Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Paul Simon's Graceland

It wasn't all that long ago that the 25th Anniversary edition of Paul Simon's Graceland CD came out.  I debated it for a while, then decided to order it.  I had never owned the CD, so I may have been part of a tiny minority that actually had a reason to order this (and not feel ripped off).  I actually had a dubbed cassette for quite a while, which eventually was replaced with a legitimate cassette (remember those -- ha ha).  There were a bewildering number of options: a CD/DVD set, a 2CD/2DVD set and a 3 CD/1DVD Amazon exclusive.

All or nearly all of the bonus tracks are tacked to the end of the single CD in the CD/DVD set, somewhat undercutting the need for the box set.  Some of the reviewers have said the bonus tracks are actually pretty interesting.  The DVD in all three sets is the Under African Skies documentary (which includes the famous SNL version of Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes).

If I was in the market for a box set, then I would definitely go for the one with the DVD of the African Concert in it. However, it seems pretty likely that this will be released as a stand-alone DVD within the next year or so. And probably I will pick it up if it comes out.

I am digging the alternative version of Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes. Basically, it strips out the horns (and the Ladysmith chorus at the front, though they come in at the end, which in a way works well since it is so surprising -- well, in the alternate universe where this version was the released one).  I think the actual release is a bit better, but it's really interesting to hear this version.

The You Can Call Me Al video is as lame as ever. I don't recall ever seeing the Diamonds video on MTV, though I suppose I probably did. The SNL performance of Diamonds looks quite good and Paul sounds great. I actually had a chance to see Paul Simon play Chicago just a year or two ago in a smallish club, and now I am kicking myself that I didn't go. Ah well.  What started getting to me and contributed to a really bad case of nostalgia was seeing just how young and vibrant Paul Simon looked back in the 80s.  He was really at a sustained peak, and the current documentary footage shows him looking old.  I realize it happens to almost everyone (except those that die young), but some times this hits harder than at others.  You think -- I was in undergrad 25 freaking years ago -- and you just get depressed.

It wasn't just the video evidence, I kind of dived back into the politics of the album, in a way that I hadn't in years and years.  There was such a big kerfuffle about Graceland, particularly whether Paul Simon should have respected the boycott and recorded it somewhere else, i.e. not in South Africa. I took a bit of a hard line back in the day, particularly on whether he was exploiting Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Now a lot of those concerns seem pretty silly.  While I did care and supported the boycott, I didn't do that much that was actually tangible, though I donated to the ANC cause and got a bracelet with a political prisoner's name on it.  We were supposed to wear these everywhere, and indeed I did for two solid years (it often turned my wrist green!).  I remember starting to worry about what I would do when I had to enter the workforce, but to almost everyone's surprise the government agreed to a negotiated end to apartheid.  In many ways, it has been an unbelievable success -- that the end of apartheid was far less bloody -- and has involved far less retribution against whites (than Zimbabwe certainly) -- than anyone really expected.  So I was able to remove my bracelet with a clear conscience.  I guess it is important to remember these things -- the self-righteousness of the young that co-exists somewhat uneasily with their idealism...

I suppose more than anything, I have less faith in the wisdom of the collective, even the politicians of the ANC, today than I did back then. Still, I probably wouldn't fall precisely in line with Paul, who feels that politicians are always trying to harness musicians for their own ends and in general restrict them, so that musicians should only answer to the higher power of art.  But the one remaining highly critical voice (in the documentary at any rate) does come across as petty, when it basically seems that the main issue isn't that Paul performed for whites in South Africa (which would clearly have been odious) but that he worked with Black musicians (giving them opportunities that they desperately longer for) without checking it in advance with the ANC.  Still, I give Simon props for including one or two critical voices in what is otherwise a love-fest of a documentary (even Oprah weighs in and says that Graceland is her favorite CD of all time).

Where I clearly feel today that I was in the wrong back in the 80s was that I really felt Paul Simon was exploiting Blacksmith Lady Mambazo and because of the power imbalance they weren't in a real position to negotiate with him -- and that fundamentally he got more from them than they got in exchange.  I'd say that that was a pretty patronizing line (not that power imbalances don't remain). The musicians really longed for opportunities to make music and then beyond that they were thrilled with the opportunities to tour (opportunities that the South African government routinely denied them -- still unclear why they ever got visas in the first place, though maybe it was a counter-PR move by the Botha government).  One of the managers admits that he kind of downplayed the trouble Paul would face (from breaking the boycott), simply because he thought this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  And it is certainly true that many of these African musicians and groups became superstars outside of Africa, and that probably would not have happened without the Graceland album and even more importantly the tour.

Beyond that, you can see Paul working with the musicians in the studio and then on tour, and you can simply see the mutual respect that was present.  Had I had the opportunity to see that at the time, I might have taken a different, more nuanced (softer) stance.  Another thing that was quite interesting, and I didn't realize until seeing the documentary, was that Paul more or less went in and recorded instrumental tracks -- in a few cases, literally just having them record slightly different versions of their own songs, more frequently jamming on various riffs they came up with together.  Then Paul took all the tapes and with the help of some master producers, pieced it together and added lyrics.  Wow.  In some cases, the music had changed so much that for the tour the musicians had to basically learn their parts all over again to match the album. 

Anyway, in short, I am glad that the music came out.  Paul Simon was right and nearly all his critics were wrong.  I've been listening to the CD a lot since it turned up, and it is simply brilliant (even if it does threaten to keep me anchored in the 80s a bit more than is healthy...).

P.S. It turns out that Los Lobos still has a beef about the last official track, since they feel the music is theirs and they didn't get proper credit.  Not surprisingly, that is not mentioned in the documentary.  Still doesn't undermine the album, but it is a shame that there are still some bad feelings surrounding it.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

6th Canadian book challenge - 7th post

I've owned Gentleman Death by Graeme Gibson for years and years.  I probably picked it up at a Toronto shop selling seconded books around 1995.  I finally got to it while on a plane ride to Scotland.  I thought this was appropriate, given that the novel opens with a man flying from Toronto to the UK, ending up in the north part of Scotland.  Granted I was starting from Vancouver, but close enough.  The opening starts pretty well, but then goes in a completely different -- and very disappointing -- direction.  I'm not going to pull any punches (or worry overmuch about spoilers): I did not like this book.  It is a very disappointing piece of postmodern fiction.

It turns out that the first couple of chapters are simply a failed attempt at a novel by a writer.  We don't learn this until the third section.  The second section is a second failed attempt at a novel, which is considerably less interesting than the first.  In the third section we find that the novelist (presumably a proto-stand-in for Gibson) has been working on these for a while and plans on abandoning them.  From this point on, we alternative the second (fairly boring story) and the novelist and his interactions with family and friends.  None of this is remotely memorable, and I've already forgotten all of it within a week.  The only thing that is memorable (but cliched) is that in the last 50 or so pages, we learn that what the novelist really is struggling with is the death of his brother, and that is the unspoken shadow over everything.  Boring.

I very rarely like postmodern fiction, though Kroetsch's Alibi has enough interesting sections to sustain the reader's interest.*  This book (Gentleman Death) essentially failed me on every level.  I was so disappointed in it that I am strongly reconsidering my initial interest in reading Gibson's first three novels (which have been strongly praised in the past): Communion, Perpetual Motion and Five Legs.  I guess I may still dip into them but will be ready to bail at a moment's notice.

* To add to that, if we consider Tristram Shandy one of the first postmodern novels, it has the advantage of novelty and a much more interesting set of characters.  In contemporary (non-Canadian) fiction, I think Paul Auster's New York Trilogy holds up pretty well, but not most of his other work (postmodern or not).  Martin Amis and Carlos Fuentes occasionally incorporate post-modern elements into their novels relatively successfully.  If I can think of other reasonable examples, I will add them later.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

6th Canadian book challenge - 6th post

While there was quite a gap there, it is perhaps appropriate that this review of another massive, ambitious novel follows right on the heels of my review of HeadhunterThe Engineer of Human Souls is generally considered Josef Skvorecky's magnum opus.  I don't think there is any hard and fast rule about reading books in translation (for the challenge), at least I hope not.  Despite living in Toronto for decades and eventually teaching (English and comparative literature) at the University of Toronto, essentially all of his novels were written in Czech and then translated (perhaps not the very last few).  It is also possible that some of his later essays were written directly in English. Skvorecky died fairly recently (Jan 3, 2012), which inspired me to actually tackle the book, moving it up from a lower priority stack.  Curiously, he died within a month of Vaclav Havel.  Their lives are somewhat curiously intertwined, and they both knew each other and were generally supporters of each other, but Havel of course remained in Czechoslovakia and was imprisoned (and was vastly more famous), and Skvorecky escaped to Canada in 1968.

The Engineer of Human Souls is probably not the best place to start with Skvorecky.  It might be better to ease oneself in with The Bass Saxophone or possibly the short story collection When Eve Was Naked. It probably wouldn't hurt to know a bit about Skvorecky's political writings in Talkin' Moscow Blues before tackling The Engineer of Human Souls.  For the most part, Skvorecky thought Canadians were very polite and a decent bunch, but very politically naive, and they had little sense of what one would do to survive under extreme conditions, i.e. turn traitor and/or be swayed by extremist political movements.  This novel works out a lot of these issues, though in a somewhat exhausting way.  Similar to Headhunter, cropping 100 or even 200 pages would probably have made The Engineer of Human Souls a truly excellent novel.  I did feel the novel suffered from diminishing returns, which is a shame, since the first 100 or even 200 pages were really great.

It's a little hard to spoil the plot, in part because there is not that much of a true through-line and second, because we see the narrator, Danny Smiricky (a stand-in for Skvorecky) in his new life in Canada, so we know he doesn't die as part of the resistance to the Nazi occupation or in the Soviet invasion of 1968.

The book is broken into seven chapters, each (except the last) an author that Danny is covering in his literature class.  Curiously, except for Joseph Conrad, they are all U.S. authors (Hawthorne, Poe, Twane, Fitzgerald).  The basic conceit is that Danny is struggling to reconcile his easy life in Toronto (teaching these naive Canadians how to read literature) with his memories of a much harder life in Czechoslovakia.  Indeed, Danny occasionally receives letters from friends that have either escaped to places such as Australia or Israel, or who have remained in Czechoslovakia. One of the latter (Jan) is also a bit of a writer, and may be a partial portrait/homage to Havel.  My feeling about the letters is that while they were useful at first, it is too hard to reconcile them with the rest of the novel.  Sometimes they seem to be used to break from the present to the past, but this isn't always consistent.  Sometimes the date on the letter doesn't correspond with the time that Danny is reverting to (at least I believe this is the case).  Certainly the chronological sequencing of the book is very complex, and I'm not sure there is a true pattern, other than alternating between the present (mid 1970s -- which should be kept in mind) and the past.  I was fairly convinced that the "past" sections were heading to 1968, when Danny presumably defected, and I was frankly expecting to see that scene written out.  I was quite disappointed in what we have in its place.  I got sick of reading the letters at about the 3/4 mark of the book -- some of them went on for 3 or so pages.  There was another scene of Danny trying to get a forbidden manuscript from a visiting Czech that went on and on and on.  Honestly, Skvorecky could have used a more rigorous editor.

It's hard to say what I think about the novel.  I think the sections with Danny teaching his students are well written, though certainly the stakes are low.  I think the dangerous scrapes Danny gets into in occupied and post-War Czechoslovakia are generally of interest.  He never really knows who to trust, but still has a dangerous tendency to shoot off his mouth.  I could see that the present sections also had some interesting observations on the state of the Czech exile community in Toronto (some coping quite well with the new freedoms of the West while others longed for home).  But it still didn't cohere, and it really didn't help that the ending was so weak.  I guess in general it is the kind of novel that is worth working one's way through, but it isn't a master work that I plan on ever returning to.


6th Canadian book challenge - 5th post

So it looks that I have dawdled so much and been so distracted that Headhunter is my fifth (!) and not first book reviewed for the 6th Canadian book challenge. 

I probably read this book the first time in the summer as I was winding down my stay in Canada.  I had been going to the University of Toronto and getting a Master's in English Lit.  It was an exciting year for me, with some of the best and most frustrating times of my life.  (I often think back to those heady days with more than a smidgen of regret that I wasn't chosen to continue my studies for a PhD at Toronto, though in the big picture I'm sure I'm better off that didn't happen.  I periodically work on a novel that imagines an out-of-place American trying to stay on in Canada.  Perhaps it is finally time to share the first chapter on this blog -- but not just yet).  It is also possible that I read Headhunter back in Newark right after I came back from Toronto.  I wasn't doing much that year, temping in Manhattan and volunteering with a high school athletic team that I had worked with 2 years before while still a teacher in Newark.  I read a lot that year...

Headhunter is a dark novel, packed full of characters and odd -- and sometimes awful -- situations.  I'm tempted to say it is the darkest novel Findley ever wrote, edging out Not Wanted on the Voyage, which has dark episodes balanced by much more hopeful scenes.  And The Wars is dark indeed, though it is not as long and sustained as Headhunter.  However, I haven't read all of Findley's work, so I may be overlooking something...

Just as a friendly warning, if you know nothing about Headhunter (and don't want to read after the spoiler break), do make sure you've read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and probably watched Apocalypse Now before you tackle this novel.  You can thank me later.

I don't think there is any way to write about the book without delving into the details at the end, so


(Don't say you weren't warned.)

From pretty much all accounts I've read, Findley was a lovely man, but an awful lot of his fiction is dark and deeply angry.  Headhunter is basically all about awful fathers.  In the best of cases, they are simply neglectful, but in many cases here they are abusive: physically, mentally and sexually.  At least two fathers kill their children and several others contribute to their children's future downfall(s).  Mothers are generally ineffectual and/or neglectful, and certainly do not succeed in protecting their children.  Not Wanted on the Voyage also portrays Noah (and God) as tyrannical patriarchs, but the rage isn't quite as sustained.  I do wonder if Findley was working out some issues here, but he isn't a one-note novelist (unlike Saul Bellow, for instance) and he does work in other modes.

I think one of the biggest problems with the book is that it is simply too long and there are too many characters to get invested in.  I'll try to do a quick run-through:

Lilah Kemp -- a schizophrenic, former librarian whose spiritual powers seem to have released Kurtz from Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

other psychiatrists at the Parkin Institute:
Austin Purvis
Eleanor Farjeon
Ian Sommerville
Dr. Shelley (who researches psychotropic drugs)

two secretaries at the Parkin Institute: Oona and Bella

Emma Berry
Barbara, her daughter
Orley, her Black maid
James Gatz, her eventual lover

Fabriana Holbach, art gallery director

Three sisters (Peggy, Olivia and Amy)
with two husbands (Griffin Price and Ben Webster)
and their alcoholic mother, Eloise Wylie
(One of the sisters (Amy) ends up institutionalized and eventually placed under the care of Marlow.)

minor parts
John Dai Bowen, a disturbing (and disturbed?) artist
Eric Royhden
Julian Slade (the man with knives)
Gordon Perry
Richard Appleby
Warren Ellis
Olivia's unborn son (who talks to her)
Robert Ireland
David Lewis
Professor Nicholas Fagan
Billy Lydon, Emma's chauffeur, who drives her in a white limo nicknamed the Great White Whale (!)
Gatz's father
Sergeant Cawthra
Smith Jones, the Paranoid Civil Servant
the ghost of Susanna Moodie
Mrs. Akhami
the couple who move out of Lilah's shared house, making way for Marlow

(I can't even recall all of the characters, let alone all the names, since they all sort of pop in and out of frame.  I really think editing out two or three of the subplots would have made this a much stronger novel.  Unlike a Victorian novel, not every single one of these subplots intersects, which is more realistic but makes it much harder to recall the details.  It also puts into question how many of these threads are really necessary.  The book might have been truly excellent with 200 or so pages trimmed out...)

The other problem is that the book never entirely settles what it wants to be.  Is it just a fever-dream?  Are we supposed to literally believe that Kurtz has been summoned from the book, and furthermore, that Lilah fixes the problem by re-summoning him from the very end of the book when he is dying of some tropical disease?  An incriminating letter shows up at the very end of the book, which in a more traditional novel, would have proven to be Kurtz's undoing, but he is already sick of sturnusemia (a kind of fatal disease apparently transmitted by birds).  I kind of found this disappointing, though of course it so closely parallels Heart of Darkness, I can see how Findley couldn't resist.

The other major aspect of the book is that it is a mediation on literature and its uses.  Findley riffs on all kinds of famous novels (imagining a mash-up of Madame Bovary and The Great Gatsby for instance).  Dr. Shelley is almost certainly a reference to Mary Shelley, though this doctor does her work with drugs (that lower inhibition) and not with reanimating corpses.  There is, however, another psychiatrist who has her head ripped off.  I'm sure I am missing a few of the references.  The most sympathetic and understanding character is Prof. Fagan (as in Dickens' Fagin?), an Irish professor of literature, who helps calm Lilah's spirits.  In contrast, visual artists in Headhunter are pretty much all disturbed individuals who make vexing images.  Findley is honest enough to indicate there are positive uses of this kind of art (to battle complacency for instance) and may indeed see Headhunter in toto as a piece of disturbing art, but it does seem an odd distinction within the book itself.

Findley leaves a number of threads up in the air.  First, did Farjeon's brood actually kill her (and were they urged on to do it by Kurtz or another psychiatrist)?  But more fundamentally, how much damage is Marlow actually going to be able to undo?  Will he turn some of the Group of Men, particularly David Lewis, over to the police?  Will the truth about sturnusemia ever make its way out into the public and force the government to stop the indiscriminate spraying of trees/killing of birds?  That certainly seems like a stretch, and the nearly post-Apocalyptic Toronto landscape certainly is depressing, even if Kurtz is now absent from the scene.

As with several of Findley's other novels, Headhunter is deeply bound up with the AIDS crisis and the devastation it imposed on the gay community (and deep demoralization that accompanied it throughout the 1980s).  Headhunter was published in 1993, but was probably hatched towards the end of the 80s.  Sturnusemia is a transparent stand-in for AIDS, and it largely mirrors the state of knowledge about the disease from the early days of the AIDS crisis when it was this unknown killer that could strike anywhere and fear ran rampant (only later when it became "obvious" that it only affected homosexuals and drug addicts could it become marginalized in public consciousness).  In Headhunter, sturnusemia is supposedly spread by birds, and one official who begins doubting the official line is locked away in an asylum (by Kurtz).  Findley certainly seems to have conjured up a terrible scene where all the wrong people are in charge (aiding and abetting sex crimes and murder).  There is a semi-obscure New Wave song called "The Lunatics are Running the Asylum" that seems appropriate -- or even the thrust of the Spitting Image TV show which also had a strong undercurrent of despair.  Despair can be pretty exhausting, however, particularly at such length (500 pages).  That may be why I can find a lot of interest in this novel, but I can't really embrace it (and the further I get from the 80s, the less relevant the novel feels).  That said, it really does tap into the dark side of the 80s, which I was very keenly attuned to at the time.  Just as a comparison, Jose Rivera's Marisol was also published around 1993 and taps into this same despair/rage and also feels a bit dated.  However, Kushner's Angels in America (from 1992) is a bit more balanced between the darkness and light and probably has greater appeal (and perhaps artistic longevity) due to that.  Of course, this is how I feel on the subject now.  Maybe in another 10 years, I will have more respect for writers that don't sugar coat their bitter truths...

In some ways, I think it might have been a better move to have Kurtz exposed by his own writings than to have him come down with sturnusemia, which seems too pat and doesn't really offer the characters as much resolution.  I can't really understand why Findley would have set up both endings, but then only gone for one in the end.  Again, it's hard to know quite how to take this novel, other than as a nightmarish meditation on the state of the world in the late 80s.

This is review 5/13.