Archive for January, 2008

The Year in Review, Part 2…or I read One Hundred and One Books in 2007 !?!?
Books, I love ’em.  That much is clear.  So how was 2007 in books?  I don’t know; I don’t have a list for you of that, unlike  the Globe and Mail, the Village Voice, the CBC and Amazon.ca all like to do: I don’t have any.  The idea off listing of the best books of this last year is as ludicrous as trying to do the same for music, or at least, in my case it is ludicrous.  There could very well be plenty of good books out there that got missed, written in other languages, released by small presses, or subjective upon taste, and yet it leaves the problem of having no time to read that many NEW books on top of the millions, yes, millions of books written over the last, say, even quarter century.  There is the problem of rushed reading and journalistic writing, so that a mediocre book on second reading is actually seen as being brilliant on a first, deadlined rush

There are few critics I really trust anymore on new fiction: John Clute on science fiction, the reviwers in the London Review of Books for almost anything.  The year of 2007 in books has been rather boring, then, though there are some good books out there, some good ones on Blackwater or consumer waste or food networks, worth reading. I read three books from 2007 this year: Why God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, Infidel by Ayaan Ali Hirsi and a book about the Roman Empire and plague by William Rosen.  I wasn’t impressed by any of them, for reasons I’ve already stated at great length.  Only one book on many critics list has interested me, a reprint of the anarchist editor Felix Feneon’s strange little epigrams, Novels in Three Lines.  Other then that, nothing,.  That happened to me this year: one book, one book alone, re-appeared on every list.  ONE BOOK.

My reading was dominated by dead or living white English-speaking males.  The majority of the fiction by single authors I read this year was dominated by two Britons, one a Scotsman the other a Londoner: Iain M. Banks and China Mieville, both of whom I have spoken about at length on this radio show…incidentally, I also read a lot of M. John Harrison, who I have also spoken about on this show. Most of the history I read was written in the English-speaking world, though interestingly enough, including big examples like Linda Colley’s Britons and C. V. Wedgewood’s opus The Thirty years War, they were written by women.  I read numerous novels in translation, such as Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s 1927 satire Kappa and was told tirelessly to read more Haruki Murakami by Wil Rutledge.  The other writer to dominate my interest was Jorge Luis Borges, whose collections of essays and short stories I read again and again and again, all unfortunately in translation.  Some Germans in translation, Hesse and Kafka, and the 1668 war story and black comedy Simpliccisimus by Grimmelhausen, round off a list this year mostly dominated by science fiction or its literary antecedents.

What would I change about last year in books, and thus what would I do this year in books?

Well, I didn’t read a lot of books by women.  That is a major problem.  There are lots of woman out there writing excelently, I know, and I feel bad that my list has been dominated heavily by wealthy, middle-aged white writers.  So, I plan on changing that in the new year: some writers I’m considering reading are Anna Kavan and Ann Quin, both relative unknowns but famed for their Dada-esque and abstract fictions that play upon real fears and dreams, as do the works of Angela Carter.  Luckily history is being written more and more by women, who offer to the field something much more interesting then the old political, military and nationalist narratives of history.

I haven’t read a lot of science books, which is a real shame, because I am very interested in the natural sciences, astronomy and zoology and animals, insects and quantum particles.  I own many many books about these subjects, but I suspect that their foreign language, thick size and difficult maths is what is keeping me away from despite the fact that these subjects are important, the singularity is important, Steven Hawkings and black holes are important, quantum quarks and voids and hyperspace are interesting.  So that is going to be a big priority in 2008.

Philosophy was likewise neglected, and I suspect for the same reasons as the sciences: the books are thick, imposing, large, difficult vocabulary and concepts.  I had been meaning to read or re-read several books of philosophy this year, including Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, In the Name of Identity: Killing and the need to belong by Amin Maalouf and Chuang Tzu’s complete works.  Or even Das Kapital by ol’ Karl Marx. No such luck.

I want to direct my reading more, and basically read according to a rough plan instead of just going at it willy-nilly.  So, below, a list of the books I bought this year that I would most like to read!

1)   The Supermale by Alfred Jarry
2)   Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel
3)   The Singularity is Near by Kurtzweil
4)   Hyperspace by Michio Kaku
5)   In search of the Quantum by Banesh Hoffman
6)   Monster of God by David Quammen
7)   Vicious: wolf and Man in America by Coleman
8)   The Society of the Spectacle by Guy DeBord
9)   The System of Objects by Jean Baudrillard
10)  History of Madness by Micheal Foucalt
11)  Absence of Myth by George Bataille
12)  Angel of Darkness by Eernesto Sabato
13)  Terrorism and Communism by Leon Trotsky
14)  several interrelated books on the Bolskeviks
15)  The Structures of Everday Life and Commerce and Society by Fernand Baudrel
16)  King Mob by Christopher Hibbert
17)  Absolute Destruction: The Practice of War in Imperial Germany by Isabel Hull
18)  The Aqquyunlu: Tribe, Confederation, Empire by John E. Woods
19)     Naukur, Rajput, Sepoy: The Military Ethnography of Hindustan by Holff
20) Late Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis
21) City of Quartz by Mike Davis
22) Archeologies of the Future: Science Fiction and the Desire Named Utopia by Frederic Jamieson
23) Master and Margaritta by Mikhail Bulgakov
24) The Complete Novels by George Orwell
25) La Machine Infernale by Jean Cocteau
26) Q, by Luther Blisset

And finally, the big list, the big deal, the total of all the books I read this year.  I included books I had to read for school if I read them cover to cover and enjoyed them in some way or learned seriously from them; most of the school books are thus for my thesis.  Some of these books, especially the ancient legends of Japan and China, were read in fragments and pieces: the Nihongi is easily the longest book I own by several hundred pages, clocking in at 1600…clearly I didn’t read all of that in one go, or in a coherent fashion.  I did not include the inumerable magazine, scholarly journal  and blog articles that I read and from which I get much of my information and news about the world.  That is a whole other list.  Without further ado, after the break, the 101 books I read this year.  Yes…it actually turned out to be a hundred books.  I forgot that I re-read Solaris I am shocked, just a little.  Ahem.


Read Full Post »

This is hardly a confessional, and as a review of the last year, I am not going to talk about all the things I lost, or things gained, the triumphs, tragedies, etc. and the ambitions I have for the new year, which are pretty much ‘stay the course, you’re doing fine’ kind of thing. I did want to say a few words about what I was up to culturally this year; after all, I have a radio show where I talk about books and play music, so surely the music and books I delved into this year are interesting…right?

However, I don’t really care for top ten albums of the year kind of things; the numbers seem arbitrary, the lists long, though they do provide a good starter for finding one or two albums out of the mix of totals; that seems the most practical way of approaching it, because five years on, at 25 albums a list for some magazines like Paste, that is far, far too many albums to own, appreciate and call ‘essential’.

The non-shocker about the year in music was that there wasn’t one for me, or at least, I didn’t pay much attention to new music, so this list is right away not a Best of 2007; I’m not even going to try to compile anything like. I’ve grown a little…disenchanted…with indie music of late, which was the main genre that got me into music to begin with and now seems to have lost much of its appeal; I can’t keep up with it, for one, and so much of the post-ironic, post-sarcastic, attitude really don’t do it for me. I’m generalizing to a great extent, but generally, my musical tastes have been spent pursuing music of a different sort.

Not that newer music isn’t bad; far from it. The Knife’s Silent Shout, Metric’s Old World Underground, Where Are You Know? and TV on the Radio’s Young Liars Ep and their first album Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, to name but a few, are pretty much always being listened to here.

However, the music that has propelled me into actually buying their CD’s and listening to constantly, have mostly come from the late 70’s and early 80’s: bands I have been listening to pretty heavily, newly discovered this year and moved into immediate rotation, include The Wipers, Josef K., The Au Pairs, Young Marble Giants, and especially Pere Ubu, all from the very early eighties, like 80-81. Specific albums from bands who only made one album and then disbanded or only made one good album, like The Pop Group’s Y and This Heat’s Deceit have been especially good and innovative (for 1979), if a little jarring, jangly and discordant. The biggest change has been an interest in the solo works of artists I was more aware of from their other, more prominent projects: Brian Eno’s first three albums, especially Here Come the Warm Jets, John Foxx, who I was aware of from his early work with Ultravox, when that band was actually good, especially his debut solo album Metamatic, and finally, most happily of all, Peter Hammill, lead vocalist and writer for early 70’s progressive rock band Van Der Graaf Generator, whose solo albums, especially the cool, quiet and sinister Chameleon in the Shadow of the Night, the bombastic and aggressive In Camera and the proto-punk Nadir’s Big Chance (a favourite of John Lydon from the Sex Pistols and PiL) have been very enjoyable artistically and musically.

So, then, what are my albums of 2007 In no order:

The Arcade Fire, Neon Bible
LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver
Bat for Lashes, Fur and Gold
Blond Redhead, 23
Fiery Furnaces, Widow City (more important not because it is amazing, per se, but because it has restored my faith in that duo after Rehearsing My Choir, which even for me was unlistenable)

Read Full Post »

New Order –   ‘ Blue Monday’ from Electronic Ecstasy (1993)

Air   – ‘Les Professionals’ from Premiers Symptomes (1999)

Blonde Redhead – ‘Futurism vs. Passeism Part 2’ from In An Expression Of The

A Spectre is Haunting Europe – ‘See you inside’ from Astonishing Tales of the

Cake – ‘Commissioning A symphony in C’ from Comfort Eagle (2001)

Dionysos – ‘Terreur et Masque’ from Le Prince Croule (early 1970’s)

Heroes & Villains – ‘Perfect Grey’ from All the Giants Are Buried At Sea (2006)

James Chance and the Contortions – ‘My Infatutaion’ from Buy (1979)

Essential Logic – ‘Collecting Dust’ from Fanfare in the Garden (2003) originally
from late 1970’s

Malajube – ‘Le Crabe’ from  Trompe-l’oeil (2006)

Faint  – ‘Ballad of a Paralyzed Citizen’ from Danse Macabre (2001)

Ground Zero – ‘Movie 2’ from Null & Void (1995)

Read Full Post »

 Victor Serge’s novel The Birth of Our Power, originally published in France in 1928, is ostensibly an autobiographical novel, as the details of its plot fit neatly with Serge’s own life; he was an organiser and agitator in Barcelona after being released from French jails and banned from the Republic for Anarchist sympathising and writings. He was born to a family of Russian exiles, raised in Belgium, educated and radicalised in Paris. In Barcelona, Serge witnessed the rise and fall of the 1917 general strike that seemed so close to realising its aims of revolution and was quenched in bloodshed. Serge, with a few comrades, fled to France, where he lived in hiding, using false transit passes, until he is ratted out by a former socialist and put in a prison camp for a year. Released as part of a prisoner exchange in late 1918 between France and the Soviets, Serge travelled to Russia, fought in the defence of Petrograd against the Whites, joined and organised the Comintern, was a Bolshevik but fought for the legal and moral right of other socialists and anarchists to organise and debate against the Bolsheviks, and befriended Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries, went abroad for the Party to propagandize in Germany, and was eventually expelled from the Party and the Soviet Union for his resistance to Stalin, left to wander Europe destitute, only his writings serving to make a mark for their passionate humanity and passionate support of revolution and the workers.The Birth of Our Power charts part of the trajectory of Serge’s life, from Barcelona to Petersburg by way of revolution and prison. I have no idea to what extent the details of the novel match Serge’s in specific, only in the general; the translator’s forward at least notes that Serge altered the names and roles of some of the people in his book, though I’m certain age and distance would have muddled a fair amount as well. It doesn’t particularly matter, because though the novel is autobiographical in detail, it is not an autobiography. Serge does not pretend to tell his life story; his memoirs would do a better job than that.

Serge’s novel, despite having a subject as gauge as revolution, is structurally related to some of the conventions of the Modernism of say, Joyce and Woolf. Somewhat reminiscent of Joyce’s Ulysses, though considerably less opaque, the narrator in The Birth of Our Power is almost a non-entity, nameless, unknown, and even though the novel is often told in the first person, the pronoun ‘I’ only makes a few sparse appearances, perhaps once or twice per chapter (out of thirty chapters). Even then, it usually spoken in dialogue, spoken by someone else; the narrator has no dialogue, his observations are delivered as part of the description, the text, and often conservation seem to have basis in what the narrator said. In place of the submerged I, there is ‘We’, Serge’s pronoun of choice; it not the royal ‘we’, but the collective ‘we’, the plural of the nameless, faceless proletariat that Serge works and lives with, identifies with and whom are clearly meant to be the real protagonist of the novel.

This is what differentiates it, to a certain extent, from other works of the Modernist canon. Instead of a purely literary device, the narrators reticence to take centre stage serves a political act in the text, avoiding the potential conceit and solipsism of the first-person narrator. The novel is thus not about Serge, though it uses his life as a frame, but as the title suggests, is about the workers, and their story, our story, the birth of ‘our’ collective power, through the unions, collectives and comrades always organizing, the very real proletariat in Spain, the defeated-in-war workers in France, the guiding light of Red Petrograd and Russia of the revolution.Serge also uses something closely akin to the stream-of consciousness, the defining feature of Mrs. Dalloway, to jump from person to person, to explore in moments and phrases the inner thoughts of workers, revolutionaries, the women who find a machine gun for the revolutionaries, intimate scenes of love and passion, police, guards, even the governor of Barcelona or the People’s Committee on Public Order. The most impressive scene like this comes during a bull-fight, described in prose that rivals Hemingway and is far more understanding of the bull’s position (indeed, the bull becomes a symbol of the working class:

“And I remembered – as I looked at his bowed head, hard shell of bone ready to plunge straight ahead, even against a wall, with its load of grey matter devastated by thought – and remembered the dazzled bull in the arena, that human ring, who feels himself the plaything of strange powers and tormenting insects dancing around him, golden, scarlet, vermillion, emerald green, and who wants, yearns with all his strength, the dark strength of a powerful beast bearing a prodigious load of vital ardor, to knock them down with his muzzle, to disembowel them with his horns, to crush them under his hooves, these dancing insects spinning all around him – men.”

On one side of the arena, there is the poor section, where the armed workers cheer for the matador and then, conscious of their collective strength, gave levelly at the scented ladies and uniforms on the wealthy side of the stadium; the tension evoked is particularly striking. The failure of the Barcelona strike, on the over hand, is chaotic, fractured, its chronology jumbled, its prose evoking fear, panic, the jumble of terror from firing bullets, sabres slashing; it is brilliant use of the stream-of-consciousness of a collective to describe the shattered emotions of human beings in mortal combat, a technique that works much better in literature then it does in film (see every ‘realistic’ Hollywood action movie made since Gladiator). The switching of perspectives to figures of power momentarily leaves them to appear sympathetic or ordinary people forced by circumstance, by an economic system, to brutality and inhumanity.

The third notable stylistic peculiarity of The Birth of Our Power is its expressionism, that is, its insistence that the atmosphere of the situation and of the emotional state of characters take as much precedence as a mimetic, or realistic, description of the events. This puts The Birth of Our Power in the same tradition as many German authors and artists of Left from the same period, the twenties and thirties, (for instance, George Grosz). The Birth of Our Power is full of an immense sense of vitality in many cases, especially in the scenes set in Barcelona, and a love of life and joy in things like good company and warm water that affirms Serge’s belief in the basic strength of humanity against the brutality of capitalism and the state.The plot avoids, to a certain extent, the traditional narrative scope of the revolutionary novel where the revolution is the climax of the action. The revolution in Barcelona is failed and done by a quarter way through the book; it is an example in Serge’s mind of why organisation is essential for any working class action to succeed.

The rest of the novel is quite, dark, moody, but unlike so many historical novels, where the protagonists are in the thick of it, Serge leaves major historical event offstage: even the Barcelona strike is crushed once Serge is already gone. He spends the war in prison, and the Russian Revolution is only mentioned and hinted at, hopefully, expectantly. The novel is nonetheless propelled by a feverish momentum, as Serge with every fibre, though held back by war and prison, yearns to return to Russia. His fellow prisoners collectivise and act out the same debates occurring in Russia in their prison camp, and that, in many ways, is one of the great strengths of the novel, to make the decisions and arguments of ordinary people, dreamers, hopers, fighters, seem real and vital, like Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes The Barley so many decades latter does for Ireland.

This is a novel of debates; arguments between egotists in Spain convinced of their individual rightness and the foolishness of crowds, or of pessimists in France, convinced the revolution has been killed by war and money, or the absolutists in the prison camp where Serge spends a fourth of the book, who argue that only implacable terror and intolerance is necessary, argued down by those in favour of a popular front. These scenes are always delivered in the same way, a rush of dialogue, a dance from speaker to speaker, a deep interest in atmosphere and feeling of every scene.

And the ending? When he and his comrades finally arrive in Russia, it is pitifully, and deliberately, anti-climatic. They are met by a pathetic, starving band drafted by a professional agitator in an old leather coat beneath a tattered banner claiming “The Proletariat Shall Rule forever!” There is nothing but bureaucracy, cold, starvation, suspicion, but still, the narrator remains the optimist, sees the hope even in misery, with reservation, deep respect and something like terror at the awe-full organism being assembled:

“The revolution had appeared to us under aspects very different from those suggested by our imaginations, shaped by legend and by history, which is very close to legend. We had been thinking of the squares transformed into tumultuous forums…of the blossoming of little journals, each crying out its own solution, its system, its fantasy; of the great ‘days’ of the Soviets, like Conventions. In the language, in the slogans we saw everywhere, in the only two newspapers published, among the men, we discovered one enormous uniformity of a single way of thinking, imperious, almost despotic, but supreme, terribly true, made flesh and blood at each moment by action. We found not the passionate mobs going forward under new flags to struggles began anew each day in tragic and fruitful confusions, but a sort of vast administration, an army, a machine in which the most burning energies and the clearest intelligences were coldly integrated and which performed its tasks inexorably. And that task was to strain ceaselessly, for commonplace, often invisible achievements, with forces, which seemed each day, to be the last…and to persevere each day; it was also to make a country, on the point of falling back into inertia, rise above itself; finally, to resist and to conquer everywhere, at every moment, transcending all logic.”

The mixture of expressionist moods, atmosphere and emotions and the use of political meetings, debates, arguments, historical allusions to other struggles, and the deep symbolism of Red Petrograd makes for something particularly unique, at least in my experience; the typical idea of socialist literature in the 20th century is either Social Realism, boring and unoriginal, or avant-garde, incomprehensible to its intended working class audience. Serge fits into neither camp; his work is a passionate but logical appeal for the truth and necessity of socialism and revolution, and the need for anyone who believes in freedom and emancipation to band together, organize, fight and never loose hope. Serge never lost his hope, and though we look back over three quarters of a century and see nothing but ruin and horror, we must never forget to remember that so many fought and died for this promise, only to see it wilt and die on the vine. There is a tragic pathos that runs through Birth of Our Power, after all part of series Serge called Victory-in-Defeat, Defeat-in-Victory, tragedy that Serge elliptically hints about (the novel written with full hindsight of the rise of Stalin and growing intolerance of the Soviet regime, and his own expulsion from the Party) : it is also the tragedy and hope of a whole benighted century.

Read Full Post »

It is never a good sign when, upon starting a project like this blog, I already have reservations, already don’t want to maintain it, to spend the effort here required.

There are high standards to meet; I read blogs by author’s I respect, by critics I enjoy, and read literature of such quality, I believe, that some nights I am paralyzed by inaction and doubt: will my writing and awful poetry ever match the quality of the Apollinaire’s or Neruda’s?  I read blogs by activists whose efforts, energies and organizational skills seem inextinguishable. That is good, we need people such as that, who will never give up, never bow there heads, so long as injustice and oppression continue. I don’t care what fraction they belong to, whether they think I’m a shallow fool or a follower in words rather then deeds, every struggle won, no matter how small, is a victory, every step forward, amongst all those millions out there striking, organizing, writing, arguing, is hope.

I wax nostalgic, my time has passed already. This blog is a joke, a link up with campus radio in a small and decaying big little town in the heart of resource country, the last big outpost of Imperial Ontario, annexed to them when Manitoba should have got us, mired in our age, exhaustion, decayu and poverty, all the jobs gone, all the hope left in tourists and retail. But still we live, like a near dead beast, and still there is joy, hope, love, anger and voices being raised; the future is never a closed book, but open water, a vast ocean, to be charted bravely and never just accepted, though too often we feel like a ship of fools, drifting aimless and happy with drugs and boozes.

Not that drugs and boozes are bad, per se. Not at all. We all need a little fun now and again, right?

Lordy, I don’t actually talk like this: I just write like this. This blog is mainly going to be a connexion for my radio show, also carrying the same title as above, and thus becomes a repository of what I have written. I don’t expect much at all about this, I don’t magically expect people from the blogs and pages I read to swarm here and love me; I write and anazlyse poorly, compared to others, so really bhere I am, adding my tiny voice to the far crowd.

There will be a setlists! Cower before my musical …might?

There is much reason for doubt. But then again, there is always room for joy.

Might as well plunge forward, and not let inertia and entropy get me down.

Some of these posts will be crossovers from my old journal…at least for the initial future.

Welcome to the Anatomy Lesson. Dissecting my insecurities, and literature and stuff, for months to come!

Read Full Post »