Tuesday, December 27, 2011

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R.I.P. 2011

Among the authors we lost in 2011: fictionist and literary journalist Wilfrid Sheed, Zen master and author Joko Beck, playwright and author Vaclev Havel (also a day job: first president of Czech Republic), author and playwright Max Wilk, author and psychologist James Hillman, and (directly below him in the photos) novelist Ernesto Sabato.  Next row: poet Ruth Stone, fictionist, poet and essayist Reynolds Price, journalist and author Tom Wicker, author and anthropologist Oscar Handlin, author Christopher Hitchens, historian and author Manning Marable.

Not pictured: Lynn Margulis, Anne McCaffrey, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Joel Rosenberg, Martin Woodhouse, Diana Wynne Jones, Lillian Jackson Braun, Lanford Wilson, Leo Steinberg, Romulus Linney, Andy Rooney, Daniel Bell, Sidney Lumet, Geraldine Ferraro.

May their work live forever, and may they rest in peace.   

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Living in a Modern Way: California Design 1930-1965
edited by Wendy Kaplan
MIT Press

California’s population is getting older, and more people are leaving than arriving. That’s the opposite of phenomena that defined California in the 20th century, when good jobs, sunshine and possible stardom attracted millions of California dreamers.

There are two photos in this book that tell the growth story: one shows a huge expanse of Los Angeles as empty land in 1922, and the second a dense city just 8 years later. But even greater growth was fostered by military industries during and after World War II. California was the new land of opportunity, without the settled constraints of the Eastern seaboard. All manner of expression flourished, including in the areas documented in this volume: everything from fashion and furniture to ceramics, textiles and the graphic design of advertising and paperback book covers. Of course, this mostly means urban California to our south, but through mass production these California styles quickly became national.

It was California Modern in two senses: modernist design that began in Europe but needed California openness to prosper, and “modern” as up to date in a country in love with progress. The imagery was California casual (but not rural) and sophisticated (but not stuffy.) At its best it brought the colors of sunlit nature to the industrial lines of modernism. It absorbed Native American, Latin, Asian and African styles—while not often including people of those cultures as artists or customers. It was California as freeway consumer paradise, though anxieties of the age were also accommodated in happy fallout shelters and a design for Atomville, featuring an underground swimming pool.

Though some architecture is included in this volume, it focuses on homes rather than public buildings. The survey ends in 1965, just before two new and in some ways more pervasive influences burst across America and the world from California: shopping mall architecture (though L.A.-based pioneer mall designer Victor Gruen gets a few paragraphs) and the impact of California rock music cultures, from the Beach Boys to psychedelic San Francisco.

With the bounty of excellent illustrations and well-written scholarly essays, this is one of those hefty efforts of lasting significance that emanate from major museum exhibitions, in this case from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. For me it’s an intriguing companion to The Machine Age in America from the Brooklyn Museum in the 1980s. Meanwhile, this exhibition is at LACMA through June 3.

Another aspect of the era is in the new book Rebels in Paradise by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp (Henry Holt), about the exploding Los Angeles art scene of the 60s, that also reflects the optimistic energy, merchandizing and show business symbiosis of the youthful California emerging.  

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Eagles: Taking It To The Limit
By Ben Fong-Torres
Running Press

Jackson Browne’s recent tour reminds us that the California stars of the 1970s are still around and remembered. I may have witnessed their collective apex, when Browne, Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles played at the Capital Centre outside Washington, DC in 1976, in a benefit for the presidential campaign of Linda’s boyfriend, Jerry Brown. (It's actually in Maryland, and it was before the state Democratic primary that Brown won.)  They looked like they might rule the country as well as the music charts.  Afterwards at the press reception, the once and future Governor of California walked across the room with his entourage, stopped directly in front of me and spake unto me the immortal words, “Where’s the food?”  (Though it includes a photo that appears to be from this event, this volume doesn't mention this concert.)

The band is known as the Eagles, though officially they are just “Eagles,” as the title of this book affirms. (Steve Martin tells the story of one of its members trying out the name on him at LA's famous Troubadour club. “The Eagles, yeah, good name,” Martin said.  “No. Eagles.” “Right--the Eagles.” “No. Eagles”)

But by any name the band was officially formed forty years ago, the occasion for this bio by journalist Ben Fong-Torres, a star himself in those days for Rolling Stone. The Eagles' first hits were in 1972 (“ Take It Easy,” “Peaceful Easy Feeling”) and after Desperado, Hotel California, One of These Nights and The Long Run, their most recent chart-topping album was in 2007. It may not be their last.  Their first Greatest Hits album was among the top sellers of all time.

Merging country and rock was a slowly forming trend in 1971 but the Eagles took it to the limit, big time. Though they largely defined a style identified with California,  none of them were originally from the state. What they did have in common was also shared with many others in their precise early Boomer age group: the Beatles changed their world. “I would… listen to the Beatles records every morning just to get me through the day,”said Don Henley. He and Glenn Frey had their innocent Lennon-McCartney period when they lived together and wrote some of the best Eagles songs. But in the long run there was conflict, paranoia and raging ego, accompanied however by a perfectionism that kept their songwriting and musical standards high.  All of that is according to this book.

The book brings back that sun-drenched era of excess—sex, drugs and rock & roll, but also emotions that became songs that became emotions. The Eagles personified the laid-back testosterone of the California sound, with literate lyrics expressing sensitivity and vulnerability along with country-style sentimentality and anguish.  They posed as gunfighters with guitars.  Replete with old western metaphors along with an awareness of the sweaty present, their songs were a deep part of their time, especially if you were in their relatively young but not getting younger desperado age group.  Much is made early in this book of hostility from eastern critics, but their music was part of life in fast and slow lanes all over America.  If there was any hostility it was in terms of hard rock vs. not so hard rock, which was not even non-urban vs. urban.  One of the most enthusiastic cities that Poco played (one of their country-rock progenitors) was Boston.

Over the years the Eagles added and shed members, fell apart entirely, and like some other bands that swore never to reunite (the Police, for instance), they of course did, wearing suits and spending more time before shows on exercise bikes than with hash pipes.  Still it's hard to make out the meaning of a story I heard, told by someone who rode shotgun for one of the RV-drivin Eagles in Colorado a few years ago--the one who played Hotel California on the stereo over and over, and sang along.

Fong-Torres’ text is predictably well written, more narrative than critical. There are lots of photos, mostly of the band. The Eagles started as Linda Ronstadt’s backups, and their early success was partly due to the songwriting of Jackson Browne, J. D. Souther and others. They acknowledge this, but it’s not reflected in the photo selection (just one unflattering image of Linda.)

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Coffee Talk:
The Stimulating Story of the World’s Most Popular Brew
By Morton Satin
Prometheus Books

Since a book on coffee is likely to be read mostly by coffee fanatics, there are several requirements. First, it must provide glowing detail about how wonderful coffee is, and how good it is for you. Fortunately, the latest health studies have been very positive, so that’s not the problem it used to be.   So author Morton Satin accomplished this easily.  He notes certain excesses and dark sides in coffee industries, but coffee drinkers are familiar with the bitter and the sweet.

 Satin also provides the requisite history with aplomb, from “The Legend of Khaldi and his Dancing Goats” (What could they be eating to make them dance?) to Coffee Trivia and Coffee Quotes (“The powers of a man’s mind are directly proportional to the quantity of coffee he drinks”—Sir James Mackintosh.) It’s also important to name famous coffee addicts (like Bach and Balzac) because fanatics love company, especially if it makes them look smart and sophisticated. Satin devotes more pages than usual on the evolution of coffeehouse culture, something that’s fascinated me, though I’d be interested in more recent history.

All that is preliminary to the second and more important requirement. A book on coffee must confront the coffee addict’s greatest anxiety: that he or she is not getting the best cup of coffee possible. Some readers will focus on the details of coffee types, countries of origin, and types of roasting, etc. Others will skip to chapters on how coffee beverages are professionally prepared, and how to make the best brew at home. For example, one method I use (besides the mokka) is the French press (though it, like so much in coffee history, started in Italy.) Satin recommends letting the coffee brew for three to four minutes. The last coffee book I read said four to six minutes.

Well, I can tell you where I got the best espresso in San Francisco and Pittsburgh, or the little cafĂ© in Cambridge that made an unparalleled French Roast, or that the Coffee People in Portland make the best mocha. But I can’t tell you whether it’s better to brew for three or six minutes. Which is why I’ll probably consult another coffee book. Just reading about all the methods and their history evokes coffee nostalgia: its elevation of the ordinary.  Like coffee hot off the stovetop with milk and sugar in grandmother’s kitchen, mother’s afternoon chats with neighbors with coffee poured from the perculator into slightly translucent green ceramic mugs. Staring into the black existential depths of a paper cup in the college coffee shop, when midwestern girls who drank their coffee black with sugar were exotic.  From urban cafes--in the heady days of Vancouver and Seattle just before Starbucks bought everybody out--to coffee around the campfire, seeded with grounds.   And so much more.

This book (complete with entertaining espressilogue) is a more stylish looking volume than most, which adds to the self-congratulations that is another prime factor in books for fanatics of all kinds, but particularly for something so associated with both romance and inspiration, the heart and the head—the ordinary elixir called coffee.  

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The Roof at the Bottom of the World:
Discovering the Transantarctic Mountains
By Edmund Stump
Yale University Press

Don't mistake this for a glitzy product of the new Arctic and Antarctic tourism.  These photos were taken over a period of some 40 years by a geologist who has explored the entirety of this mostly unknown but titanic system of mountains that spans the continent of Antarctica.  Together with his text, this is not only an amazing book for armchair adventurers, it is a real contribution to knowledge.

The text is largely comprised of accounts of the major explorations (including excerpts from diaries and notes), with maps of the routes and coordinated photos, but the author weaves in his experiences and observations.  The text takes more space than the photos, so this is a substantial work.  But the photos are excellent and well presented. As a book it's got the heft and size of old-fashioned geography books, and it's published to last.  So it will not only repay many hours of reading and perusing, it will stand up to use.  The prose is clear and without frills.  There will be no doubt that Stump is a geologist.

There is inevitably some sense of elegy as well as history, as this was the last frontier on the planet, and because the effects of global heating are changing the continent. The explorations were not only discoveries of what is there, but of the illusions of what some thought was there.   But the wonder of these unimaginable mountains and the other outsized sights of Antarctica are on every page.