Saturday, June 14, 2014

Internet Abuzz over New Book on Tumultous Birth of Joyce's Ulysses

A new book detailing the creation and tumultuous publishing history of Ulysses has James Joyce in the media spotlight moreso than I can ever remember. Harvard professor Kevin Birmingham has been earning heaps of positive praise for his new work The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses published by Penguin Press. I received my copy yesterday and find myself zooming through it already. It's very smoothly written and presents an engrossing narrative.

Despite eventually being considered the greatest novel of the 20th Century and one of the most important books in the English language, Ulysses had a hell of a time being born. Before Joyce had even completed it, literary magazines which had been publishing excerpts were burned by post offices and their editors prosecuted on obscenity charges. Publishing houses wouldn't come near it, so the first edition of Ulysses was actually published by a small bookstore in Paris. It was a crime to own Ulysses in the English-speaking world for over a decade, leading some fervent devotees to chop the book into pieces and tape it to their bodies to be smuggled across borders. And the book only became legal after lengthy courtroom battles.

Adding to all that drama, Joyce suffered terribly from eye diseases during the book's seven-year creation, underwent many eye surgeries without anesthetics, and bounced around multiple cities with his family as World War I began. 

It certainly makes a fascinating story and, from what the reviews are saying, Kevin Birmingham has nailed it in his new book.

I'll have more to say about it once I've completed The Most Dangerous Book but for now you may want to check out some of the attention it's been receiving.

Publishers Weekly writes:
"Drawing upon extensive research, Birmingham skillfully converts the dust of the archive into vivid narrative, steeping readers in the culture, law, and art of a world forced to contend with a masterpiece."
The Washington Post actually calls it "a page-turner"! (Same with the Telegraph: "Kevin Birmingham has a deep love of the novel, and knows everything about Joyce. His learned book is a gripping page-turner.)

Reviews in the Wall Street Journal, The Nation, CounterPunch, The Boston Globe, and The Chronicle of Higher Education praise the new book's fluid writing, thoroughly researched details, riveting courtroom drama, engaging narrative and enlightening perspective on the intensity of the era (first decades of the 20th century) in which suffragettes were blowing up buildings in London as they fought for voting rights and people were being put in prison for reading books that talked about sex.

Slate has a large feature on it, referring to Ulysses as "literary anarchy," as does The Economist which describes Birmingham's new book as "thrilling."

Library Journal has an interview with the author, here's his excellent summation of the book:

"I’d like to remind people that books are dangerous and powerful, and Ulysses is the perfect example of that. Female sexuality simply wasn’t something an author could write about—it seemed to be a force that could break marriages and families apart. Joyce confronted those fears directly. Beyond that, Ulysses seemed to overturn all traditions, standards, and codes—it violated all of the rules of literature. In a world that was already skittish about falling empires, the lionization of Ulysses among certain men and women of letters seemed to confirm that something was seriously wrong with Western civilization, that we had reached the end of something. And they were right.

This story revisits a time of upheaval and war as well as an explosion of popular culture, literacy rates, urbanization, and immigration—and these factors made books that could “deprave and corrupt” the public even more frightening. We forget about the power of books because we have newer technologies to worry about (the Internet and video games), but the written word is still the primary vehicle for unsettling ideas."

Some more info about the author:
Kevin Birmingham received his PhD in English from Harvard, where he is a lecturer in History & Literature and an instructor in the university’s writing program. His research focuses on twentieth-century fiction and culture, literary obscenity and the avant-garde. He was a bartender in a Dublin pub featured in Ulysses for one day before he was unceremoniously fired. This is his first book.
Part of the attention Birmingham's book has received concerns his assertions that Joyce had syphilis, leading to his blindness and other persistent illnesses. This had been speculated over the years (specifically in Kathleen Ferris' James Joyce and the Burden of Disease) but Birmingham's research has ostensibly proved this rumor to be true.

The Guardian published the piece on Joyce and syphilis followed shortly thereafter by another piece on Joyce in which award-winning Irish author Eimear McBride declares him "My hero" and argues:
Difficulty is subjective: the demands a writer makes on a reader can be perceived as a compliment, and Joyce certainly compliments his readers in what he asks of them.

Another recent piece on Joyce written by an Irishman is entitled "James Joyce: You Can't Ignore the Bastard" and is worth a read.

And, lastly, the archives of Vanity Fair have seen some of their old articles on Joyce resurface of late. Here is Djuna Barnes interviewing the author in Paris in 1922, the year Ulysses was published.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Album Reviews: Life Outside the Frame & The Living Daylights

When it comes to art, no matter the medium, what I tend to find most intriguing is the artist's style, their unique fingerprint. Creativity consists of focusing the luminescent energies of imagination through one's personal prism, bending that light into original forms and angles according to the curves of one's distinctive artistic style. In this way, the best artists tend to strike us with a distinguishable spectral pattern, within the defined framework of their medium of course.

Two recent hip hop albums have been in heavy rotation for me during the first half of the year, both featuring lyricists with strikingly unique styles. Ironically, the two artists are also nearly opposite from each other in their approaches. While the albums share some basic similarities---both being of the underground hardcore rap variety and both collaborative works between one emcee and one producer---one lyricist twirls out heavily-worded abstract bars with rapidity while the other utilizes conciseness, internal rhymes, pauses, and other crafty techniques. One album is loaded with no fewer than 17 multiple-verse tracks; the other is practically EP-length, a quick 35 minutes. Both are compelling in their own way.

Paranom & Purpose - Life Outside the Frame
On his debut album, Paranom shines with a sharp voice and mesmerizing flow. His verses are constant streams of elaborate wordplay and surrealist imagery strung together over the polished, crisp yet somehow rugged production of Purpose. This collaborative project is the latest release from the Massachusetts-based Tragic Allies crew (who I've written about before). These guys are purists, dedicated to the golden era format of hip hop as artwork and they've mastered the craft.

The fluid, precise delivery of dexterous rhymes is a noted specialty of the Tragic Allies contingent (such skills are all over last year's Golden Era Musical Sciences album) and newest member Paranom certainly excels at this, but what's most impressive is the vocabulary and surreal imagery in his unique lyrical arsenal. His raps reward repeated listens; honing in on the swiftly delivered lyrics reveals a rich array of obscure terms like "tetramorph" and "vesica piscis" weaved effortlessly in his writing. The verbal imagery is taken to truly hallucinatory heights in the somnolent track-length trips of "Bee Stings (Seraphémme)" which opens with envisioning "Rose petals pouring liquid steel" and my favorite track "Dreamz" where the second verse begins:

"Gettin' faded to explore the universe inside me
dreams confronted with the world crumblin' behind me
underwater with the sharks gnawin' on them bodies
with they teeth fall in speech codes and Hammurabi"

The lyricism alone stands out on Life Outside the Frame but what makes this album so replayable is the full-length production from Purpose. His moody tones and heavy bassliness, occasionally enhanced with DJ scratches, create a cohesive sonic experience. The ostensible leader of the Tragic Allies crew, Purpose is proficient at making others sound good with his lively boom-bap loops. The poet Paranom's endless repertoire of original linguistics thus finds a perfect instrumental canvas to stretch out on and the combo yields potential classics like the mellifluous "Microphone Phenomenal" and the genuinely reflective "Dayz Go By".

Paranom stands out as an artist of limitless potential and talent, if perhaps only underground appeal because of the abstract language of his lyrics. Even if you didn't understand a single word of his verses though, his voice, flow and delivery simply sounds good over beats. Comprehending his words reveals an introspective, poetic intellectual artist who has created an album full of tough, rugged, raw hip hop while hardly uttering a curseword in his verses.

This is the best drop from the Tragic Allies camp thus far, already a personal classic, and Paranom already has a lot to live up to after such an impressive introduction.

Willie the Kid & Bronze Nazareth - The Living Daylights

While I had been aware of Willie the Kid for many years based on his name often popping up alongside his Wu-Tang-affiliated brother La the Darkman, I honestly was never compelled to seek out his work simply because of his generic name. Rappers with the appellation "The Kid" or "Young" or "Lil" are a dime a dozen and often the same can be said about their lyrics. A full collaboration with his fellow Grand Rapids, MI native and certified human factory of dope music, Bronze Nazareth, finally brought his work to my full attention. It became immediately apparent that Willie the Kid is a refreshingly unique and highly entertaining artist.  There's a brief line on "The Blitz" that sums up this effect perfectly:

"My abnormal rapportmy normal nomenclature
rare form for the art form"

A noted minimalist with a catalog full of acclaimed EPs and yet no full albums to date, Willie keeps his portions short, rich, and elegant much like an expensive meal. Appearing on 11 of the 13 tracks on The Living Daylights, he is often limited to one verse and his rhymes even feature lots of short bars.

Conciseness is part of the grand design though, as Willie's writing craft is a sophisticated and intricate one. His clearly enunciated verses are full of finesse and flourish. A true connoisseur of words, he calls himself "a thinking man's rapper" and indeed the thinking man will be satiated not only by Willie's wordsmithery but also by the various subtle techniques he frequently employs in his rhyme structures like internal rhymes, pauses, and enjambments. The last part of his verse on "Avalon" is a good example of some of these tactics:

"I'm brave enough to be creative
but I acclimate like a native
trying to blend in with the cadence,
abide by the rules, fuck the latest
trend, I just came for the accolades
more time on important shit
it's money, assorted shit"

With his "normal nomenclature" comes the expectation that, like most generically-named rappers, he mostly raps (or brags) about wealth and material things. Indeed, Willie obviously has a taste for the finer things but with his respectable artistic pedigree he's kind of a paradox. He raps plenty about opulence, but he tends to keep it creative and original. An amusing example of this: his verses are littered with food. The listener mentally savors all kinds of exquisite cuisines, not to mention there are tracks called "Bless My Food" and "Breakfast in France". Reeling off the names of exotic locales is another favorite device: "The fly, I'm in Dubai hittin' sand dunes/ or in Japan on the bullet train, Cancun."

So impressed by Willie's output, I've yet to touch on Bronze's production (or the album's many guest appearances). Having now produced over a half-dozen front-to-back albums, the beat maestro Bronze Nazareth has gotten to be an expert at making a fully cohesive record and The Living Daylights is just the latest example. A true collaboration which bears the mark of Bronze all over it, there's a nice subtle Wu-Tang feel to the project. It even has a few well-placed kung-fu clips. The tracklist is punctuated by two earth-rattling bangers in "Fucking Blades" and the album's standout "Delirium" which, along with La the Darkman's vicious solo track "Ice Cold Guinness", will make any Wu head nod ecstatically. Beyond those formidable barrages, I've been enamored with the twisted up soul loops on "Coming From" and "Bless My Food".

For such a brief album it has plenty of guest appearances. These range from superb (Roc Marciano on "Avalon"; Sha Stimuli on "Delirium") to forgettable (Sun God on "Wu Babies"; Tekh Togo on "Bless My Food") and the latter is really the only unappealing factor about this project. Listening to the album over and over again, you're left with a hunger for more from Willie the Kid. And the sole rhyming appearance from Bronze on "Coming From" highlights a notably effective and potent contrast between the two lyricists that was evident on past Bronze/Willie collabs "Malcolm X Manuscripts" and "Farewell". Would've been nice to hear Bronze on the mic a little more in lieu of the uninitiated features. As it is though, the burgeoning star Willie the Kid can claim yet another entertaining and rich-in-replay-value record to his name.