Sunday, February 22, 2015

Now Wait for Last Year (1963)

Time travel via taking drugs is a strange idea, although it's maybe not so strange that Philip K. Dick would take it on. (What's strange to me is that Daphne du Maurier tried it too.) As usual, there is a lot going on here. Earth is involved in an interstellar war in which Terrans (so-called) have an uneasy alliance with Lilistar, who are genetic cousins. But it appears likely their common enemy, an alien insect race, might make the better partner. Leaders of nations and captains of industry clash with mixed motivations. It's not actually a very interesting story. But Dick has a way about him. Here he introduces parallel universes as well as time-travel paradoxes—or more accurately, perhaps, uses the one to explain the other, as convenient—and quickly lets the implications run to infinity. So a wise leader of Earth has spent years yanking in counterparts of himself to serve various roles, dipping in as needed to alternative time streams and/or parallel universes. In the present time and space of most of the novel the leader, Gino Molinari aka "The Mole," has a perplexing medical condition in which he continually contracts fatal diseases from which he always mysteriously recovers. This is never exactly explained. But there is one very funny scene in which he stalls for time in a delicate political negotiation by lapsing into a severe medical condition that requires immediate major surgery. What this "ploy" accomplishes is explained a little better—the political gamesmanship. But many other things happen that make little sense. Eventually the drug JJ-180 appears and something like a plot clanks into view. The ideas are interesting in flashes, not unusual, but here I'm not otherwise very satisfied with the clinical way Dick sets up his pieces and moves them about—a doctor and his wife, an antique dealer, have a bad marriage. The Moles spins and pirouettes to a tune only he can hear, evidently successful at minimizing risk and danger to Terrans—a hero. People take JJ-180 and move about in time. There are questions about why some go forward and some go back. There are questions about moving physical objects between time streams, and of course there are the usual questions about various time travel paradoxes. Questions, questions, questions. I want some answers!

In case it's not at the library.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

In the Wee Small Hours (1955)

(Requested by reader T.J.)

Trying to get my bearings on Frank Sinatra to write about this album, which is a genuine milestone achievement in more ways than one, I took another look at The Man With the Golden Arm, a Sinatra vehicle directed by Otto Preminger that came out the same year and won him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. It was also the year that Sinatra turned 40. That's an age when most of a person's innocence has worn away, yet when heartbreaks hurt more than ever. The movie, edgy by definition, is about a heroin addict living in an anonymous American slum trying to make it on the straight and narrow. It revels in down-and-out bitterness and squalor, something of a Barfly (or The Panic in Needle Park) for its time, gritty social realism based on a celebrated work by Chicago novelist Nelson Algren. In the Wee Small Hours by contrast is about losing a girlfriend—Ava Gardner, to be specific. It's about heartbreak. Which brings us to the first thing that's a milestone about it. It's a very early, perhaps even first "concept" album. Every song is selected and arranged toward an end of presenting on LP vinyl a portrait of a man (this is not exactly a woman's album), alone and sad after midnight, the hour past which no good happens. A little drunk, perhaps, but in any event can't sleep. Sitting up, vulnerable, in pajamas, feeling out as more embers of the lost innocence of his life fade to ash. It's intended to be played and enjoyed in exactly such circumstances, and it's brilliantly pulled off, built out of hand-picked standards by numerous usual suspects (Rodgers and Hart, Hoagy Carmichael, Duke Ellington), arranged with tender saccharine by Nelson Riddle, and worked out from there to the tiniest detail. I'm impressed more than ever by Sinatra's craft. A quote from John Rockwell (which I pulled out of the liner notes by Pete Welding) really gets at how fine the work here is: "The slight insecurity in the area just above middle C became more pronounced," Rockwell writes about Sinatra's vocal development, saying he was "masterful in exploiting that frailty for expressive purposes." I think that's what I hear going on in "Can't We Be Friends?" in the part of the melody that first goes "I thought I'd found the girl of my dreams / Now it seems, this is how the story ends"—on the word "seems" (and, later, "bust") and the way he finishes the line, as if running away from it. That level of technique has to count as a milestone achievement too. There are times I'm not sure anyone, ever, sang as crisply or on point as Sinatra. The way he hits the notes and lets them go, his phrasing, so often sensitive to the lyric, the way he has of handling and feeling through the melodies. The exercise of attempting to sing along, as always, illustrates how difficult what he's doing actually is. Get this one for the next time you have insomnia and study it closely.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The French Powder Mystery (1930)

My experience with Ellery Queen mysteries has not ranged so broad, but I'm sure I've read one or two I liked pretty well. This is not one of them. It's only the second collaboration between the two Brooklyn cousins who traveled under the Ellery Queen pseudonym, Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee (also pseudonyms, but they really were cousins from Brooklyn), and it shows where their first priorities lay: constructing an intricate mystery, specifically, the "locked-room." It is essentially a novelization of a logic problem, a puzzle type for which I've never had much interest (or capability). It is filled with useless and pointless knowledge and uninteresting characters, who are uniformly if randomly "grinning," like lights on a Christmas tree, blinking on and off to indicate ... something? There is surprisingly little recognizable human behavior here—let alone police procedure, which matters when one of your main characters (the father of the amateur sleuth and our hero Ellery Queen) is a high-ranking police investigator. Dannay and Lee are plainly proud of what they have wrought here—their first effort, The Roman Hat Mystery, had been a big hit the year before. They issue a challenge to readers directly, just before the last chapter and infinitely tiresome Big Reveal, to make their guesses and/or forever hold their peace. At which point I might have been seen yawning. I did try my usual Perry Mason "n - 1" formula (the character I judge second-unlikeliest to have "dunit," admittedly not that accurate, because I am always completely lost in these things less than halfway along). But I was wrong. The culprit was a character who never meant anything to me in the least. In fact, that was true of most of the 30-odd characters (as found in a useless list at the front). Most of the rest I actively did not like, including especially Ellery Queen himself, who is a diaper-soiling version of Sherlock Holmes—a character I like, with human qualities. I've got another one of these so-called "nationality" mysteries by Queen to try (The Dutch Shoe Mystery) but I am proceeding with caution. As I say, I remember encountering both good and bad Ellery Queen books many years ago. If only I could remember the titles of the good ones, alas....

In case it's not at the library.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Frank Zappa, cont'd

(Requested by reader D.M.)

A couple years ago, Scott Woods over at (and, and elsewhere) started a series on Frank Zappa and at one point invited me to contribute. I suspect it's because he noticed I had a handful or more of posts on Zappa. Most of them came from the earliest days and another incarnation of this blog, when I was more or less attempting to orient and/or introduce myself in terms of taste via landmark albums. Zappa came up early because I encountered him early, as a 15-year-old in 1970, and he made quite an impact. The piece I came up with for Scott was a list of my favorites, all from the period 1966 to 1970, with some explanation. Some of these songs and albums I have returned to regularly all my life now, such as Uncle Meat. I also talked about my permanent point of departure in the early '70s, with the one-two(-three) combination of Fillmore East - June 1971 and 200 Motels (album and movie).

For this piece I decided to look on the other side of all that. The way I picked the four albums I landed on was highly scientific use of Google search engine ("best frank zappa albums"), going through the first page of results (one was a forum with many, many lists) and taking a raw tally by title. The vast majority—not surprisingly, I know, but still—came from the 1966-1970 period I already touched on. There was a fair amount of agreement on the full Joe's Garage (1979) but after that it was murky. Very little from the '80s and '90s seemed to have any kind of consensus of regard, if any regard at all. Out of the bulge of tepid support from the '70s I settled on Over-Nite Sensation (1973, for the good associations I had with "Montana"), Apostrophe (') (1974, though it contains the execrable "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow"), and Roxy & Elsewhere (1974, because I desperately hoped there might at least be some great live performances). I came close to looking into Waka/Jawaka (1972), Bongo Fury (1975, a collaboration with Captain Beefheart), and a few others, but decided to wait for further inspiration.

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Sense and Sensibility (1811)

This was the first Jane Austen novel I read (some time ago!) and I guess I'd have to call it a decent start, as I enjoyed it very much and went on to read more. But circling back to her self-published literary debut now shortly after reading a few of the others, it's notably weak—not even close to her best, Pride and Prejudice, which was written in a similar time frame. The two main characters are hampered a little by the allegorical positioning (older sister Elinor as "sense," Marianne as "sensibility," whatever these things mean). Even worse are mechanically staged scenes, based on improbable encounters and coincidence, whose purposes are more didactic than anything—always annoying for me in fiction, any kind of single-purpose "lesson." The last few chapters of Sense and Sensibility are remarkably crowded with this. But it's not bad aside from that, especially given it was essentially written by a 19-year-old. In many ways all Jane Austen's novels are the same, which is true of most great novelists, and here one sees the basic terms most plainly: the thicket of family and friendship ecologies, the mature young woman, the less mature others, the graspers, knaves, and schemers, the foolish and the wise, all of them concerned primarily with marrying one another off in the terms that suit them, whether it's for love and/or respect and/or character or for various types of gain, usually monetary. There are few of the complexities and subtleties of character that make many of Austen's others more interesting. Here pretty much what you see is what you get, except for the calculated surprises at the service of the plot. It may be obvious but it's well constructed. She already knew how to write a novel. So even the plot developments that would have to be called trite—various confessions and deathbed scenes and whatnot—still keep things moving right along. I do find that my patience for her language varies by mood. At times she seems like one of the most lucid writers I know. Other times it seems painfully clotted with heaps of clauses and abstruse references to Mrs. or Miss First / Last Name jumbles or by maddeningly vague relation, "her sister," "his aunt," and such. But that seems to be a random matter of mood mostly. Her language is also really consistent, which contributes to the clarity.

In case it's not at the library.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Morgan's Passing (1980)

I'm not sure it's possible to say how disappointing I found this. Anne Tyler's eighth novel and the last before my single favorite (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, though a few others that came after are nearly as good) seemed crazy weak to me. The eccentric middle-aged man at the center of it is too painfully (and unbelievably) cute, dressing up in wacky costumes (cowboy, stage magician, riverboat gambler, frontiersman, soldier) and putting his wacky self in the faces of conventional others. He's not malicious but rather gentle and kindly, and of course wiser than Solomon. I had two more problems—a self-conscious and awkward kinkiness, and most of the narrative arcs, especially the main one. I just couldn't believe most of these people existed in any world I know. Little that they did made sense. Impersonating a doctor and delivering a child and then stalking the couple to become part of their lives are generally more chilling acts to me than as related here, where it's just sort of raffish. I reacted so badly I almost want to scurry back and check the ones I know I like. Have I lost my taste for Tyler? After all, the ones I like are also full of affable kooks, often making poor decisions. But they seemed more deeply plunged into real mysteries of the human heart, where this seems to be a lot of posturing guesswork. Part of this may be the decision to tell it from a man's point of view, which also hampered A Patchwork Planet, though I think generally that is a much better novel. I have no sense of who this Morgan Gower is. I don't think I've met anyone remotely like him. Father of seven girls but willfully irresponsible in a way that reportedly annoys people, but the people seem more indulgent and vaguely charmed. I didn't like him but I think we are meant to. Well, I'm not sure. And I'm even less sure Tyler knew herself. Flailing to make sense of my bad reaction, I see reviewers I think I trust (John Leonard, James Wolcott) liking it for the reasons I like most of the other Tyler novels: her sharp eye for the environments of her characters, and her even sharper ear for the ways they fail to communicate. I have been really affected by the eccentric motley in her novels and the heartbreaking ways they cope and attempt to connect and find satisfaction in their lives. But Morgan's Passing left me cold.

In case it's not at the library.