Quickies: More very short reviews

The drill, familiar now like that post-sex muscle spasm: 100 words or fewer, words of 2 or fewer letters don’t count.

The Life Pursuit
The Life Pursuit, Belle & Sebastian (Matador, 2006)
You know how all the heavy metal bands have one or two softer songs on each album, and how the softer songs often sounded (back in the ’80s, of course), really great? Zeppelin started it: “Going to California” is mind-blowing in between “Four Sticks” and “When the Levee Breaks.”

I’ve always disliked Belle & Sebastian: too precious, too twee. Pursuit is just a bit more muscular. “White Collar Boy” pounds just enough to set off the lighter songs. (One contains the lyric “I took a photograph of you in the herbaceous border.” The very definition of twee.) And “Dress up in You” is so gorgeous, twee as fuck or no, it needs no special setting. My favorite sound this spring.
Dave B

Slaughterhouse Five
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Certain books you’re supposed to read in high school, like Catcher in the Rye. Same with this one, only I never did. That didn’t stop me from pooh-poohing it recently, which (rightly) offended a friend, who found a used copy and gave it to me.

Verdict? A skillful piece of work, and affecting at times. But repeating “So it goes” after every mention of a death? Blech. In the end, the moral attitude of the book is more praiseworthy than the book itself. And I start to wonder about the moral attitude: Do I approve of it just because approving makes me feel I’m better than the fuckers who ordered the firebombing (or the Vietnam War, looming in the subtext)?

It would have been better in high school, when things were simpler.
Dave B

Can you find Johnny Depp in this picture?
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
Am I the last person on the planet to have read this?

Written in the ’30s, it remained unpublished until 1966. Satan shows up in Moscow in the ’20s — and fits right in. His cronies, including a talking cat who walks upright, raise all kinds of hell, but the paranoid populace pretends not to notice. Part One’s dense web of magical realism and satire of state-sponsored literature is compelling enough, as are whole sections set in Pontius Pilate’s Yerushalem, but it’s really Part Two, when Margarita arrives, that knocks it over the fence: a deal with the devil, gratuitously nude broomstick-flying, a Satanic ball, crowing cocks, loony bins, and suddenly we confront nothing less than the enduring and transformative power of art.
Bryan Waterman

he poos clouds (maybe he should consult dr. cedric?)
He Poos Clouds, Final Fantasy (Tomlab, 2006)
Owen Pallett — who’s arranged strings for and toured with the Arcade Fire — offers up a concept album on the eight schools of D&D magic. When it opens, you might think it’s Erlend Øye, but the string quartet’s staccato and a jittery percussion line signal a more ambitious score. On “This Lamb Sells Condos,” a driving piano gives way to harpsichord, a children’s chorus, and nagging parents: medieval village meets early-’80s suburbs. Pallett performs with violin and tape loops but isn’t aping Andrew Bird: his nervous twitch motions lead uphill into opera. When the first track closes with a near-whisper — “Your rock and roll has gone away” — I don’t care if it ever comes back. Thanks to Zoilus for the recommendation.
Bryan Waterman 

    15 responses to “Quickies: More very short reviews”

    1. Lisa Parrish says:

      The Master and Margarita is worthy of the term masterpiece. Some of the translations are quite bad, though, so choose your version carefully. The best, in my opinion, is Michael Glenny’s, which is a bit older and so might be difficult to find. But it’s absolutely worth it to track his down, as the others offer some odd and tepid phrasing while his is pithy, colorful and true to the Russian.

    2. when i decided to read it i consulted an acquaintance who’s a russian prof here (and who told me that M&M, which he stumbled onto as a teen, was the book that made him want to study russian language and lit) and he recommended the translation used by penguin classics, by Pevear and Volokhonsky, copyright 1997.

    3. Bacon says:

      Dave,

      You read S-5 having absorbed the postmodern cultural flood that followed it. I’m no expert on “the novel”, but this one deserves its place in history for its mere construction. The childish simplicity of the prose, the detachment (“so it goes”), the self-consciousness of the narrator, his exposing in the novel the writing process, the loopy plot line. All this makes the moral come clean and powerful, and nothing like the Robert Graves-type structured poetry that came out of WWI.

      But you’re right. It’s best to read this when you’re 18, before your mind has been hardened by cynicism.

    4. Lisa Parrish says:

      Stop the presses: I agree with Bacon. Remember, Slaughterhouse Five was written in 1969. No one was writing novels — much less war novels — in such a voice. Vonnegut’s great gift is for wriring prose that seems simple, effortless and glib, when in fact it’s briliantly plotted and executed. Yes, he relies often on his tricks — the “so it goes” a case in point — but in doing so, he’s attempting something larger. I found my reaction to “so it goes” changing through the book, but ultimately I found it quite moving in its mundane acknowledgement of terrible things that have, in the twisted environments Vonnegut describes, themselves become mundane.

      What can I say? I’m in the tank for Vonnegut. Would that I could do what he does so well.

    5. Stephanie Wells says:

      I have to weigh in on S-5 (is that the preferred Billy Pilgrim nomenclature for it?) as well, because I’d never read it, but oh, woe befell me when I dared to write my 20th-century American Literature syllabus without it. The 18-20-year-old boys in the class–and I’m talking about every single semester–attack me with outrage and disbelief bordering on the tearful that any such survey course would omit it, never mind the fact that they didn’t really believe any other author should even be allowed on the syllabus (my dutiful inclusion of “Harrison Bergeron” notwithstanding–they wanted more more more.) So finally, at the urgings and insistence of a particuarly impassioned lad, I tried–I really tried! And everyone warned me–not only am I too old to get it now, but I’m also a GIRL, which apparently also precludes its brilliance from enlightening me–but it’s true: I just don’t get it. But I do still intend to finish it, honestly, because I want to get it. I’m going to take Bacon’s words in mind and sit down this summer and give it a fresh read (this time I’ll get through more than 75 pages), though you’re right–I can’t really beat back the postmodern cultural flood that has already engulfed me and us all. Wish me luck on this Pilgrimage–help me see the light.

    6. Rachel says:

      re: The Life Pursuit
      Dave, I agree about ‘Dress Up In You”–gorgeous and poignant. The album has a lot of levity, too; I especially like how “Sukie In The Graveyard” rhymes “art school’ with “arseholes.” Cracks me up every time. And “The Blues Are Still Blue” is a perfectly constructed pop love song assembled from quotidian elements, a la Ray Davies.

    7. Tim Wager says:

      In re: Slaughterhouse Five

      I feel that pretty much any book, when approached as if it is a ‘classic of american literature’, is going to fail to live up to expectations. Luckily, I’d never had anyone rant to me about how amazing a book S-5 is. I read a copy a picked up for 25 cents at a yard sale. It’s the perfect book to pick up for 25 cents at a yard sale and then read that afternoon. Perhaps it was an amazing breakthrough at the time of publication, but it’s simply a nice little book, as far as I’m concerned. As for Vonnegut in general, I like what I’ve read, but not to the point at which I’d say to anyone, “You must read this book!” When I was a kid “Breakfast of Champions” was a must-read because it had dirty drawings and was just hysterically funny. I tried to read it again recently and couldn’t get past page 3. Very dated. Has anyone read his latest, “Man Without a Country”? Wow. What a bunch of rambling nonsensical non sequiturs. An embarassment, I’d say, but it was a best seller.

      Anyway, Stephanie, maybe if you tried reading it just as something to wile away a summer afternoon you’d get farther and like it better. It probably won’t make your syllabus, but at least then you could tell your students that yes you’ve read it but no it’s not that great.

    8. Nathan says:

      On B&S: Anyone hear T-Rex in these songs? Seems like everyone from B&S to Goldfrapp have adopted the Marc Bolan quiver — and it sounds good!

    9. Scott Godfrey says:

      I’ve herd others compare B&S’s sound to Bolan’s. I agree to a point, but the real derivation is Donavan; give Jennifer Juniper a fresh spin. Scottish blood?

    10. Bacon says:

      Lisa Parrish: “a mundane acknowledgement of terrible things that have, in the twisted environments Vonnegut describes, themselves become mundane”. I couldn’t agree more.

      And to emphasize this point again, Vonnegut belongs with Heller, Pynchon, and Mailer, and all those other authors whose war experiences messed up their clean world view, and gave us the “postmodern” novel (disclaimer–I’m bullshitting here, since I am not an English professor). This is very different from the Oxford/Cambridge educated literary officers who wrote beautiful but conventional poetry after WWI. That, I believe, is why S-5 is important.

      But alas, Tim and Stephanie are correct that the book, as delightful as it is, doesn’t have the heft it once did. It’s like listening to “Never Mind the Bollocks.”

    11. Dave says:

      Brian, the thing is, you would be bulshitting even if you were an English professor. ;-))

      I agree, Vonnegut was messed up by his war experiences, like Heller, Pynchon, and Mailer. Yet somehow, those other three manager to write much better books as a result of it than he did. (Gravity’s Rainbow is so much better than S-5 it’s not even worht making the comparison.)

    12. bacon says:

      I don’t know dave. By attempting a direct ranking, you’re stepping into the quicksand of “The Canon”, which those of us weaned in the 80’s learned (with the prompting of the entire tenured English faculty sporting bumper stickers urging us to “subvert the dominant paradigm”) was wrong.

      (an aside–am I the only one who loves those bumper stickers on Subarus asking us to “Question Internal Combustion”? Yet my favorite post-9/11 bumper sticker remains “Poodles are Pleasant”–how can you argue with that? Can the greatwhatsit address this issue please?)

      Nevertheless, I support (however much it hurts) Parrish’s view that Kurt’s naive writing style is perfectly suited to underlining the absurd horrors that are his subject matter. He’s writing the novel version of Dr. Strangelove. Pynchon writes in a different style. Why put them head-to-head?

      (By the way, the greatest rock and roll band of all time is without argument the Rolling Stones…)

    13. Rachel says:

      Fightin’ words, Bacon! Don’t force me to disrupt another Beatles/Stones debate by making an impassioned case for The Clash.

    14. [...] The star of the evening, though, without a doubt was Owen Pallett as Final Fantasy. Fey, winsome, boyish, coy: these words don’t begin to let you into the world he’s created in two solo albums, the most recent of which, He Poos Clouds, I reviewed here a while back. He wasn’t dressed like Peter Pan, but he could have been without stepping out of character. (One memorable moment came when he tucked his violin bow down the back of his shirt to launch into a pizzicatto interlude: it stuck up over his head like an arrow in a quiver.) Owen began his set by shouting into the f-hole of his violin, recording himself, and looping the sound as a bass backdrop. On the album he’s backed with a string quartet; live he plays all the lines himself, stepping on pedals to record and replay loop after loop, part after part. There’s no doubt he bears similarities vocally to other vein-popping popsters like Spencer Krug, whose songs seem simultaneously painful to perform and catharctic, but Pallett is playing on a different level than most of his peers. Classically trained as an opera composer, Pallett writes songs that could sustain treatment by a stage full of singers. When I think of “chorus” in relation to what he writes, I imagine a Greek chorus, though one that’s been possessed by demons or demonic suburban parents, and it’s to his credit as a performer that even as a one-man act, he can make you forget that he’s responsible for every sound you’re hearing and each individual voice you imagine combining to produce songs that feel more like scenes. [...]

    15. [...] … on which a grown man sings so lovingly of his affection for a video game character (”I move him with my thumbs / He needs, he needs my guidance, he needs, he needs my time”) that he’ll make you misty eyed. How great is it that an album with this title won Canada’s first Polaris prize — the equivalent of England’s Mercury? Reviewed 20 April 2006. [...]