July 5, 2014
Should I keep reading? 70 pages into the book and hopelessly intrigued by a neat and clever plot? Or should I dump the book into the return slot at the library first chance I get? That was my moral dilemma. After a brief soul-search, I decided to keep reading, and except for one detail the book is a bright little gem. The book is called Jacob’s Ladder, the year was 1921, and the author was E. Phillips Oppenheim. The detail that stopped me cold in the middle of a paragraph? The thinly-veiled indication that E. Phillips Oppenheim was an anti-semite.
I know nothing about the man except that he was an English writer who published more than 100 novels and dozens of story collections and thus was one of the most prolific and popular writers of his time. And it wouldn’t be the first case of anti-semitism in mainstream literature, by a long shot. What about The Merchant of Venice, or take a look at Oliver Twist. Of course, the Jewish characters in those classics were stereotyped candidly and directly. And, Shakespeare and Dickens both instilled redeeming qualities into the characters to somewhat offset the stereotype. The characterization that bothered me in Jacob’s Ladder was obliquely done and so insidious that it almost went by me undetected. I cannot, even now, be absolutely sure of my theory: it was a hint of racial prejudice, a descriptive word or two plus a stereotyped occupation.
So I would really like to know if others have read Oppenheim’s books and come away with the same impression. Maybe what I saw in Jacob’s Ladder was just a tiny moral hiccup in a vast body of otherwise creditable work.
June 22, 2014
I’ve just finished one of the notable novels about the American West, The Octopus by Frank Norris. Norris, also a talented short story writer, finished the book around the age of thirty and, sadly, only survived the book’s 1901 publication by a year or two. Even so, I believe he proved himself one of the great novelists of his era. In its scope and Naturalism, The Octopus clearly paved the way for later generations of Western writers, like Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, or Wallace Stegner in The Big Rock Candy Mountain.
The Octopus is a fictionalized saga of the conflict between the wheat farmers and the railroad monopoly that raged in California’s San Joaquin Valley in the two decades preceding the book’s publication. Although some critics may be right in finding Norris’s style occasionally too flowery and repetitive, those flaws did not spoil for me the superb storyline and character development. Those wheat farmers and their families became so real and important to me. Much of Norris’s prose is stunning and, though certainly less lyrical than Dickens or Eliot, I believe he may possess as great a command of the English language as any writer in any era – including a fair number of words I had never seen before in my life.
So, if you enjoy reading about the West, right versus might, progressive politics, and even a bit of romance thrown in, The Octopus would be high on my list of suggested novels. As a great novel should, it held my interest continuously, never flagging in its realism and humanity.
June 17, 2014
I wrote this ranting essay a few years ago at the time of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear near-meltdown in Japan. I sent it to all the liberal newspapers I could think of and none were interested in it as an op-ed piece. Well, what’s the use of having a blog if you can’t post your own unpublished and unwanted rants? Here it is, thanks:
by Chuck Redman
If we didn’t absolutely need electric hair dryers. . .
If we didn’t actually have to have electric shoe polishers or nose-hair trimmers . . .
If we could survive, somehow, without plug-in air fresheners containing built-in motion sensors and alternating fragrances. . .
If we could watch television enough without DVR’s that record multiple programs at once, while we watch yet another program. . . or without big screen TV’s, high definition and surround sound. . .
If we could be just as happy, perhaps, to go to our mailboxes and find only mail from people and businesses we know, rather than unwanted junk advertising. . .
If we could get through the day, perchance, without sipping $4.00 coffee, at a 1000% markup, through throw-away lids. . . or bottled water from Fresno, France, or Fiji. . .
If we could get places on time without 18-karat-gold watches that are waterproof to 99 feet. . .
If we could unabashedly venture into the public glare in sunglasses costing an hour’s salary instead of a day’s. . .
If we could smile with the lips, chins, eyes and noses that nature gave us, and support fewer plastic surgeons grinning to themselves while they scrub up for surgery. . .
If a car might take us places even though the front seats aren’t individually heated or cooled and you need an actual lever to adjust position, even though AM/FM radio and one speaker are all you have for amusement while you drive, and even though your passengers are forced to read or look out the window instead of watching the latest DVD’s. . .
If we didn’t spend billions widening the 405 to absorb more traffic instead of spending a fraction of that to install a dedicated bus lane in the middle. . .
If we stopped putting up high-rise office buildings, with windows you can’t open and air conditioning at full blast. . .
If we finally decided that we have enough shopping malls already, and that they’re too expensive to heat, cool, and light. . .
If, instead of pouring most of our agri-dollars into raising meat, we redirected those resources into healthier and hugely more productive foodstuffs . . .
If we suspended space exploration until we could better afford it. . .
If billionaires paid more taxes (which could help us produce alternative energy) and bought fewer villas, private jets, yachts, $500,000 showoff parties, or jewels that could choke an anaconda. . .
If big corporations weren’t bailed out. . .
If we didn’t gamble on military interventions that only heighten instability and suffering. . .
If drugs and prostitution were decriminalized, regulated and taxed. . .
If the billions spent on political ads to no one’s betterment were spent instead on safe energy alternatives and conservation. . .
Then maybe we wouldn’t need all those nuclear power plants. Or nuclear weapons either, for that matter.
May 31, 2014
I mean maybe I was holding all the aces, but what was the game? — Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays (1970)
I doubt if any portrayal of the sordid side of Hollywood (the entertainment industry) equals the brutal scathing honesty of Joan Didion’s 1970 novel Play it as it Lays. Certainly Didion built upon Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust, which gave us a gritty, grainy portrait indeed of Hollywood’s fiends, misfits, and lost souls. Presumably other works such as James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice helped lay the appropriate setting and mood for Didion. But she reached new heights (depths actually) in her dramatization of the ruthlessness and decadence that we have come to associate with the so-called Hollywood lifestyle. Play it is a book of intense realism, heightened by its understated narrative. In that respect, and also in its structure and use of alternate narrators, it reminds me of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. But Didion’s prose is much more accessible than Faulkner’s, and nothing is lost by its unadorned frankness. I was altogether “blown away” by this stark little Hollywood gem.
May 18, 2014
I recently read a very powerful and disturbing novel, The Gods Will Have Blood by Anatole France. The story is set in the same historical context as A Tale of Two Cities (probably my first choice for greatest novel of all time). Anatole France does not have Dickens’ wit (who does?), but he crafts an intricate and well-woven drama about the French Revolution and its unspeakable Reign of Terror. France’s comprehensive knowledge of history, as well as theology and ancient mythology, make the novel more challenging to read, but a richer experience. If you appreciate the tradition and style of Victor Hugo, you will probably enjoy The Gods and place it in the same distinguished class.
May 4, 2014
I don’t know what book was the first to be written about Nazi aggression and the Holocaust. Certainly The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank was one of the first. But I would guess that The Trespassers by Laura Zametkin Hobson, which was published in 1943, was also among the earliest. Considering that it was written in the midst of World War II and the Holocaust, Hobson’s novel is quite remarkable. She captures much of the terror and misery that pervaded Europe during the very end of the 1930’s. She also foreshadows the increasing magnitude of that terror and misery, which the 1940’s would spawn through war and genocide.
The book especially dramatizes the plight of Europe’s innocent refugees in the face of worldwide immigration policies fraught with xenophobia. I have to say that that theme struck a personal chord in me and made me do a little soul-searching, because of my work. Although Hobson’s style may be a bit soapy or schmaltzy, her book is a very moving saga and as timely now as it was then.
Just out of curiosity, does anyone know of any earlier-published books about the Holocaust?
April 19, 2014
My daughter, Rebecca, introduced me to the delightful stories of Italo Calvino. I especially like Calvino’s stories of Marcovaldo, a sweet, bumbling, schlemazel kind of character. Well, I decided to read the other famous Italo: Italo Svevo – his unusual fictional stream-of-consciousness psychological study Zeno’s Conscience. Two years ago I had never heard of these Two Guys Named Italo (why am I suddenly thinking of pizza?). Now I’m reading them and thinking deep thoughts about their work!
Svevo’s subject and style remind me of the little bit of Proust that I’ve read: full of small real-life reminiscences that have secret meaning to their narrator, and add up to a life of inner conflict. Svevo, although years older, was a protégé of James Joyce. Descended from German and Italian Jews, Svevo may even have been a prototype for Joyce’s Leopold Bloom in Ulysses.
Unfortunately, as with Proust, although the writing is rich and full of wit and personality, I simply could not finish Svevo’s book. I wish I had more patience, but the book was just too slow for me, pages and pages of Zeno’s “conscience”: his internal discussions about his day to day life. I appreciate the intelligence and artistry of it, but if the storyline is weak or nonexistent, I can only read so much and then I’ve had enough. Even Shakespeare would become tiresome if his dialogue and descriptions were not plot-driven. I don’t know if Svevo’s other works are stylistically different; Some day I’ll find out.
April 6, 2014
My son Josh gave me a book for my birthday: It’s called Flash, by a young writer named Jim Miller. The book was published by AK Press, which mainly puts out books relating to anarchist themes. Although stylistically Miller’s novel may not be best-seller material, conceptually and morally the book is a very compelling piece of literature. Anyone interested in California political history, labor issues and human rights might appreciate the book. It delves into the I.W.W. (the Wobblies) and other revolutionary or anarchist movements in the early 1900’s. That historical period is skillfully juxtaposed with present day. Miller’s book makes a good companion, subject-wise, to two of my favorites: Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle and Wallace Stegner’s The Preacher and the Slave (alternately titled Joe Hill). Read any of the above, and you will have a deeper appreciation for the hardships and courage of the workers of the world.
March 3, 2014
Accomplish Nothing by Cave Babies
I find myself again setting out on the pleasant task of reviewing the newest album release of one of my kids: This time it’s my son, the band called Cave Babies, and his new album Accomplish Nothing.
Cave Babies is comprised, in total, of a Man (my son) and his Ukulele. They happen to share a high degree of pluck. In the true spirit of DIY, both Man and Ukulele are refreshingly all natural and unembellished. The former wears a full beard; the latter has opted for a smoother look.
When I listen to the twelve songs on the album, it seems to me that they have the rare quality of melodies that had to be written. They are that poignant and inevitable. You see, this is a Man who is even more sensitive than the overstretched strings of his Ukulele. In fact, he’s a true romantic at heart.
The opening track of Accomplish Nothing shows exactly what I mean. “Bad News” is a song with a sweet and memorable melody, both verse and chorus, that is new and different to our ears. Yet there’s something about the tune that is so right that it feels as if it’s been inside of us forever and it only needed to be awakened somehow. Which Cave Babies has done. And done in good voice and adept ukulele strumming. From his meaningful lyrics we learn a lot about the self-doubts and relationships of this Man who awakens melodies. We see his serious side, but there is irony and humor in the way he looks inside himself. (Later on, there is even tongue-in-cheek satire – “Party Till I Bleed”, track 9.) The two succeeding tracks, “Backwards World” and “Sidewalk”, echo this comic but self-effacing blend of music and personal statement.
Cave Babies goes on to take us high and low, sometimes fast (“Move Me”, “Likeable”, “Killing Me Slowly”) and sometimes sadly slow (“Wasted”), on a musical and emotional journey. Loneliness, waste and regret are the predominant features of this stark landscape that passes us by. But there’s still something about the insightful voice and its ukulele sidekick that leaves us with a sense of resilience. It may be that I hear that quality because I know the Man from whom it springs. He does, in fact, give us a fleeting glimpse of this inner strength in “How Can I Be Sad at a Face Like That”, another perfect melody from somewhere deep down.
The climax of the album, perhaps, and the song that chills me most is “Getting Tired”, track 7, and you may want to be sure you read the lyrics on the Bandcamp page to understand the slow and beautiful melody. That sad tune may stay with you for awhile.
The ultimate irony is in Cave Babies’ finale: he humbly predicts it “Unlikely” that he will ever be happy or “be anything at all”. Clearly, his very words and music prove the opposite. In Accomplish Nothing, Cave Babies has accomplished something very special. My prediction is that many more deep melodies will be awakened by this Man’s rare gift of creation.
January 16, 2014
[reprinted with permission from http://5432fun.tumblr.com/ ]
When You Move by Watercolor Paintings
The songs take turns sticking in my head for hours, sometimes even for days. They are more than welcome to stick there as long as they like – they are lovely. And of course I may always wonder whether deep down my brain may be predisposed toward these songs because I am Watercolor Paintings’ father, and am therefore hearing the voice and the words with a parent’s special connection. By the same token, as the father should I be disqualified from writing this brief review? Technically. . . maybe so. But let’s not quibble about technicalities.
The album is When You Move, and you will want to listen to every song, because there are quite a few different sounds within the scope of the album, including rock, pop, ballad, and even country. Some of the individual songs contain one or more dramatic changes in tempo and mood, with multiple melodies. This songwriting style is quite unique, and aesthetically intriguing.
Her lyrics ring out at the same compelling level as the music. Even standing alone, the words evoke deep and rich images. You will hear certain themes throughout the album – the sweet things and the hurtful things that love does to our hearts; how we cope with the lonely side of life; the cities, the rooms, the mornings and nights that touch us and leave their prints on our memories.
When you listen to track 3, “Birds’ Wings”, I suspect the perfect melodies and tempo changes will move you as they do me. I would echo that very prediction for “Livid Being”, the next track. These are songs that are over much too soon. Truly beautiful tunes always are.
Track 5 is “Red Scarf”, which has always been, since the first time I heard it, one of my favorite Watercolorpaintings songs. It exudes power: positive power, the kind that makes us stronger in the face of challenges, temptations, negative influences. The words are worth heeding; the melody (again very intricate and multiphased) worth remembering.
When you reach “Showers of Stones”, track 7, you encounter quite a radical mood shift. Its stark rock/metal sound will transmit images of isolation and unreality, and will “move” you to a dark dystopian place. Were it not for the succeeding tracks on the album, you might not so easily shake this ominous musical climate.
You will find “So Dark” (track 9) melodically sticking in our collective heads, and there’s so much hurt in that young voice (a voice I know so well) that our collective hearts can’t help but “keep breaking over and over”. The very next track, “Yr Hands”, is another “heartbreak of a song”. It features several tempo and tune changes, all soul-stirring, especially the opening bars and the way they clutch the inside of my throat. The final track is called “Landslide”, which is a little bit country and a whole lot lovely. You start out at a slow clip-clop, move up to a lilting canter, and finally sail through the air on a current of strength and individuality. Quite a poignant ending to a very special album.
And because I really don’t know whether these twelve songs move me as a father and not as an objective listener, I must let you listen for yourself. I do know that the more I listen, the more I am transported to harmonious places: places that are vivid and real, and are stuck in my head for good.
Listen here: http://watercolorpaintings.bandcamp.com/album/when-you-move
Buy the LP from Plan-It-X Records (the official one)
or the tape from Lost Sound Tapes
January 1, 2014
I recently read three old detective mysteries in a row, starting with the hardest boiled, Mickey Spillane’s I, The Jury. The plot wasn’t bad, it was a page-turner. It went a little overboard with the gratuitous violence: the private eye would beat up anyone who looked at him funny, and get away with it. He was out of control. Anyway, worth reading for the experience and comparison with other styles.
Then I read The Ferguson Affair by Ross MacDonald. This was more medium boiled. Also well-plotted, except for a couple contrivances near the end. I’ve read one of his earlier mysteries and liked it, and this did not change my opinion. I don’t think you can go wrong with any Ross MacDonald mystery.
Finally I read The Spanish Cape Mystery by Ellery Queen. The softest boiled style of the three, in fact the style is quite formal and literary. It is rife with literary allusions to Greek mythology, Shakespeare, and many other classic writers and philosophers. It is stimulating and witty. The most interesting device is that Ellery Queen himself, in the role of private detective, is the protagonist of the story! That device works very well, adds a lot of charm. This was my favorite of the three novels, it was utterly spellbinding, and I will go back to the library for more Ellery Queen very soon. Enjoy!
December 13, 2013
We arrived early today for our relaxation class at the Wellness center, and when we walked into the communal kitchen I was instantly transported to an English teashop. A friend of ours, an Englishwoman who has lived here in California for years, was sipping coffee and chatting with an elderly gentleman who looked like something out of Jane Austen. The scene reminded me profoundly of something I have felt for most of my life: I was born in the wrong century and probably the wrong hemisphere.
Where my heart really says I belong is England in the time of Dickens. I should have been born and raised in the English countryside, maybe in Hardy’s Wessex country, or somewhere along the route of Mr. Pickwick’s famous wanderings. Wuthering Heights might have been a suitable habitat for my taste. Or maybe George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I can’t help feeling that those places, those times, with their particular culture, customs, and values, are more my soulmates than these modern American times.
I don’t know whether our English friend or the elderly gentleman with the lilting accent have even opened a Victorian novel since their youth. But they certainly took me back to the world that I love to escape to more than any other literary landscape. I can’t alter my date or place of birth, but I can grab a good book and fantasize once in a while.
December 7, 2013
I generally like to read one book at a time. Switching back and forth wrecks my concentration, such as it is. But I’m in the middle of a book that I read only infrequently, and I’ve finished dozens of other books, of all kinds, in the meantime. The book is Can You Forgive Her by Anthony Trollope. I can pick it up after weeks of neglect and feel that it’s all still fresh in my mind. And I intend to finish it. Eventually.
It’s one of those Victorian novels that’s like walking in an English country garden on a day with intermittent spells of clouds and sunshine. It’s all utterly pleasant, the story moves at a snail’s pace but you’re in no hurry because it’s so peaceful and you want it to last. Nothing really bad happens, there’s plenty of English wit and polish. Reading a book like that is therapy, and cheap therapy at that!
If you want a book that’s hard to put down, and, along with Catch-22, might just be one of the two best American novels of the last 50-odd years, you could pick up Little Big Man, by Thomas Berger. I saw the movie with Dustin Hoffman when I was a teenager, but didn’t get around to reading the book until 2 months ago. It’s sensational, a real work of genius. A great movie, and an even better book.
Happy holidays, Happy reading, and PEACE to all.
November 3, 2013
It’s only right that we honor the people who have fought for us against tyranny and aggression. But please remember that going to war is not always right or justified. We have been wrong just as many times as we have been right, I’m afraid. We must make better decisions. And we must honor peace more than war. Books I have read in the recent past have said it much better than I could ever say it:
And some day we’ll remember so much that we’ll build the biggest goddamn steamshovel in history and dig the biggest grave of all time and shove war in and cover it up. — Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1950)
The soldier never becomes wholly familiar with the conception of his foes as men like himself; he cannot divest himself of the feeling that they are another order of beings, differently conditioned, in an environment not altogether of the earth. — Ambrose Bierce, “A Son of the Gods”, Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1892)
. . . all the scenes he had since been through had not dimmed the horror, the terror of that moment, when his boy comrade fell, with only a breath between a laugh and a death groan. — Hamlin Garland, “The Return of a Private”, Main-Travelled Roads (1891)
In trench warfare five things are important: firewood, food, tobacco, candles, and the enemy. In winter on the Zaragoza front they were important in that order, with the enemy a bad last. . . The real preoccupation of both armies was trying to keep warm. — George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (1938)
One of the most horrible features of war is that all the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting. — George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (1938)
It was like an allegorical picture of war; the trainload of fresh men gliding proudly up the line, the maimed men sliding slowly down, and all the while the guns on the open trucks making one’s heart leap as guns always do, and reviving that pernicious feeling, so difficult to get rid of, that war is glorious after all. — George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (1938)
It is doubtful whether our soldiers would be maintained if there were not pacific people at home who like to fancy themselves soldiers. War, like other dramatic spectacles, might possibly cease for want of a ‘public’. — George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (1860)
Above all, innocence alone
Commands a kingdom of its own.
This kingdom needs no armed defense,
No horseman, nor that vain pretence
Of Parthian archers who, in flight,
Shoot arrows to prolong the fight.
It has no need of cannon balls
And guns to batter city walls.
To have no fear of anything,
To want not, is to be a king.
This is the kingdom every man
Gives to himself, as each man can.
Let others scale dominion’s slippery peak;
Peace and obscurity are all I seek. . .
Death’s terrors are for him who, too well known,
Will die a stranger to himself alone.
— Seneca, Thyestes (1st century A.D.) – translation by E.F. Watling
October 11, 2013
Since it’s the only Bulgarian novel I have ever read, I’m not exactly in a position to say that Under the Yoke by Ivan Vazov (published 1889) is the greatest Bulgarian novel. But, if there’s a better Bulgarian novel, I’d like to read it! Under the Yoke is one of the most powerful and enthralling books I’ve read in recent years. It is beautifully written, and the translation was excellent, with only a handful of words that may have been imperfectly translated. Vazov creates a richly real setting and scenario, with wit and sensitivity. In style, he approaches George Eliot. The epic subject and story are more akin to For Whom the Bell Tolls. It is equally powerful as Hemingway’s classic.
After reading Turgenev’s On the Eve recently, which featured a Bulgarian patriot as a leading character, I became interested in that part of Bulgarian history and literature. The L.A. Public Library fortunately had Under the Yoke for loan, so I borrowed it. It has taken a day or two to shake the effects of the dramatic ending.
Now, I need something lighter, so, in one of the more extreme reverse leaps that one can attempt on the literary spectrum, I have turned to Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love. The Yoke is slowly starting to lift.
October 6, 2013
I recently finished Flush, Virginia Woolf’s biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel. It was actually a very fine book, beautifully written by one of our language’s finest artists. Dog lovers would especially appreciate it, but any reader would enjoy the pathos, and the insights into the sensibilities of Flush, the cocker spaniel, and the life and character of Barrett Browning. I give it, without reservation, two paws up.
August 17, 2013
One good way to hear Borodin’s incredible work is to listen to the soundtrack, or actually see the stage or movie version, of Kismet, the Broadway musical which incorporated many of his loveliest pieces, and added some of the cleverest lyrics ever written. Either version is star-studded with great operatic voices.
Perhaps at the other end of the musical spectrum are my amazing kids, with their indy pop and rock bands. I always say, just listen to my kids’ music and you’ll hear far better stuff than anything you’ll hear at the Grammys. You can go to my links page, at the right. Or go directly, for example, to http://cavebabies.bandcamp.com/ or http://watercolorpaintings.bandcamp.com/ . I’m proud of their music, their art, their community involvement, and their ideals.
August 9, 2013
My favorite symphony was within a heartbeat of never becoming reality. This excerpt from The Mighty Five by Victor Seroff explains:
“Yet Ludmilla clung to her belief in her friends. To force Borodin to finish work on his Second Symphony, she asked Napravnik to perform it during the approaching season, and presented Borodin on his return from the country with the fait accompli. This threw him into a panic, for besides the fact that the symphony was unfinished and he had not written a single bar on it in the past year, he discovered that he had put the scores of the first movement and the finale in such a safe place that he could not find them. . . To make matters worse, Borodin fell ill, and it was while in bed with his head wrapped in compresses that he rewrote in pencil the score of the Second Symphony.”
Against such odds, a piece of music so beautiful it gives me chills to think about it was created. If you can find a good recording of it and have a chance to really listen, you won’t be sorry.
August 8, 2013
No one is really alone; those who live no more echo still
within our thoughts and words, and what they did is part
of what we have become.
– “The Blessing of Memory,” Meditations before Kaddish
August 5, 2013
One of the greatest composers (in my book) was Nicolay Rimsky-Korsakov, and he came from a fine and liberal-minded family, according to the book I just finished: “Even at the time that serfdom was in existence, the Rimskys had only hired servants in their house. When his father was offered three hundred souls (i.e., serfs) as a reward for one of his services to the government he declined, saying that he did not know how to take care of even one soul – his own.” — from The Mighty Five, by Victor Seroff. The book is an excellent portrayal of the five great 19th Century Russian composers, who formed a close-knit group and collaborated on many of their most famous works.