic self-absorption, slowly but inevitably, into a search into her past in order to give her experience meaning, resonance, a project she quite handily ignores until then. The sure unveiling of her psychic life is a haunting literary event. DeLillo's language is crisp, evocative, precise to the mood and his ideas: you envy his flawless grasp of rhythm and diction as these traits simultaneously make the cottage on the cold, lonely coast seem sharp as snapshot, but blurred like old memory, roads, and forests in a foggy shroud. A short, haunted masterwork. I think what I meant to convey was that the meaning she was seeking, the connection between what she's examining outside herself, the precise moment where existence seemed purposeful, is a mystery. 
The answer is not revealed, if there was an answer at all. What is obvious to the reader is that we are witnessing rituals of some very private sort--the obsessed cleansing of the body, the concentrated on selected external facts, the momentary wanderings of mind that consider what sort of consequence the continued ritual of trying to bridge the gap between the subjective mind and a world external actually has. Evidence of consciousness, a soul, the essence of what makes us human? Or merely the expected habit for sort of creature we are, mere animal behavior, something directed by biology and an environment that shapes our responses to it? A mystery. 
My experience with this book was that it reminded of those times, alone, or in a crowd, when my thinking got the best of me, due to some sort of trauma or illness or some such thing, when the nature of existence became a dominant topic of all my thinking. Concentrated, felt existentialism when all of what seems to be is questioned and nothing seems to fit this world right. It is the nagging sensation that all is mere perception, nothing else. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Power of 3

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The Wayne Riker Tri
Longtime San Diego guitar stalwart Wayne Riker is a very fine musician, a fretster with enviable finesse, fire, and fluidity who’s had his skills showcased in many ways,  in big band setups, country outfits, coffee house duos, straight blues band and more besides. Lately, he’s been pushing the guitar upfront with the Wayne Riker Trio, a blues threesome who make the objects in the room shake with a simple formula: while bassist John Simons and drummer Walt Riker provide the steady, earnest, unflinching rhythmic backbone, lead guitarist Wayne lets it fly, unleashed.  Their new album, Blues Breakout, is literally a series of  5 extended guitar improvisations, each in a different groove, style, tempo, and steadily maintained by the solid rhythm section in unflinching precision while Wayne fills in all the available space. There is a lot of space to fill, but Riker is one of those seasoned players who has listened broadly— traces of BB King, Chet Atkins, Jimi Hendrix,  Joe Pass reveal themselves in Riker’s cascading phrases—and assimilated the variety into a sweetly swift and effortless style. On “Black and Blue Boogie”, the guitarist starts his soloing out the gate, rapid-fire runs dancing along the unyielding precision of the bass and drums, with Riker inserting punishing blues bends that snarl and growl as the mood demands and alternating his approach with each chorus he takes. A jazzy sting of notes is quickly followed by some clean, pointillistic bluegrass/ country playing, followed again by some marvelous juxtaposition between a swampy, bassy sound, a low E string thump, and  casually executed ostinatos, sustained notes that keep all this busy virtuosity in line with certain vocal quality that might otherwise be lacking.  The best of the 5 tracks is “Bleeding Blue”, a six-minute slow blues that highlights Wayne Riker’s superb sense of nuance and phrase-making in a 12 bar format. He is not one of those players who plays a phrase and will pause longishly before he plays another. Like the critically underrated Johnny Winter, Riker follows one idea with another, shifting rhythmic emphasis and varying the voicing of the finite form to create tension. His lines are rapid,  precise, but never sterile.  His ideas cascade gloriously until you think his virtuosity will overwhelm everything else, but there is a canny sense of pacing here.  When you suspect he’s run of ideas, yet new, fresh variations are sounded.  Blues Breakout is more or less a one-man show, with the rhythm section being relegated to maintaining a solid grounding for Riker’s pyrotechnical exuberance. One might wish for stronger song orientation, some vocals, and less showing off. I am pleased Riker chooses to show us what he can do, uncorked, a guitarist unchained.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

A woman rules the blues

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Songstress Whitney Shay has been tearing up the stages of San Diego for a few years now, the petite and elegant songstress applying her impressive pipes to a variety of musical styles in a multitude of collaborations. Show tunes, torch songs, ballads, classic rock and roll and soul, and blues are only some of the classes the charismatic Shay selects from; in all of them, her voice wails, growls, soars, whispers and croons as the material requires.  Her tone is rich, her inflection and her feeling for emphasis at key points in her songs keep a listener on edge anticipating the next chorus, the next ad-lib, the next hoop, and holler. Shay keeps it moving, driving,  continually moving the pieces on the chessboard.  Shay consistently works with the best musicians available.

 Her new record, A  Woman Rules the World, is essentially a blues and  R&B project highlighting Whitney's vocals, equal parts sass, brass and an elegant sense of grit, with a band of A-List players, including Christoffer Anderson (guitar), Jim Pugh (organ/piano)  Kedar Roy (bass), Alex Pettersen (drums) and Gordon Beadle (saxophones). The outfit, which handles its duties with a seeming organic blend or swagger, swing, and soulfulness, brings a contagious verve to A Woman Rules the World, a record, that, as the title suggests, is a bluesy, gospel-tinged declaration of a woman's right to exclaim her blues.  Shay co-wrote four of the album's ten songs (with Adam J.Eros) and begins this heated session with the unmistakable assertion 'Aint No Weak Woman". This is a straight-up strut of self-definition, the band bristles and boils over with a sure groove of assertive funk as Shay delivers the news that you underestimate women at your own peril.

The title song, writing credit to one D.LaSalle, amounts to a feminist version of James Brown's 1966 classic, the fatally patronizing "It's A Man's World"; while JB tried to explain away male chauvinism at his song's midpoint with a haphazard tribute to women for their ability to bear children, Shay's reading of the lyric, slowly and dramatically  paced, pushes the condescension to the side and lays out the facts of being  a woman in the world of men. Shay remains true to the gut feeling required for the blues and conveys all this with the sock-it-to-ya conviction.r It's not a lecture, but a testimonial. The album isn't just inspired polemic, though, but also funky, joyful, very sexy indeed, sexy as in the case with the "Get it When I Want It",  a funk blues extravaganza with a trace of New Orleans heat that highlights Whitney wittily making it clear that what she needs from a lover has to  be good, great, greater, greatest , consistent and on time.  The emotions Shay handily , slyly and seductively puts across through the lyrics , of course, run  the full range of how one feels in imperfect relationship and in one of her original songs, "Empty Hand," a soulful, Percy Sledge/Sam Cook like ballad, she addresses a paramour who's continually let his end of the bargain fall to the floor. Shay reads the lyric with tenderness and genuine affection, tempering the anger. "I'm not done with you, baby" she wails, seeming to , just for today, give it one more try.

A Woman Rules the World is full of rocking, stomping surprises, ten hot selections grounded in the up-swinging, people moving traditions of blues, rhythm and blues and gospel. Whitney Shay has a voice that channels these styles and creates her distinct verve and originality on the traditions with each croon, holler, soaring high note and low and slow and sexily turned phrase.  The tight and sublime band and the guest appearances by guest musicians Igor Prado (guitar), Aki Kumar (harmonica) and John Halbleib (trumpet)  have made a record that is fun, feisty, ideal for raising the roof and creating convivial mayhem.