Reading - November 2014

The Week (1 November 2014 / Issue 995)
Seven Days In The Art World by Sarah Thornton (2008)
Fascinating study of an alien world.
The Week (8 November 2014 / Issue 996)
First Time For Everything by Aimee Carson (2013)
Studly male and female flake straight from central casting; he needs a softer side, she needs to let people help her, although neither will admit this of course. Slightly edgy in that both have darker sides, particularly her history of cutting herself; also the only story I have read that makes masturbation into a plot point. The author's main job is as a family doctor, which possibly explains both of these, but of course their presence completely ruins the film rights,
The Week (15 November 2014 / Issue 997)
Guitarist (December 2014 / Issue 388)
A Man Of Privilege by Sarah M. Anderson (2012)
An uncomplicated plot of blink-and-you'll-miss-it slightness but with characters of surprising grittiness. It's the first time I've come across an ex-prostitute as the heroine in a book like this. For a book in the Desire series, hardly any sex.
An Intimate Bargain by Barbara Dunlop (2012)
Another Desire novel, but despite the unpromising, generic title (M&B's titles are getting worse and worse generally) this is a well-plotted, well-written book with twists and turns that develop naturally and don't seem to be there just to meet the word count. Very readable.
The Week (22 November 2014 / Issue 998)
He's Just Not That Into You by Greg Behrendt & Liz Tuccillo (2004)
Since I am not a single woman, this book is not aimed at me, but it's a quick and funny read anyway. Its basic message is simple: ladies, if he's not making time for you, calling you, being with you, then dump him because he's not as committed as you. Ah, if only life was as simple as a romcom, eh?
The Week (29 November 2014 / Issue 999)
Six Feet Over by Mary Roach (2005)
A spirited (geddit?) journey through some of the more diverting interfaces between science and the pseudo-science of life after death. Inconclusive, other than by showcasing the paucity of evidence for the existence of a soul or any consciousness that survives us, but the point of the book is entertainment rather than enlightenment, and in this it succeeds.


Come Fly With Me

Frank Sinatra

An excellently themed collection of travel-related songs, all given the trademark Sinatra treatment. The uptempo numbers swing nicely, particularly the specially commissioned title number, "Let's Get Away From It All" and "Brazil" (and also the extra-on-CD "I Love Paris"). Sinatra sounds more relaxed on these, whereas the lush ballads lilke "Around The World" or "Autumn In New York" are a little heavy on on the big strings and sound forced, although "London By Night" is lovely.

Oddly this is the opposite of what I found a year and a half ago, when I found the slower songs on In The Wee Small Hours more convincing that the faster songs on Songs For Swinging Lovers. Maybe this is to do with the arrangements, all by Billy May, whereas the other two were arranged by Nelson Riddle.

Still, it has to be said that this is Frank's golden period and none of the tracks dip below good, and Come Fly With Me is consistent with his other albums of the fifties in being superbly listenable. (It's also consistent with them in having terrible cover art.)


Palo Congo


Ground-breaking world music. Probably.

Although this album is listed in 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, its entry only describes it rather than explaining why it has been included. (The piece reads like someone was assigned it as homework; the book is a great resource, but I have many reservations about it.) Having listened to Palo Congo, I am also at a loss to explain its place in history.

Certainly, the album brings a flavour of world music from a time well before there was such a category in the western world, and it must have sounded very different at the time. It isn't Sinatra-smooth crooning, or bouncing Basie jazz; it's not perfect pop or raw rock'n'roll. It's a view into a different kind of world, an older world, where music is made for participation rather than listening to.

So, all the chants and repetition would be great fun if you were joining in. As an audio experience at home, it's a bit tedious. If I had to choose one track, it would be "El Cumbanchero", which has an actual tune and some sort of direction and development - at least, for the first couple of minutes. After that it runs out of steam but persists for another three. "Choferito Plena" has an appealing figure on a guitar (or something similar) which reminds me of The Bhundu Boys. "Triblin Cantore" is nice enough. However, too many tracks are just extended conga workouts - fair enough given that Sabu Martinez is a congo player, I suppose, but unedifying to listen to for any length of time.


Seven Days In The Art World

Sarah Thornton

Fascinating insight into an alien world

I came to this book hoping to have my prejudices about modern art refuted but expecting to have them confirmed. Unexpectedly, it did both. I still think most of the art is ridiculous - literally, deserving of ridicule - but it turns out that not all of the people producing, selling or buying it are conmen or marks.

On reflection, this isn't surprising. The art world is big enough that its inhabitants are not a homogeneous collection of people with the same opinions, motives and objectives. Therefore it makes sense that, for every pretentious twit warbling nonsense about the latest prodigy, there's a no-nonsense business woman or man lining up the next deal; for each arriviste billionaire attempting to purchase credibility, there's an artist genuinely moved to produce their life's work; for all opportunistic hangers on, there are rational human beings who love their world.

The art world, from this excellent, measured portrait anyway, has a number of interesting parallels with the music world. The commercial demand for more and more product has increased the value of novelty, of something different; "originality" is highly prized. The commercial aspects of the business are now what drives it. There are stars and wannabes, sharks and innocents. The biggest difference is that what customers buy is the original art work itself rather than something endlessly reproducible, so although this is now a bigger market, it's still an exclusive, expensive one.

Considered in this light, the one thing that didn't make sense to me now becomes slightly clearer. My view of the art under discussion here - primarily "modern" art (the term is only used by ignorants such as me, apparently) - is that it's almost all garbage. I don't understand why anyone would give it house room. But that's no different from my assessment of the quality of most pop music - most of it's cannon fodder, mud thrown at a wall. It's there because people will pay for it, everyone has different tastes and sometimes we just want something for a specific mood.

What is also different is the attitude to the art. In music, no-one's really pretending (apart from those with a direct interest) that the latest new sensation is producing anything more important than another throwaway tune. In art, everything has have meaning and significance, hence some of the piffle spouted about transparently mundane works.

Oddly though, this insistence on meaning extends to the artist. A key quote from the book is that "in a world that has jettisoned craftsmanship as the dominant criterion by which to judge art, a higher premium is put on the character of the artist." In fact, it's quite clear that it is the "character" of the artist that is much more important. If I made a painting of a load of spots, it would be stupid. But if Damian Hirst does it ... then it illustrates "the harmony of where colour can exist on its own, interacting with other colours in a perfect format". Or to put it another way, you can churn out any old crap as long as you're an "artist". 

The Last Clown by Francis Alÿs illustrates the issue. It's a very short, low quality animation (sorry, installation, how gauche of me) about a man tripping over a dog. It looks like a student project - and not a very good one. Oh, but because it's made by an actual artist, well, it's making all sorts of important valid points about the relationship between art and humour and entertainment. The fact that any of the Pixar shorts make the points more effectively and much more entertainingly is, well, beside the point.

In an environment where there is no absolute "meaning" to any work of art, there is therefore no actual meaning, since any person of moderate intelligence or imagination could make something up. For example, the cover (above) shows Maurizio Cattelan's "Untitled" (2007) [and what is it with "untitled" works - are these pretentious twerps afraid to commit themselves?] - a stuffed horse's body hanging on a wall. I could construct a number of interpretations, but if it wasn't presented as "art" it would be pointless, crude and shallow. But because it is presented as art we attempt to impose our own meaning on it. And doubtless some would say that's the point. In that case why not just lead a bunch of art critics to a cow pat and call that art? We could have a long discussion about the relationship between art and nature.

But equally, where everything is so highly subjective, the fact that I find the art derivative and empty is irrelevant. Someone loves it; they should buy it and enjoy owning it, sharing it. Another makes a living out of it and meets interesting people; that sounds like a nice life to me. If the irony of being so completely unjudgemental about what constitutes good art and yet so completely judgemental about who can create it or even buy it has struck anyone, then they're keeping it quiet.