Tuesday, January 31, 2012



Raging Bull is a biography of the fighter Jake La Motta directed by Martin Scorsese, who had directed two excellent films in the 70s, Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. The screenplay was adapted by Paul Schrader who also wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver. Raging Bull contains a powerhouse performance by Robert DeNiro as the boxer whose sadomasochistic rage, sexual jealousy, and animalistic appetite destroyed his relationship with his wife and family. The film also features Joe Pesci as his well-intentioned brother, who tries to help him overcome his inner demons. Cathy Moriarty plays his beautiful, abused wife. Raging Bull is mostly shot in high contrast black and white, and the cinematography is incredibly powerful as it uses slow motion and freeze frames especially in the boxing sequences. The flash is used as a rhythmic devise in the flow of the images. Scorsese wanted the film to have the look of a Weegee photograph. There is one tranistional sequence in the middle of  the film that is in color and has a Super8 home movie quality. Raging Bull is the story of the rise and fall of champion and his irrational self-destructive behavior. With this film Scorsese crafted a great work of cinematic art.


In 1985, each week I would make my way to the Thalia Theater on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and watch episodes of Berlin Alexanderplatz, that was originally made as a 14-part German television series by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1980. The film is based on the 1929 novel by Alfred Doblin. Gunter Lamprecht plays Franz Biberkopf, who is a criminal, fresh from prison, who is drawn into the underworld. The film is set in the working-class neighborhoods near the Alexanderplatz in 1920s Berlin. Fassbinder makes use of Doblin's use of montage, and uses songs and speeches and references to newspapers to propel the plot forward. The film also features Hanna Schygulla, Barbara Sukowa, and Gottfried John as the sinister Reinhold who won't allow Franz to put his life on the right track. By this time Fassbinder had become a master filmmaker and his theatrical influence seamlessly integrates into the cinematic story. Berlin Alexanderplatz is a story of deceit, betrayal, and murder and the first 13 chapters of the film stick to Doblin's story, and are done with great cinematic flourish. The final chapter, My Dream of the Dream of Franz Biberkopf by Alfred Doblin, An Epilogue, is a bizarre, surreal montage full of strange imagery that reimagines the relationships between the characters. This is Fassbinder's magnum opus. He would also make an excellent film in 1982 just before his death called Veronika Voss.

DIVA  (1981)

Diva is directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix was one of the French films of the 80s to let go of the realist mood of the 70s and move to a more melodic and colorful style that became known as cinema du look. The story is centered around a young postman named Jules (Frederic Andrej) who is obsessed with a beautiful and celebrated opera singer (Wilhelmenia Fernandez) who has never consented to have her performances recorded. He attends one of her performances and secretly records it and steals one of her gowns. The plot also has Jules coming into possession of another tape that will expose police corruption. Jules becomes a hunted man and takes refuge at times with a mysterious bohemian (Richard Bohringer)  and his young muse Alba who had befriended him. A relationship does develop between Jules and the opera singer, but the strength of Diva is its style and use of music. It is an audacious and original film and has a pop art quality that is inspired by the love of opera. Beineix would make another excellent film later in the 80s called Betty Blue.


Blade Runner is a science fiction film directed by Ridley Scott and based on the novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick. Harrison Ford plays a blade runner whose job is to hunt down and "retire" genetically engineered organic robots called replicants, who are visually indistinguishable from adult humans. The replicants or androids have been manufactured by various large corporations for the use of performing jobs on off-world colonies and are banned from living on Earth. The film focuses on a brutal and cunning group of recently escaped replicants who are hiding in LA. Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, and Daryl Hannah play three of these androids. Blade Runner has an amazing visual style that uses a dark film-noir look in conjunction with a futuristic vision of Los Angeles. It is a beautiful, thought-provoking, and moving film.


Sophie's Choice was directed by Alan Pakula and was based on the novel by William Styron. It tells the story of a Polish immigrant, Sophie, and her unstable lover Nathan, who share a boarding house with a young writer named Stingo in Brooklyn. The film contains a powerhouse performance by Meryl Streep as Sophie, that won her an Academy Award. Kevin Kline plays her troubled lover, and Peter MacNicol plays the young southern writer who comes to live with them and is the narrator of the film. The film uses flashbacks to tell of Sophie's tragic experiences during the war where she is made to make a choice by the Nazis that will effect and haunt her forever. Nathan goes through violent mood changes and over time and we come to understand that he is severely mentally ill. The story of these three characters becomes quite complex and it all leads to a powerful and tragic ending. Sophie's Choice is a beautiful and haunting film.


Fanny and Alexander is one of the later works of the great Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. The original version was created as a four-part television movie that spanned 312 minutes, although a shorter theatrical version was also released. The story is centered around a young boy and his sister and their family in Sweden in the early 1900s. After their father's death, the children go to live in the home of their new step-father who has married their mother. The step-father is a local bishop and puts the children under his stern and unforgiving rule. He tries to break Alexander by every means possible and after a time they live as virtual prisoners in the bishop's house. Eventually the family is freed by the intervention of their extended family. Alexander has fantasized about the bishop's death and when it does happen he wonders if somehow he magically brought it to fruition. Fanny and Alexander is full of beautiful moments and is told by a master with precision and clarity leading to a powerful and universal cinematic experience.


Scarface was directed by Brian De Palma and written by Oliver Stone and stars Al Pacino as the criminal Tony Montana. The film is a remake of the 1932 original by the same name. It tells the story of Tony Montana, a Cuban refugee who comes to Miami in 1980 as a result of the Mariel Boatlift. Over time he ascends to the throne of a drug cartel during the cocaine boom of the 1980s in Miami. It is full of corruption, violence, and betrayal and makes a strong statement about the excess and decadence of the 80s. There is a powerful sequence where the Cuban refugees stage a riot in the encampment they are kept in under an interstate highway. The Goodyear blimp floats by Tony's vision - The World Is Yours, Take It - and so he does. Scarface is about achieving the American Dream as Tony becomes a successful capitalist, but one who succeeds by using intimidation and brute force to attain what he wants. Scarface uses an over-the-top style to reflect the excess and culture of greed and corruption that evolved in the 80s.


The Year of Living Dangerously was directed by Peter Weir and based on the novel of the same name by Christopher Koch. The story centers around the love affair between a journalist and an embassy worker during the overthrow of President Sukarno in Indonesia in 1965. Mel Gibson is Guy Hamilton, and Australian journalist, and Sigourney Weaver plays Jill Bryant, an officer of the British Embassy. The film depicts the close-knit members of the foreign correspondent community, which include the photographer Billy Kwan, who is a Chinese-Australian dwarf of high intelligence and moral seriousness. Billy Kwan is played by the actress Linda Hamilton with a convincing power, earning her an Academy Award for her role. Kwan takes a liking to Hamilton and helps him make contacts and find information for his stories. There is corruption depicted both within the journalist's community, and by the politics of Indonesia where Sukarno is unable to meet the needs of his people who mostly live in poverty. The door is open for a potential communist revolution. The climax of the film comes when Billy Kwan makes his statement about the way things are. It is shocking and powerful. The Year of Living Dangerously mixes a passionate romance with the complexity and sense of dread of a political thriller where there are no real answers to solve these issues.


Stranger Than Paradise was written and directed by Jim Jarmusch and features John Lurie, Richard Edson, and Eszter Balint. The film was groundbreaking for its unusual minimal style, as it was shot in black-and-white with a still photographer's eye for composition. It tells a simple story with an absurdist/deadpan comedic style of a young woman from Hungary visiting her hipster cousin in New York. She then goes to Cleveland, where her cousin and his friend go to visit her. The film is insightful with its depictions of cultural differences. It has a slow methodical pace, influenced in style by international art house films, and even refers to Ozu's Tokyo Story. Because of its low-budget aesthetics and use of - at the time - non-professional actors it had a huge impact on the Independent Cinema movement that would follow. 


Vagabond is a French drama directed by Agnes Varda featuring Sandrine Bonnaire. It tells the story of a young woman vagabond who wanders through the French wine country and how she comes to her demise. The film begins with her death as her contorted body is found covered in frost. An unseen and unheard interviewer puts the camera on the last characters to see her and the ones that found her. The film flashes back to Mona's journey, a road to nowhere, as she prefers to wander the country free from responsibility. We see her walking the roadside, hiding from the police, and trying to get a ride. She meets others along the way including a Tunisian vineyard worker, a family of goat farmers, a professor researching trees, and a maid who envies Mona as she perceives Mona's lifestyle to be full of passion. Surviving becomes more difficult over time as the winter sets in, until she meets her death. Vagabond mixes a straightforward narrative with documentary-like sequences with some significant events happening off-screen which causes the viewer to piece the information together themselves to gain a full picture. It makes a powerful statement about the mystery of existence, without manipulating the viewer, but by objectively showing the experiences of a woman who lived the life she wanted but led her to a tragic end.


Blue Velvet was written and directed by David Lynch and uses both elements of film noir and surrealism in telling its bizarre tale of mystery. The film features Kyle MacLachlan, Laura Dern, Isabella Rossellini, and re-launched the career of Dennis Hopper with his role as the dark and sinister Frank Booth. MacLachlan plays Jeffrey Beaumont who when returning from seeing his ill father in the hospital comes across a human ear in a field in his hometown of Lumberton. He proceeds to investigate the ear with his girlfriend Sandy (Dern), who provides him with information as her father is a local police detective. This draws them into the town's seedy underworld where Jeffrey forms a strange sexual relationship with an alluring torch singer named Dorothy Vallens (Rossellini). She is being controlled and abused by the psychotic criminal Frank Booth, who engages in drug abuse, kidnapping, and sexual violence. Lynch uses a unique visual style where he contrasts the lights and the darks of the American experience, using unusual camera movements and strange sounds, and layers the visuals with seemingly odd, yet effective music. Blue Velvet depicts an America where on the surface it is white picket fences, love songs, and friendly people, but underneath there is a dark and sinister underbelly that can't be avoided.


Hannah and Her Sisters was one of three excellent films made by Woody Allen in the 80s. The others were Stardust Memories (1980) and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). Hannah and Her Sisters tells the story of three Manhattan sisters played by Mia Farrow (Hannah), Barbara Hershey (Lee), and Diane Wiest (Holly). All of them are different personalities and dependent on one another in different ways, with Hannah being the oldest and most admired. Michael Caine is Hannah's husband but he is obsessed with Lee and is tired of Hannah's seemingly lack of need for anything. Lee lives with Frederick played by Max Von Sydow as an older artist who she is now tired of, yet she is racked with guilt about her affair with Caine. Von Sydow provides the film some of its most darkly funny sequences. Wiest steals the show as an incredibly funny Holly, who is a total mess trying to find herself. Woody appears as Hannah's ex-husband who is hilarious as a hypochondriac trying to find the meaning of life. There are other characters who have short but memorable scenes including Lloyd Nolan and Maureen O'Hara as the sister's parents, and Daniel Stern as a young music producer and art collector. Hannah and Her Sisters deals with serious issues but integrates hilarious comedic sequences seamlessly into the narrative.


The Last Emperor is another excellent film by Bernardo Bertolucci, following his great films of the 70s, The Conformist, Last Tango In Paris, and 1900. It tells the story of Puyi, the last Emperor of China from his ascent to the throne as a young boy to his imprisonment and political rehabilitation by the Chinese Communist authorities. The film features John Lone as Puyi, Joan Chen, and Peter O'Toole and it was the first feature film to be given the authorization by the Chinese government to film in the Forbidden City in Beijing. The film starts in 1950 with Puyi's re-entry into the People's Republic of China as a political prisoner and war criminal, having been captured by the Red Army in the Soviet Union after the end of WWII. The film then flashes back to the other periods of his life. The Last Emperor, like all of Bertolucci's film is full of amazing visuals as it is photographed by the great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. The film shows the extremes of two political structures, one a Monarchy, and the other a Communist society where there is no place for an emperor. The Last Emperor is a beautiful and thought provoking film, that depicts the rise and fall of one man, who never asked for the position he was born into, but still leads him to a tragic end.


Wings of Desire, also known as The Sky Over Berlin, is a French-German co-production directed by Wim Wenders. The film is about invisible, immortal angels who populate Berlin and listen to the thoughts of the humans below and comfort those who are in distress. One of the angels, played by Bruno Ganz, falls in love with a beautiful, lonely trapeze artist. The angel chooses to become human so he can experience the human sensory pleasures, like tasting food, or touching a love one. The film is mostly shot in a black and white and7 is also a meditation of Berlin's past, present, and future. Peter Falk plays a filmmaker who has arrived in Berlin to make a work about Berlin's Nazi past. As the film evolves we find that he was once an angel, but tired of always observing, but never experiencing, and renounced his immortality to become a participant in the world. The film has a loose narrative quality and includes a sequence in a club where we see and hear Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Wings of Desire is a beautiful film that reaffirms that human existence with all of its problems is still worth living and that the unique sensory perceptions that we have are to be cherished.


Do The Right Thing was written and directed by Spike Lee and tells the story of a neighborhood's simmering racial tension, which comes to a head and culminates in tragedy on the hottest day of the year. The film features Lee, Danny Aiello, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Joie Lee, Richard Edson, Giancarlo Esposito, Bill Nunn, John Turturro, Martin Lawrence, and Rosie Perez. Mookie played by Spike works at Sal's Famous which is owned by the Italian Aiello, even though it is located in Bed-Stuy a black neighborhood in Brooklyn. The film depicts several characters in the neighborhood who represent various aspects of life and allows the film to deal with issues of race, class, and gentrification. Spike Lee has a unique vision and uses a colorful palette and a strong use of music, including Fight The Power by Public Enemy, to create a film that is funky and dynamic, and mixes drama and comedy into a powerful portrait of an America where these issues are still being wrestled with in our society.

Saturday, January 28, 2012


Before the advent of video and digital technology there was and underground film movement working in 8mm, Super 8, and 16mm who made non-narrative experimental personal films in direct opposition to the big budget Hollywood narratives. Stan Brakhage was one of the most important figures of this movement that thrived in the 1960s and 70s. Over the course of five decades he created a large and diverse body of work, exploring various formats and techniques that included handheld camerawork, painting directly onto celluloid, in-camera editing, multiple exposures, quick cutting, and scratching the film. He was interested in mythology and inspired by music, poetry, and visual phenomena, and his work dealt with the themes of birth, innocence, sexuality, and mortality. Brakhage had a singular vision and created films that were abstract, lyrical, and expressive.

Brakhage started making films in the 1950s and became friends with several artists including Maya Deren, Jonas Mekas, Joseph Cornell, and John Cage. He was influenced by them all and even collaborated with Cornell and used Cage's music on his first color film, In Between.

Anticipation of The Night (1958) retained the barest elements of narrative, but dispenses with the drama in order to capture raw experience. The script consisted of 16 concepts rather than specific shots. Where his earliest films approximated dreams, Anticipation of the Night captures the dreamlike quality of raw experience.

After struggling financially he took a job making industrial shorts to support his family. In 1958, his wife Jane gave birth tho their first of five children and Brakhage recorded the event for his 1959 film Window Water Baby Moving which was edited into a quick cutting montage of visual poetry.

In the 60s Brakhage started to receive some acclaim from Jonas Mekas who at that time was a film critic, but would eventually make films himself.

From 1961 to 1964, Brakhage created a series of 5 films known as the Dog Star Man cycle. It tells the story of a man climbing a mountain with his dog, but doesn't have a real narrative. The film is centered around the creation myth and uses images of a solar explosion, the surface of the moon, nude bodies, organs and tissues, scratches, and abstract flashes of light. Brakhage uses time-lapse, slow-motion, first-person shots, microscopic shots, multiple exposures, and archival footage to create his film. All of this flows past in 75 minutes of silence.

Another important film was Mothlight, which was made in 1963, which was a found foliage film composed of insects, leaves, and other natural elements sandwiched between two strips of film. The images dance and move past in seemingly random patterns, sometimes looking like the cutouts of Matisse.

After having his 16mm equipment stolen, Brakhage started working in the less expensive 8mm format and created a 30-part cycle of films known as Songs from 1964 to 1969. 23rd Psalm Branch was a response to the Vietnam War and its presentation in the mass media. This Song was 69 minutes in length, but some of the Songs were as short as 3 minutes. At this time he also started to teach at the Art Institute of Chicago.

In the 70s, Brakhage completed a set of three films inspired by public institutions in the city of Pittsburgh. The three films - Eyes, about the city police, Deus Ex, filmed in a hospital, and The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes, which depicted autopsys, were known as the Pittsburgh Trilogy. The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes (1971) is one of the most direct confrontations with death ever recorded on film. Brakhage filmed it during a visit to the morgue, and it depicts expositions of the brain and faces being peeled off like masks. It is one of the bluntest statements about the human condition ever made.

The Text of Light (1974) consists entirely of abstracted patterns of light photographed through a deep-green ashtray. This film reduces the cinematography to its essence, the influence of light on photographic emulsion, and anticipates his abstract films to come. In his later films Brakhage focused on painting, drawing, and scratching directly onto the surface of the film. He concentrates on the bare act of perception and recalls the paintings of the abstract expressionists like Pollock, Kline, Motherwell, and Rothko.

The Dante Quartet (1987) took six years to produce and is only eight minutes length as Brakhage painted directly on the emulsion of the film. It is based on Dante's  The Divine Comedy. Brakhage condenses into 8 visionary minutes what happened in the epic poem. Brakhage mixes elements of his own existence into the film as he was going through a breakup with his wife Jane at the time.

In the 70s and 80s, Brakhage taught at the University of Colorado and continued to make films until his death in 2003. He made both sound and silent works and collaborated with others including his colleague Phil Solomon.

Brakhage didn't want to film the world itself, but the act of seeing the world. He was interested in visual perception and the relationship between the moving image and how we perceive reality. His films were beautiful and poetic, and created a powerful emotional experience.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


DUKE ELLINGTON (1899-1974)

Ellington was the most important composer in the history of jazz. He was also a bandleader for more than 50 years and he used his band as a musical laboratory for his new compositions and shaped his writing specifically to showcase the talents of his bandmembers. He created a giant body of work that is still being assessed today. Ellington Uptown was originally released in 1953 with old favorites given extended treatments. These include Take the A Train, The Mooche, and Skin Deep where the young drummer Louis Bellson powered the band with his revolutionary double-bass drum technique. Another excellent session is  Money Jungle (1962) which is a trio meeting between Ellington, Charles Mingus, and the great drummer Max Roach.


Armstrong emerged in the 1920s as a virtuoso cornet and trumpet player, and had a huge impact on jazz by shifting the focus from collective improvisation to solo performance. He was also hugely influential as a singer with his deep and distinctive gravelly voice. The 20s groups The Hot Fives and The Hot Sevens made several groundbreaking recordings that were released by Columbia in the 1980s. Armstrong's beautiful tone, sense of swing, and innovative and melodic improvisations amazed his contemporaries and altered the future of jazz. He is joined by clarinetist Johnny Dodds, trombonist Kid Ory, pianist Lil Armstrong, and banjoist Johnny St. Cyr, who all make strong contributions. Other excellent recordings are Louis Armstrong Plays WC Handy that came out in 1954 and includes a nearly 9 minute version of St. Louis Blues, and Satch Plays Fats that came out the next year and features such classics as Honeysuckle Rose, Squeeze Me, and Ain't Misbehavin'.


Thelonious Sphere Monk had a totally unique improvisational style on the piano, and his compositions are full of dissonant harmonies and angular melodic twists. He also combined a highly percussive attack with abrupt and dramatic uses of silence and pauses. He contributed many tunes to the standard jazz repertoire, including Epistrophy, Round Midnight, Blue Monk, Straight, No Chaser, and Well, You Needn't. Monk is the second most recorded composer in jazz history after Ellington even though he only wrote 70 pieces compared to 1000 by the Duke. He made recordings for several labels including Riverside, Blue Note, Prestige, and Columbia. Brilliant Corners (1957) and Monk's Dream (1962) are two of the many excellent albums Monk produced. In 2005, Blue Note released a live 1957 recording from Carnegie Hall that featured John Coltrane.

CHARLIE PARKER (1920-1955)

Along with Ellington and Armstrong, Charlie (Bird) Parker was one of the most influential musicians in the history of jazz. He played a leading role in the development of bebop, that was characterized by fast tempos, virtuoso technique, and improvisation based on harmonic structure. Several of his songs became standards including Billie's Bounce, Anthropology, Ornithology, and Confirmation. He introduced revolutionary harmonic ideas including a tonal vocabulary employing new variants of altered chords and chord substitutions. His tone was clean and penetrating, but sweet and plaintive on ballads. He was also a great blues player. Parker was also an icon for the hipster subculture and the Beat Generation, personifying the conception of the jazz musician as an uncompromising artist and intellectual, rather than a popular entertainer. He played with and influenced many great musicians including Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis. 

CHARLES MINGUS (1922-1979)

Mingus was an excellent jazz composer and bassist. His compositions contained the hot and soulful feel of hard bop and drew heavily from black gospel music, free jazz, and classical music. He forged his own brand of music that fused tradition with unique and new realms of jazz. Mingus focused on collective improvisation and was influenced by the old New Orleans jazz parades where attention was played to how each band member interacted with the group as a whole. As a player, Mingus was a pioneer of the double bass technique. On May 15, 1953, Mingus joined Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Max Roach for a concert at Massy Hall in Toronto. This is considered one of jazz's finest live recordings and as the last document of Parker and Gillespie playing together. Mingus recorded many excellent albums for Atlantic, Columbia, and Impulse. One of the great jazz albums of all time is Mingus Ah Um which came out in 1959. It featured the classic compositions Goodbye Pork Pie Hat which was an elegy to Lester Young and Fables and Faubus which was a protest against segrationist Arkansas governor Orval Faubus. Other great tunes are the gospel influenced Better Git Hit In Your Soul and the killer Boogie Stop Shuffle.

JOHN COLTRANE (1926-1967)

John Coltrane was one of the most significant saxophonist of all time and along with Charlie Parker the most influential. In 1955, while living in Philadelphia he received a call from Miles Davis which lead to the forming of the first great Davis quintet. They recorded many influential albums in this period including Davis' first Columbia album 'Round About Midnight. Four other albums came out of two marathon recording sessions for Prestige in 1956. These records were titled Cookin', Relaxin', Workin', and Steamin'. The line-up was Davis on trumpet, Coltrane on tenor saxaphone, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums. Also at this time, Coltrane made several recordings for Prestige including Dakar and Soultrane, but the most important recording was made for Blue Note entitled Blue Train in 1957. 

Coltrane rejoined Davis in 1958 and took these innovations into the group that had now expanded into a sextet that included Cannonball Adderly and Bill Evans. This period produced the great album Milestones and one of the greatest and most innovative albums of all time Kind of Blue which experimented with modes - scale patterns other than major and minor. Coltrane as well as Adderly and Davis produce many distinguished solos on these albums and the group dynamics are amazing. 

Also in 1959, Coltrane recorded Giant Steps which was a watershed album and was one of his first albums for Atlantic. Giant Steps exemplifies Coltrane's melodic phrasing that came to be known as sheets of sound and features the use of a new harmonic concept that employed a peculiar set of chord progressions which often move in thirds and became a gateway into modern jazz improvisation. His playing was compressed with rapid runs cascading in hundreds of notes per minute. The ability to play over the Giant Steps/Coltrane cycle remains to this day one of the benchmark standards to which a jazz musician's improvising skill is measured. Giant Steps is also considered Coltrane's farewell to bebop. It contains the jazz standards Naima, Giant Steps, Cousin Mary, and Countdown. 

My Favorite Things was also a great Coltrane album on Atlantic and it included McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and Steve Davis on bass. It clearly marked Coltrane's change from bebop to free and modal jazz. The album introduces complex harmonic reworkings of the jazz standards My Favorite Things and But Not For Me, and Coltrane played the soprano saxaphone at a time when it was used infrequently in jazz. The title track is a modal rendition of the famous Rodgers and Hammerstein song from the Sound of Music. The melody is heard several times in the 14-minute version, with both Tyner and Coltrane taking extended solos over vamps of the two tonic chords, E minor and E major. Tyner's solo is famous for being extremely chordal and rhythmic,  as opposed to developing melodies. Coltrane turned the populist song into a hypnotic eastern dervish dance.

In 1961, Coltrane's contract with Atlantic was bought out by the newly formed Impulse! Records. At this time a second horn player Eric Dolphy joined the group. The quintet had a residency at the Village Vanguard in November 1961, and it demonstrated Coltrane's new direction. The stint was extensively recorded and it featured Coltrane's most experimental music up to this point. This new sound was influenced by Indian ragas, and the recent developments in the modal and free jazz movements. This new approach to jazz which was also being played by Ornette Coleman and Dolphy was perplexing and controversial and was not universally accepted by jazz critics.  Eventually, Impulse would release the Complete Village Vanguard Sessions and the music is radical, intense, and powerful, and includes the amazing tunes Impressions, India, and Chasin' The Trane.

The most famous record on Impulse was A Love Supreme which came out in 1964. Coltrane struggled with drug addiction and was inspired to write A Love Supreme after a near overdose in 1957 which lead him to a more spiritual existence. The album also melds the earlier hard bop influence with the more free and modal jazz style of his later periods. The album is a four-part suite - Acknowledgement, Resolution, Pursuance, and Psalm. It is representative of a personal struggle for purity and there is both a gospel and eastern quality to the music. There is a four-note motif that structures the entire movement. Coltrane solos upon variations of the motif and at one point repeats the four notes over and over in different modulations.

John Coltrane produced an amazing and ever-evolving music in a relatively short period of time. He explored the saxophone to its full effect and influenced all musicians who encountered his music and innovative and powerful style. There were many great musicians who played with him and went on to create their own work including McCoy Tyner, Eric Dolphy, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, and Alice Coltrane.

MILES DAVIS (1926-1991)

Miles Davis was one of the greatest and most influential musicians of the 20th Century. He was at the forefront of several major developements in Jazz, including Bebop, Cool Jazz, Hard Bop, Modal Jazz, and Jazz Fusion. Many great players rose to prominence as members of his groups including John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Gerry Mulligan, Wayne Shorter, Horace Silver, Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Joseph Zawinul, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, John McLaughlin, Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Dave Holland, Philly Joe Jones, Jimmy Cobb, Tony Williams, and Jack DeJohnette.

In March and April 1959, Davis recorded what is widely considered his magnum opus and one of the most influential and popular Jazz albums of all time - Kind Of Blue. The line up included the pianist Bill Evans who along with Davis was interested in the modal jazz of George Russell. They prepared harmonic frameworks for the compositions that gave space for the improvisations. Both Coltrane and Adderly take amazing solos on Kind of Blue. The line-up also included Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums, as well as Wynton Kelly on Freddy Freeloader. The other four classics on this album are So What, All Blues, Blue In Green, and Flamenco Sketches.

In 1965, the second great quintet came together featuring Wayne Shorter on sax, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. They did a live performance at the Plugged Nickel in Chicago, where they played many of Miles' standards but broke away from the original framework of the songs and played them at a break-neck tempo. This recording wasn't released until many years later. During this period the group released several studio albums including ESP, Miles Smiles, Sorcerer, and Nefertiti. Shorter and Hancock were now writing some of the compositions and the band was known for its freebop or time no changes approach to improvisation. They abandoned the more conventional chord-change-based approach of Bebop for a Modal approach.

Miles Davis constantly changed and he had become aware of the music of Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, and James Brown. He expanded his band with more players and incorporated funk and acid rock into the jazz, which led to a new music called Jazz Fusion. He added Joseph Zawinul and the guitarist John McLaughlin and produced the stunningly beautiful In A Silent Way, followed by the intense and groundbreaking Bitches Brew. This music was controversial and shocking for jazz purists. There are amazing solos, but now they are taking place within long form grooves of layered shifting funk. Davis had also become aware of the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen which led to this new music that was a heavy, dark, intense, and space-like.

Other recordings from this period include Jack Johnson where McLaughlin shines, On The Corner, Dark Magus, Get Up With It, Agharta, Pangaea, and The Cellar Door Sessions that included great work by McLaughlin on guitar and Keith Jarrett on keyboards, and some unique and intensely emotional sax solos by Gary Bartz.


Coleman was one of the major innovators of the free jazz movement of the 1960s. He plays saxophone, violin, and trumpet, and composes most of his own music which has a distinct crying sound that draws heavily from blues music. In 1959, Coleman put a group together with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins and released the groundbreaking The Shape of Jazz To Come. The music is loosely blues based and often quite melodic, but the compositions are harmonically unusual and unstructured. The album laid down the gauntlet and provoked controversy as some were not ready for this new sound, which didn't use a piano and allowed for simultaneous improvisation without any recognizable chord structure.
The album contains the haunting Lonely Woman and the classic Congeniality. His next record Change of the Century is every bit the equal of the monumental first album. The group's chemistry is more developed making for even freer improvisations. Ramblin' has all of the swing and swagger of the blues, and Una Muy Bonita is oddly disjointed and starts and stops in unexpected places. The title cut is a frantic, way-out mixture of cascading lines that clash with brief stabs of notes and jarring angular intervals. Later in 1960, Coleman released Free Jazz which featured a double quartet, which included Cherry, Freddie Hubbard, Eric Dolphy, Haden, Scott LaFaro, and both Higgins and Ed Blackwell. At nearly 40 minutes it was the lengthiest recorded continuous jazz performance to date. The music features a regular but complex pulse - one drummer playing straight, while the other played double-time, topped with a series of brief, dissonant fanfares. Coleman wasn't totally comfortable with the term free jazz as much of his music was highly composed while leaving room for improvisation. Coleman would go on to many other explorations including using strings, and incorporating electric rock and funk elements into his later work. 

RALPH TOWNER (born 1940)

Towner plays many instruments but is mostly known as a great classical and 12-string guitar player. He has had a rich and varied solo career and has collaborated with many other great jazz artists including Gary Burton, John Abercrombie, Egberto Gismonti, Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Gary Peacock, Paul Winter, Weather Report, and his own group Oregon. Towner is classically trained and eschews amplification and tends to avoid high-volume musical environments, preferring small groups with mostly acoustic instruments that emphasize dynamics and group interplay. He is highly influenced by the style of the jazz pianist Bill Evans. Towner was one of the early ECM recording artists along with Keith Jarrett and Jan Garbarek. In the early 70s he released several records including Trios/Solos with fellow Oregon bassist Glen Moore, a solo album called Diary, and a great collaboration with Gary Burton called Matchbook. In 1975, he released the beautiful album Solstice that was a quartet effort which included Jan Garbarek on Sax, Eberhard Weber on Bass, and Jon Christensen on Drums. The other members of Oregon were Moore, Paul McCandless, and the late Colin Walcott, and they released several recordings during the 70s and 80s. Towner has also produced many solo albums which include Solo Concert (1979), Ana (1997),  Anthem (2001), and Time Line (2006). I had the honor of seeing him perform solo at Carnegie Hall in 2006, where he played an incredible set which included the great song Solitary Woman from Anthem. A recent recording Chiaroscuro is a collaboration with the trumpet and flugelhorn player Paolu Fresu and again I witnessed their performance at the Italian Institute at Columbia University. Ralph Towner is a virtuoso player who also creates beautiful and emotionally moving music.

KEITH JARRETT (born 1945)

Jarrett is one of the most significant pianists to emerge since the 1960s. He gained international fame with his solo concerts, which found him improvising all of the music without any prior planning, but he also led a couple of dynamic quartets in the 70s. He has also recorded classical music and still leads a classic trio that mostly plays standards. Early on, he worked with Art Blakey, Charles Lloyd, and Miles Davis where his most significant contribution can be found on The Cellar Door Sessions. After working with Davis he gave up electric keyboards and devoted himself to the acoustic piano, although on some recordings he also played the soprano sax. He started releasing his own recordings in the late 60s with a trio that included Charlie Haden and Paul Motian. They added Dewey Redman on sax and produced several excellent quartet albums on Impulse including Treasure Island and Death and The Flower in the mid-70s. Jarrett's first album for the German label ECM was Facing You which was an excellent studio effort, and opened the door for his live solo performances to come. These include Bremen/Lausanne in 1973, The Koln Concert in 1975, and the monumental Sun Bear Concerts from Japan in 1976. All of these records  are amazing as they seamlessly morph between various styles including melodic jazz, abstract and free jazz, blues, ragtime, and eastern minimalism. Often a simple figure develops through repetition and subtle variation into a rather complex sequence and eventually evolves into a new figure. During this period Jarrett was also working with his European quartet that included Jan Garbarek, Palle Danielson, and Jon Christensen, and he also produced other experimental projects such as In The Light, Luminessence, and Arbour Zena. In the mid-80s he started working with the bassist Gary Peacock and the drummer Jack DeJohnette and has produced many albums of standards, although one of my favorite records is Changless (1992) where they take an improvisational approach akin to Jarrett's solo work. Over the decades Jarrett has continued to produce classical albums, more records with the trio, and still performs live solo concerts, now creating several shorter pieces in his playing. Other great solo albums include Dark Intervals (1988), Paris Concert (1990), Vienna Concert (1991), La Scala (1997), Radiance (2005), The Carnegie Hall Concert (2006), Paris/London (2009), and Rio (2011).


Braxton is a multi-reedist and composer who takes jazz's essential rhythmic and textural elements and combines them with all manner of experimental compositional techniques, from graphic and non-specific notation to serialism and multimedia. His theoretical approach to composing jazz had as much in common with late 20th century classical music as jazz and thus alienated many and caused him to become a controversial figure. By combining jazz's visceral components with contemporary classical music's formal and harmonic methods, Braxton has created a music of enormous sophistication with a totally unique and original vision. In the late 60s, Braxton joined the Association of Creative Musicians (AACM) which also included Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. In 1968, Braxton released the first-ever recording for solo sax entitled For Alto. He also formed a trio with the violinist Leroy Jenkins and the trumpeter Leo Smith. He also lived in Paris for a while and recorded with Chick Corea, Dave Holland, and Barry Altschul. Holland and Altschul continued playing with Braxton back in New York in the 70s and this is where he created some of his most important work on several recordings for the label Arista. These included New York Fall 1974 and Five Pieces 1975, and Creative Music Orchestra which uses a large orchestra. At times Kenny Wheeler (trumpet) and George Lewis (trombone) would play on the recordings of this period. In the late 70s Braxton did a solo saxophone tour of Europe and I was lucky enough to see the performance in Dusseldorf in March 1979. There are recordings available from Koln and Milano. He also has released recordings of jazz standards - although sometimes with a strong avant-garde bent such as his version of Goodbye Pork Pie Hat on In The Tradition. In the 1980s Braxton formed a quartet with the pianist Marilyn Crispell, the bassist Mark Dresser, and the drummer Gerry Hemingway. He also made many live recording collaborations, including ones with the legendary drummer Max Roach, avant-garde guitarist Derek Bailey, and electronic pioneer Richard Teitelbaum, and guitarist Fred Frith. He continues to produce compositions for both small and large scale instrumentation.

JOHN ZORN (born 1953)

Zorn is the ultimate post-modern musical artist. He is an avant-garde composer, arranger, producer, and saxophonist and has created hundreds of albums in a variety of genres including jazz, rock, hardcore punk, classical, extreme metal, klezmer, film soundtrack, and improvised music. Zorn feels that all of the styles are organically connected and the entire storehouse of his knowledge informs the work he does. He established himself in the downtown music movement in the mid-70s. Two of his most well-known projects are Naked City which produces punk jazz, and Masada which in various forms produces jazz and classical work influenced by klezmer and traditional Jewish music. He also created compositions which included game pieces which involved prompters and flashcards and melded structure and improvisation into a seamless fashion. A major early album for Zorn was The Big Gundown which is based around the music of Ennio Morricone where he created radical arrangements of the songs from the Roman composer's themes. Spy vs Spy (1989) featured hardcore punk-informed interpretations of Ornette Coleman's music. Over the decades Zorn has produced many works that are highly experimental and make use of elements from various genres. He also started his own label Tzadik that has produced the music of many other exciting musical artists including Bill Laswell, Derek Bailey, Dave Douglas, Erik Friedlander, Wayne Horvitz, Ikue Mori, Zeena Parkins, and Mark Ribot. The label is dedicated to releasing the best in avant garde and experimental music, presenting a world-wide community of artists who find it difficult to release their music by conventional channels. Many of the Masada albums are my favorites by Zorn. These include Bar Kokhba which came out in 1996 and contains music that is beautiful, spacious, and elegant, and any of the Electric Masada recordings including At The Mountain of Madness which contains live recordings from Europe. These works combine a raw improvisational edge and a spiritual lyricism into a music that is powerful and moving.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012



The Catcher In The Rye was one of the first novels to make a major impact upon me when I first read its as a teenager. It was published for adults but because of its themes of teenage confusion, angst, and rebellion it has become popular with younger readers. It also deals with more complex issues such as identity, alienation, and belonging. It is written in the first person, narrated by Holden Caulfield, who addresses the reader directly from a mental hospital in California. He tells of events that took place in the recent past, back at his home in New York, in a long flashback frame story. Holden is at times disaffected, disgruntled, isolated, directionless, and sarcastic. He sees the hypocrisy and phoniness of the adult world. The Catcher In The Rye captures the confusion and problems of adolescence more than any other novel in American literature.


Samuel Beckett is known more as a groundbreaking playwright, with Waiting For Godot as his acknowledged masterpiece, but in the early 50s he published a trilogy of very important novels. After the death of his parents, Beckett was plagued by depression and came to believe that existence was dark and futile. Plagued by his own personal demons, The Trilogy is an exercise in withdrawal. He has mastered the art of nothingness and uses a reduced expression and absurdity to illuminate the illusions that we hide under as opposed to facing the awful truth. Beckett rejects narrative convention yet his writing is still interesting and moving and his prose contains a bare hypnotic rhythm.


Invisible Man addresses many of the social and intellectual issues facing African-Americans in the early 20th century, including black nationalism, and issues of individuality and personal identity. The book is narrated in the first person by an unnamed protagonist, an African-American man who considers himself socially invisible. He looks back at his past from his underground basement apartment and from this perspective attempts to make sense out of his life, experiences, and position in American society. The novel is written in an open style that incorporates symbolism and improvisation as Ellison wanted the book to have a musical rhythm. The narrator passes through a range of violent and tragic experiences and in the end is ready to resurface and find his way into society.


Lolita tells the story of Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged literature professor who becomes obsessed with, and has a sexual relationship with his 12-year-old stepdaughter Dolores Haze who he nicknames Lolita. Humbert is an unreliable narrator and the book uses a style of fragmented memories and sophisticated prose to render the controversial story. At times he tries to gain the reader's sympathy through his sincerity and melancholoy, but near the end of the story he acknowledges that his actions have been wrong. The novel is a tragic and comedic, and the narrative is full of word play and Humbert' s wry observations of American culture. The novel's flamboyant style is characterized by double entendres, multilingual puns, anagrams, and coinages such as "nymphet." Lolita is a beautifully written book about a disturbing and tragic situation.


Junky was Burroughs first published novel and has come to be considered the seminal text on the lifestyle of heroin addicts in the early 1950s. Burroughs speaks as an eyewitness reporting on the feelings, actions, and characters he meets in the criminal fringe of New York, New Orleans, Mexico City, and a Federal Narcotics Hospital/Prison in Lexington, Kentucky. The book presents a detailed account of a drug addict's passage into the seedy underworld, the search and suffering for a fix, and characters he encounters in the process. Burroughs immerses the reader into the world of the addicted. Junky is told in clear, calm, and precise prose and has a hard boiled style. The narrator is intelligent and recognizes the risk he is taking by using narcotics, but also shows the control the drug has on the user. He acknowledges guilt about his predicament and doesn't elicit sympathy from the reader. Junky simply lays out the facts of a world that most would rather ignore. It doesn't glamorize drugs, but doesn't condemn the addict either. Junky is a testimony to a hard way of life, but in the process exposes society's ignorance, intolerance, exploitation, and hypocrisy about the issue. The book is also about a man's attempt to deal with his addiction and change his life. Junky displays Burroughs acute graphic description and shows flashes of his originality that would manifest in his later works starting with Naked Lunch.


I read On The Road when I was young and it had a major impact and influence upon me. It is clear, poetic, raw, and written with an enthusiasm for life. It is a story of a passionate friendship and a search for revelation. Kerouac takes us through the highs and lows of hitchhiking and bonding with fellow travellers. On The Road expresses the restless energy and desire for freedom that makes people rush out and see the world. It is a cross-country bohemian odyssey that not only influenced writing in the years after its publication but also penetrated into the deepest levels of American thought and culture. It is one of the defining works of the Beat Generation that was inspired by jazz, poetry, and experimentation with drugs. It is a work of fiction but many of the characters are based on real-life people and friends of Kerouac's including Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs. The myth is that Kerouac wrote On The Road in a three week period in 1951, typing continuously onto a 120-foot roll of teletype paper. This is true to a certain extent, but Kerouac had kept notebooks on his road trips from which he worked. He had actually started an earlier version in 1948 based on his first long road trip in 1947. Neal Cassady wrote him a 1000-word rambling letter in 1950 that inspired Kerouac to outline the "essentials of spontaneous prose" and tell the story of his years on the road. He wanted the novel to be like a letter written to a friend in a form that reflected the improvisational fluidity of jazz. The first draft was then produced on the roll in 3 weeks in April 1951. Over the next several years revisions were made and sections omitted and inserted, before it was finally published in 1957.


Another Country tells the story and details the bohemian lifestyle of musicians, writers, and artists living in Greenwich Village in the late 1950s. It was groundbreaking for its portrayal of taboo themes such as bisexuality and interracial couples. The first section of the book is incredibly powerful as it tells the story of the downfall of Rufus Scott an African-American man who gets involved with Leona a white woman from the south. The relationship becomes serious and eventually Leona is committed to a mental hospital, leaving Rufus depressed and headed towards a tragic end. Rufus' friends have trouble dealing with his death. One of them Vivaldo, a writer, gets involved with Rufus' sister Ida, but the relationship is strained by racial tension and Ida's bitterness about her brother's death. Another Country documents the tension and complexity of living a world that is both racially and sexually diverse. 


In 1984 I moved to the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. I lived at the corner of Broadway and Wythe, just a block away from the bridge. The neighborhood was just starting to change. Prostitutes roamed the area and burned out cars were littered around the neighborhood. Heroin could be purchased a few blocks away and there was an occasional drug related murder. It was at this time that I noticed a book in the stores called Last Exit To Brooklyn by Hubert Selby, Jr. I read it and was hooked. The writings of Selby documented a Brooklyn that was now disappearing and he captured it with a hard, blunt, streetwise prose. Selby had no formal training but used the raw language of his youth to narrate the bleak and violent world that he had grown up in. He was not concerned with proper grammar, punctuation, or diction although there is a consistency to his work. In a sense he invented his own punctuation. Like Kerouac, he wrote in a fast, spontaneous, stream of consciousness style and replaced apostrophes with forward slashes. He did not use quotation marks and whole paragraphs of dialogue would not have and identified speaker. Last Exit To Brooklyn started out as a series of short stories and would later be connected into a novel. His prose is stripped down and bare. His writings exhibited his experience with longshoremen, the homeless, thugs, pimps, transvestites, prostitutes, queers, addicts, and the overall poverty-stricken community. 


The Painted Bird is a crystal clear depiction of man's inhumanity as it describes the world of a young Jewish boy who wanders through Central and Eastern Europe during WWII. The boy encounters many violent and disturbing events including all forms of sexual and social deviance such as incest, bestiality, and rape. The title comes from a scene where a bird catcher paints one of the birds in several colors. He releases it, so it can find its flock, but when it does the other birds attack and kill the painted bird and it falls from the sky. The book became very controversial because many felt Kosinski pushed the book as being based on his own experiences, but wasn't so in reality. It is also accused of being unfair to the Polish peasants depicted in the book. In the end, The Painted Bird is a novel, a work of fiction, and is written in a clear and powerful prose that makes a strong statement about the horrors of existence.


Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death combines elements of autobiography and science fiction and makes an anti-war statement while being both funny and tragic. Vonnegut was a soldier and prisoner of war during WWII. He was captured during the Battle of the Bulge was sent to Dresden, and  experienced and survived the fire bombing of the city in February, 1945. Slaughterhouse-Five was the name the Allied POWs adopted for the name of their prison. Vonnegut recalls that the remains of the city resembled the surface of the moon and the surviving POWs were put to work gathering the bodies of the dead civilians. Their remains were incinerated into ashes by German troops using flamethrowers. The book explores fate, free will, and the illogical nature of human beings. The central character, Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time, randomly experiencing the events of his life. This allows Vonnegut to create a non-linear narrative where Billy travels both forward and backwards in time, where he experiences past and future events out of sequence. These events include his war experiences, his mundane life after the war as an optometrist in Ilium, New York, his survival of an airplane crash, and his life on Tralmafadore a planet where he has been taken by extraterrestial aliens. The book is an early example of a postmodern or metafictional novel. It combines autobiographical elements from Vonnegut's life with science fiction ideas. While it is clearly written, it is disjointed and discontinuous, giving it an overall structure of disorder. It is a beautiful book that makes a strong statement about the absurdity of existence.


Crash was shocking and controversial as it is about symphorophilia in which sexual arousal hinges on the staging and watching of a disaster such as a fire or in this case auto accidents. The characters in Crash have a sexual obsession with car crashes. The narrator is James Ballard, but it centers on the sinister figure of Vaughan a former TV scientist, turned nightmare angel of the expressways. Ballard meets Vaughan after being involved in an auto crash near the London Airport. Vaughan leads a group of alienated former crash victims, who follow his pursuit to re-enact  the crashes of celebrities, and to experience a new sexuality born from a perverse technology. Vaughan's ultimate fantasy is to die in a head-on collision with the movie star Elizabeth Taylor. Crash explores such themes as the transformation of human psychology by modern technology, and consumer culture's fascination with celebrities and technological commodities. The characters in Crash are cold and passionless and cannot be sexually aroused unless some form of technology is involved. Car crashes are not shocking but seen as a form of liberation to explore new sexual possibilities. JG Ballard was a literary surrealist whose dreamlike narratives explored the darker areas of outer and inner space with a literary beauty and a psychological intensity.  


The Executioner's Song depicts the real-life events surrounding the execution of Gary Gilmore by the state of Utah for murder. It is based entirely on interviews with the family and friends of both Gilmore and his victims and takes a journalistic approach that was pioneered by Mailer in his earlier works and by Truman Capote with his book - In Cold Blood. The book is over 1000 pages long, but is riveting and fascinating in its dissection of the crime, the background of the killer, and the legal process that comes after. It also opened further debate about capital punishment.


Philip K. Dick wrote novels and short stories that questioned the nature of reality. His work often became surreal fantasies, as the main character within the narrative discovers that the everyday world is actually an illusion constructed by powerful external entities or vast political conspiracies. All of his work starts with the premise that there cannot be one, single, objective reality. Everything is a matter of perception. The ground may shift under your feet. A character may find himself living in another person's dream, or he may enter a drug-induced state that makes more sense than the real world. The protagonist may cross into another parallel reality or a completely different universe. He explored sociological, political, and metaphysical themes in his novels dominated by authoritarian governments and corporate monopolies. He often drew on his own experiences and in his later work addressed the nature of drug abuse, paranoia, schizophrenia, and mysticism. In February 1974, Philip K. Dick was recovering from the extraction of an impacted wisdom tooth in which he was given sodium pentothal. He answered his door to receive a delivery of more medication from the local drugstore. He noticed the delivery woman was wearing a pendant with a symbol that consisted of two intersecting arcs delineating a fish in profile. Vesicas Piscis was a secret symbol used by early Christians. After the woman left, Dick started experiencing strange visions. He described the initial visions as laser beams and geometric patterns, with pictures of Jesus and ancient Rome. He would see ancient Rome superimposed on California and felt that perhaps he was experiencing two separate realities at the same time. He believed he was living a double life - one as himself, Philip K. Dick, and one as Thomas, a Christian persecuted by Romans in the 1st century A.D. In Valis, a group of religious seekers forms to explore the visions of Horselover Fat. The group ends up on a rock musician's estate where they confront the Messiah: a two-year old named Sophia. She confirms their suspicions that an ancient, mechanical intelligence orbiting the earth that has been sending them information in the form of a pink laser light. It is written in a direct autobiographical style based on these strange experiences that Dick was having in his life.


The work of Charles Bukowski is mostly set in Los Angeles where he grew up and lived most of his life. Bukowski's writing covers the ordinary lives of the poor, the working class, the down and out, and the oppression and drudgery of work. He inserted his alter-ego and anti-hero Henry Chinaski into his autobiographical fiction and documented his struggle to be a writer through conflicted relationships with women, heavy drinking, and the constant struggle for money. He writes in a clear, paired down style and was influenced by Hemingway and John Fante. Ham On Rye tells the coming-of-age story of Henry Chinaski in Los Angeles during the Great Depression. Bukowski does not idealize LA., but instead reveals the mundane unglamorous underbelly of living in Hollywood. The novel covers the period from childhood to young adulthood and ends with a major American historical event. Bukowski was an outsider since youth as he was socially inept, withdrawn, and had a severe case of acne. He also had a bad and violent relationship with his father. Ham on Rye covers this and his struggles with the forces around him that try to make him conform. Chinaski is nasty at times, but the world around him is even more repulsive. He becomes a sarcastic loner and resorts to cultivating a tough guy image and using alcohol to deal with the world. It all sounds grim, but there is an element of humor that exists in all of Bukowski's work.


The Lover is an autobiographical novel set against the backdrop of French colonial Vietnam. The book reveals the intimacies and complexities of a clandestine romance between an adolescent girl from a financially-strapped French family and an older, wealthy Chinese man. They meet on a ferry crossing the Mekong Delta and he gives her a ride in his limousine to her boarding school. The girl is the daughter of a bankrupt, manic depressive widow and is newly awakened by the reality that she will have to make her own way in the world. Thus she becomes his lover, until his disapproving father causes him to break it off. The book is written in the first person by the girl as she looks back at her life. She never questioned the depth and sincerity of his love, but takes her a long time to acknowledge her true feelings. The Lover is written in a clear, minimal prose that renders a powerful and beautiful story of love.


The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is Murakami's work that fuses his realistic and fantastic themes. The book is more socially conscious than his previous work, and deals with the difficult topic of war crimes in Manchuria. The book contains a lot of violence, but also expands Murakami's palette. The central character is a low-key unemployed man who loses his cat. A chain of events follow that prove that his seemingly mundane boring life is more complicated than it appears. There are many memorable characters and many flashbacks to the past. Like all of Murakami's work the novel is beautiful, strange, humurous, and at times disturbing. The books of Haruki Murakami explore the effects of prolonged loneliness, growing up emotionally stunted in an overwhelmingly conformist society, and the conflict of following one's dreams and losing them to assimilate into society. Many of his plots remain deliberately unsolved. True knowledge is elusive. There is also a gap between characters perceptions and what actually happens. All of this is included in a stark, beautifully written prose that is both funny and tragic. Other wonderful works by Murakami include Norwegian Wood, South of the Border, West of the Sun, Kafka on The Shore, and the recent 1Q84.


American Tabloid chronicles three rogue American law enforcement officers from November 22, 1958 through November 22, 1963. Each character gets entangled in a web of associations between the Mafia, the CIA, and the FBI, which leads to their involvement in the assassination of JFK. It is the first book in The Underworld USA Trilogy, with the others being The Cold Six Thousand, and the final book Blood's A Rover. Each chapter is told in the third-person by one of the three characters and the 100 chapters are interspersed with document inserts reproducing newspaper clippings, letters, and transcripts of telephone calls. Flashbacks occur, but only in the present tense memory of the protagonists. Ellroy writes in a clipped hard-boiled prose style and paints a portrait of America that was built on racism, murder, and corruption. He's written other excellent novels including The Black Dahlia and LA Confidential, and also a non-fiction book about the murder of his own mother (My Dark Places) that led him into a life obsession with crime. Destination Morgue is both a disturbing and hilarious collection of non-fiction and Hollywood Nocturnes is a good collection of short stories. Ellroy's body of work is a critique of how power is attained through corruption in America.


Underworld is a novel that spans 41 years of American life and incorporates baseball, Lenny Bruce, J. Edgar Hoover, nuclear test sites, and the New York Giants beating the Brooklyn Dodgers on Bobby Thompson's infamous home run at the Polo Grounds in 1951. Underworld's first 60 pages describe this event in amazing detail. The Soviets had nuclear bomb tests on the same day and both stories played out in the newspapers the next day. The baseball that Thompson hit appears throughout the novel and ties the various sections together. There is another great descriptive passage by DeLillo of the Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island. The title came to DeLillo as he thought about the radioactive waste below the ground. The waste and byproducts of history are constantly dissected and discussed throughout the novel and resurface from the underworld, or subconscious of the American people who would rather bury the things they don't want to confront. DeLillo has written many interesting novels including White Noise, Libra, Mao II, Falling Man, and the monastic Point Omega.


The Road is a story of the journey of a father and son across a grim post-apocalyptic landscape, after a major unexplained cataclysm has destroyed civilization and most life on earth. The landscape is gray and full of ash and devoid of living animals and vegetation. Many of the remaining survivors have resorted to crime and cannibalism to survive. The boy's mother gave up hope and committed suicide in the past. They head south trying to find a more livable environment, but in the end their situation doesn't improve much. Written with a direct, clean, and poetic prose, McCarthy creates a world that is haunting and emotionally shattering. Other good novels by McCarthy include All The Pretty Horses, Blood Meridian, and No Country For Old Men.


Invisible is a series of intertwined love stories told in a elegant and poetic prose, with a young man named Adam Walker at the center. Adam learns about love from four very different characters. There is Rudolph Born, the father figure, who is a professor who is connected to a vague, sinister intelligence underworld. There is Born's lover, a beautiful Frenchwomen named Margot, who is the classic older instructor of the eager young pupil. In Paris, Adam meets Cecile who falls in love with him, but he does not feel the same way. And then there is his sister Gwyn. There are stories within stories and various narrators and points of view. Something may happen and may then be contradicted. Auster has always played with structural technique in his works, but here he combines it with a great story of emotional depth that is beautiful and a pleasure to read. Other interesting novels by Auster include Man In The Dark, Oracle Night, The Brooklyn Follies, The Book of Illusions, Leviathan, and the New York Trilogy.