Wednesday, May 23, 2018

"The Despair of Monkeys and Other Trifles" a Memoir by Françoise Hardy; Translated by Jon E. Graham (Feral House)

ISBN: 978-1-62731-060-4
Françoise Hardy, along with Serge Gainsbourg, France Gall, and of course her husband, Jacques Dutronc is one of the great architects of the French pop sound, sometimes known as Yé-Yé.   For an American, the French pop/rock world is almost like living in Superman's Bizarro, where everything is slightly different, or just a tad weird.  The French are very formal in the recording well, and there is also a deep respect for poetry, which comes through the lyrics.  Especially someone like a genius such as Gainsbourg.  "The Despair of Monkeys and Other Trifles" is a fascinating memoir, for one, we don't get that much of an insight into that world if we don't speak in French.  So, a book like this is essential to one who loves French 1960s pop music.  

Hardy's life is not unusual, but still a troubling family background.  Her mother was cold, and her sister was insane.  And her long-term relationship with Jacques Dutronc is both a head-scratcher and kind of awesome, in that they both respect their roles in the relationship - although it took Hardy a long time to accept certain aspects of her husband's mental and physical state.   In a cliché saying, it sounds so French!   In her manner, Hardy is very thorough on her stance in life, which is a mixture of sophistication and a believer of astrology, which she has written books on that subject matter, as well as a column in a publication.   I'm also delighted that she knew Stockhausen and appreciated his music and other modern experimental composers of that era, even at the height of her fame in the 1960s.  

Indeed an iconic beauty, but I'm not surprised of her unease with her physical appearance or her feelings of stage fright.  For me, the way she sings there is a hesitation like she wants to grant the listener an invitation into their lives.  Which I think is one of her big appeals as a singing artist and songwriter.   There's a hesitation in her manner that is very seductive.  Still, she was then, and I suspect still, a major player in French pop music world.  Reading the book, you come upon every significant French star - both on artists she worked or ran around with.   So the reader gets a nice snapshot of the scene at the time.  The French entertainment world was/is a small one, so I suspect it's difficult to avoid anyone of importance.  For example, even my beloved Louis Furey is mention here and there in the book, and he's obscure like a ghost in the English speaking world. 

If there is a weakness in the book, it may be within the English translation of Hardy's prose in French.  Reading the book, I feel like I'm reading a translation which usually means there is something wrong with the style of the translator.  Or it may be just Hardy's writing itself.  Still, if you are a fan of Hardy's music, this book is a must-read.  A few years ago I published Serge Gainsbourg's biography by Gilles Verlant, and this book is an excellent companion piece, due to the coverage of the French pop music world, which is a mystery to most French non-speaking people. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Joker on Tosh Talks





The Joker on Tosh Talks



My obsession with the great American fictional character The Joker.  The main villain for Batman/Bruce Wayne.  Visually based on "The Man Who Laughs," starring Conrad Veidt.   Here I riff through the idea of The Joker.  Both in my life and in the White House.  Tosh Berman, the host of Tosh Talks.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Adam Parfrey 1957 2018 on Tosh Talks





My thoughts and commentary on Adam Parfrey's Feral House and his importance as a publisher.  Also some personal observations on the issues of publishing and fathers. - Tosh Berman

To read my article I wrote on Adam for the L.A. Weekly go here:
http://www.laweekly.com/arts/publishing-provocateur-adam-parfrey-has-died-but-his-feral-works-live-on-9454557

Monday, May 7, 2018

"Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond" by Michael Nyman (Cambridge University Press)

ISBN: 0-521-65383-5
Even though it is only an illusion, but it seems that when John Cage walked into our room, the world has re-started in some fashion.  Cage is the stone that was thrown into the pond, and future experimental music came from those little ripples from that rock.   Michael Nyman, a great composer, by the way, wrote this book in 1974 at the height of Brian Eno's Obscure Records label, where he focused on the British wing of the musical avant-garde.   Before Nyman's work with filmmaker Peter Greenaway, he was acutely aware of the tradition of contemporary classical music and all its strange and beautiful routes it took through the later years of the 1940s to the publication date of this book.   In such a fashion the book appears to be a classic textbook on its subject matter, and Nyman is very much the instructor in taking the reader from point A to point B, and so forth.  Not one only gets the foundation of Cage, but also the works of Fluxus era composers up to the British talent such as Gavin Bryars, Christopher Hobbs, and the Scratch Orchestra, as well as the world of Terry Riley, LaMonte Young, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich.  Illustrated with music scores and rare photos, this is a remarkable and essential piece of work regarding the world of the avant-garde sounds and its artists.

Friday, May 4, 2018

"Francis Picabia: Littérature" (Small Press Books)

ISBN: 978-1-942884-24-8
There are individuals from cultural or the visual art world that seems so romantic, that they can't possibly exist.  Francis Picabia was undoubtedly on the planet Earth and was a fantastic artist and poet.  "Francis Picabia: Litterature" is a collection of black ink drawings that were used for the DADA journal "Litterature."  This slim book is as elegant as the drawings.  Picabia's work is very sexy, and it flirts with the island of Eros, in that it's provocative, witty, and incredibly seductive.  The book also has excerpts from Picabia's literary work "Caravansérail" which regards Andre Breton and his world.   But with of course a touch of erotica.   This book is in a limited edition of 500 copies.  I strongly suggest if you are either a fan of the DADA world or love Picabia's work - either with words or ink, do get it.

"Coal Black Mornings" by Brett Anderson (Little Brown, UK)

ISBN: 9781408710500
It is my interest to read memoirs that focus on the early years of its subject matter, due that I wrote a memoir "Tosh" (City Lights Books) that does the same thing.  Brett Anderson is the lyricist/songwriter and vocalist for the British band Suede.  A band that I had mixed feelings for, but since I read this book by Anderson, I re-listened to his work with Suede, and now I appreciate their music and stance in British pop music of the 1990s.  And they are still around, making interesting music.  Still, I didn't know what "Coal Black Mornings" will bring to the literary memoir table.  It's delicious. 

Like a Suede song, Anderson captures the English landscape of poverty and struggling with a family that is partly eccentric - (especially the dad) and the rush of growing up with nothing, yet there is a future if one takes it by the ears and shake it a bit here and there.  Born in a situation where Anderson felt trapped, it is art -both literature and music, which saved his hide. This book in a sense is a tribute to being focused on what you want to do, and not to lose sight of that goal or the world you want to obtain.   The book ends as Suede signs the recording contract with Nude Records, but the build-up to that point is a delightful read, from a superb prose writer.  He does get 'flowery' time-to-time, but it also serves him personality or character-wise, as well.  

My main problem with Suede is not the aesthetics, but that their references to their culture are apparent.  Saying that, and especially after reading this book, I think I'm a tad of a snob to criticize them for that alone.  The fact is that they can write songs like "Trash," while not totally original, is nevertheless a beautiful pop record with an excellent (catchy) chorus.  And "Coal Black Mornings" deals with that subject matter, with Anderson's approach to the songwriting craft, and his ability to stand alone, along with his bandmates, to work on the final product until they find it suitable.  

I'm not sure what Anderson is like in person, but in this book, he's very nice to his fellow musicians and seems to be very fair-minded chap.  So, this is not a gossipy book or one where he settles old scores, but more of an upbeat tale of his youth and hard work to obtain his vision.   In theory, these type of books are a bore, but due to his writing skills and insightful way he can describe London in such poetic but realistic terms, this book is a real winner. 


DJ Lance Rock on Tosh Talks





I have known DJ Lance Rock for 20 years. Although Lance is known for his work as being the TV host of "Yo Gabba Gabba," a show I have seen at least twice (and loved), I mostly know him from the world of music. Lance's knowledge of and deep appreciation for music goes from dance music to Steel Guitar to the avant-garde sounds of Joan La Barbara, Steve Reich, Tony Conrad, to various Post-Punk artists to the nature of retail stores. We talk about books, as well as our love for Les Rita Mitsouko, Magazine, Buzzcocks, and the genius songwriting of Pete Shelley. Basically, two cultural nerds dishing the sounds around them. - Tosh Berman, Tosh Talks

Thursday, May 3, 2018

"Art & Vinyl" by Antoine de Beaupré (Fraenkel Gallery/Editions Antoine de Beaupré)

ISBN: 9782912794291 

FRAENKEL GALLERY / EDITIONS ANTOINE DE BEAUPRÉ


Of all objects on this planet, the vinyl record and its packaging is probably the one thing that I treasure the most. The size of a 12" or even a 7" piece of vinyl strikes me as the perfect size to appreciate the work that is in front of me. Some people have pictures of their family or pets on their I-Phones, and some even have food, but for me, it's the picture of a favorite album that warms my heart. That one image brings me to a different world or a landscape that is redefined to another level of existence. I go to record stores, not only to buy music but also to look at the album covers. I very much treat a visit to a record store as if one visits a museum or gallery. It's interesting to know that many artists feel the same way, regarding the vinyl album and its cover.

"Art & Vinyl" (FRAENKEL GALLERY / EDITIONS ANTOINE DE BEAUPRÉ) is edited by Jeffrey Fraenkel and Antoine de Beaupré, whose records are in his collection that is in this book. He is also the founder of Librarie Galerie 213 in Paris. There are many books on the vinyl record as music and as a visual, but "Art & Vinyl" is the best volume on that subject matter. For one, this expensive book is superbly designed, and the reproductions of album covers and their vinyl is perfection at work. 

The focus is on the fine arts and not the commercial arts. All the covers and designs in this book are by well-known artists and photographers. And there are surprises here. I didn't know for instance that Gerhard Richter did a painting on a Glenn Gould album. Or that Yves Klein designed the album and label for a recording of a lecture he gave at a museum. Beyond that, there are the famous works, for instance, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band,"(Peter Blake & Jann Haworth), "Best of Cream" (Jim Dine), "Exile on Main Street" (Robert Frank), and others. 

There are also artists who did covers, but also made the recordings as well. Joseph Beuys, Yves Klein, Jean Dubuffet, Christian Marclay and Wolfgang Tillmans all made their records under their name. Noticing the relationship between the visual and recording arts is interesting. Many musicians do visual art, so why not are artists making music? In a sense it's another platform for these talented people to explore, and "Art & Vinyl" covers that field quite well. Not only a remarkable book, but an essential book for designers, but also to expose the thread between high-end artists and the vinyl graphic and recording world.


Sunday, April 29, 2018

I'd Die for You and Other Lost Stories" by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Scribner)

ISBN: 978-1-5011-4435-6
Success is nice, but it's failure that draws us to the flame so we can get close to that landscape to taste it.  F. Scott Fitgerald is in many ways the Jim Morrison of early American literature.   Sexy, beautiful, and gets fascinating as his demons/alcoholism takes over the body and mind.  The two sides of Fitzerald is the young successful, brilliant prose writer, who was at the top of his profession and world.  Over a short period things crashed into the ground, and me, being me, is fascinated with the ruin that is Fitzgerald.  The truth is, once a writer, always a writer.  He didn't re-write "The Great Gatsby" or any of his early novels, but he did produce the magnificent "Pat Hobby Stories."  One of the first to convey a cynical, even noir attitude toward the Hollywood dream machine, Fitzgerald never lost his talent.  He lost perhaps his luck, and of course, his health.  Still, his prose talent never failed him.  It's interesting that there is now an excellent compilation of stories and film treatments that were unable to sell.  Fitzerald's primary income (and he was paid very well) was magazines and Hollywood.  Still, he had to struggle with getting works completed, as well as getting them published, and he often didn't succeed. 

"I'd Die for You and Other Lost Stories" is a fascinating set of short stories/film treatments that he couldn't get into print, and when offered the chance to change the narrative, he refused to do so. His attitude, and rightfully so, was either publish it as it is or sends it back to me (Fitzgerald).   What makes this book swing are images of Fitzgerald that I have never seen, and the short introduction to each story by its editor Anne Margaret Daniel, who did a superb work of editing and detective work.  Beyond that, there are only two stories that I like a lot:  "The Pearl and the Fur" and "The Couple."   Both are classic narrations on class difference and wealth.  Even though a flawed fellow, Fitzgerald was a fantastic observer of American culture and its citizens. Overall I would recommend this collection to the Fitzgerald fan, but also to writers who struggle with their work. I tend to read literature about writing, and Daniel's mini-introductions exposes Fitzgerald's world at a tough time and place for our prince of American Literature. 

Dennis Cooper Blog on Tosh Talks





Dennis Cooper Blog on Tosh Talks

Clearly, one of the great blogs on this planet.  As a daily practice, I read Dennis Cooper's blog every morning.  When he started to do his GIF postings, I had to get a new computer just to watch them.  An essential exploration of Dennis' world, or at the very least, seen through his eyes and aesthetic.



Bookmark this address, and do visit:  http://denniscooperblog.com


Saturday, April 21, 2018

"Artaud the MOMA" by Jacques Derrida; Translated by Peggy Kamuf & Edited/Afterward by Kaira M. Cabañas (Columbia University Press)

ISBN: 978-0-231-18167-9
Antonin Artaud, without a doubt, one of the fascinating figures out of French literature/drama.  Over the years, I have read pretty much everything by and on Artaud.  A very difficult subject matter because he's like a spirit than a human being.   Artaud, the artist/writer, is probably one of the most articulate individuals to describe the essence of his physical/psychological issues.  It seems everything he has done, even as an actor in films, is his porthole to his inner demons.  It's a fascinating match-up of having such a profound thinker like Jacques Derrida commenting on Artaud, his drawings, and also the relationship between having such an artist like Artaud, within the walls of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).  Which is the double-whammy in this book, because Derrida also questions the nature of a museum and what role it has in someone like Artaud. 

"Artaud the Moma," which is a pun or wordplay of Artaud's name for himself 'Mômo,' which is French slang for 'fool.'  Derrida's insightful, but a difficult reading of Artaud's drawings is a lecture he gave at MoMA in 1996 during the exhibition "Anton Artaud: Works on Paper."  I read this book in two settings, and it's only 94 pages long. Still, it's like listening to a great Be-Bop jazz musician tearing apart a traditional melody into little pieces, and then building it up again.   On the other hand, writing about Artaud's aesthetic and art is not a straightforward manner.  To write about such an artist one has to force themselves at the entrance of the gate, and work your way out to the backyard exit.  It's a fascinating journey, and Derrida's thoughts on Artaud's insanity as well as his superhuman effort to express himself, not only in the confines of his illness, but also in institutions such as mental hospitals, and there even museums. 



Chris Stamey Musician A Spy in the House of Loud on Tosh Talks





First of all, Chris Stamey, the songwriter, and performer is an essential listening experience. I first heard Chris Stamey when he had his band The Sneakers. I bought the 7" EP at Bomp Records in the San Fernando Valley sometime in 1977. I bought it because the song titles got my attention, for example, "Love's Like a Cuban Crisis" and "Non Sequitur." At the very least this band was literate and witty. Once at home, I became a life-long fan of The Sneakers. The next time, I was reading The New York Rocker, and I recognized the name, Chris Stamey when he started to work with Alex Chilton on his recordings during the post-punk years in New York City. Then like dominos falling, a series of independent records came out with Stamey's participation and solo singles and so forth.

For the majority of the readers here you may have heard his band The dB's, which for many were the ultimate in the power pop era of the very early 1980s. The thing with Stamey is one should never pigeon-hole him in one type of music social or aesthetic group. Besides his genius songwriting abilities, he also had ties in the experimental music world and had (or still has) a deep interest in Minimalist music, which comes through his own 'pop' material time-to-time. Stamey also served as a guest musician for numerous bands, as well as working as a record producer/arranger for others - still, when you associate with Stamey, you are on the side of his brilliance. "A Spy in the House of Loud: New York Songs and Stories" is a remarkable memoir focusing on his life in Manhattan and other parts of the New York state. Him being an observer as well as a participant in the CBGB's punk rock world, as well as the fascinating social world that was happening at that time.

There are plenty of reasons for reading "A Spy in the House of Loud," for example, it's another good personal account of life being a working or struggling musician in New York, as well as a practical how-to-do in that profession. Stamey puts great focus on what it's like working with brilliant musicians like Alex Chilton, Ray Davies (The Kinks), Big Star's Jody Stephens, Rayan Adams, Yo La Tengo, Richard Lloyd (Television, and another musician who wrote a fantastic memoir covering the same era and place), and R.E.M., among others. Although Stamey's work as an artist/songwriter is very melodic, he also has a sincere appreciation for the loud, the wild, and experimental - for instance, groups like the No-Wave band DNA. Stamey creative world is a broad landscape, and his memoir exposes the tensions between the music and the practical everyday existence of getting the dough together for making a record and touring life.

Stamey comes off in his book as a terrific guy, who cares about the music community and has a broadly educated response to music listening and music making. That said, I think Stamey's records and music is an essential listening experience. In other words, Stamey is the real deal. I'm a fan of his music. As well as this half-memoir and half-instructional book. - Tosh Berman, Tosh Talks

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

"Tosh: Growing Up in Wallace Berman's World" by Tosh Berman

The triumphs and tragedies of growing up as the son of a famous Beat artist.
Tosh is a memoir of growing up as the son of an enigmatic, much-admired, hermetic, and ruthlessly bohemian artist during the waning years of the Beat Generation and the heyday of hippie counterculture. A critical figure in the history of postwar American culture, Tosh Berman's father, Wallace Berman, was known as the "father of assemblage art," and was the creator of the legendary mail-art publication Semina. Wallace Berman and his wife, famed beauty and artist's muse Shirley Berman, raised Tosh between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and their home life was a heady atmosphere of art, music, and literature, with local and international luminaries regularly passing through.
Tosh’s unconventional childhood and peculiar journey to adulthood feature an array of famous characters, from George Herms and Marcel Duchamp, to Michael McClure and William S. Burroughs, to Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell, to the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, and Toni Basil.
Tosh takes an unflinching look at the triumphs and tragedies of his unusual upbringing by an artistic genius with all-too-human frailties, against a backdrop that includes The T.A.M.I. Show, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Easy Rider, and more. With a preface by actress/writer Amber Tamblyn (daughter of Wallace’s friend, actor Russ Tamblyn), Tosh is a self-portrait taken at the crossroads of popular culture and the avant-garde. The index of names included represents a who’s who of mid-century American—and international—culture.

Praise for Tosh:
"This book is sublime: vertiginous, melancholy, highly amusing!"—Johan Kugelberg, Boo-Hooray

Publisher City Lights Publishers

Format Paperback
Nb of pages 226 p. 
ISBN-10 0872867609
ISBN-13 9780872867604


Saturday, April 14, 2018

"20TH CENTURY BOY: Notebooks of the Seventies" by Duncan Hannah (Knopf)

ISBN: 9781524733391

Although a few years older than me, and the fact that we never met, until I had him sign his book at a public event, I feel somehow I know Duncan Hannah. I first discovered his artwork through Dennis Cooper's fantastic blog, and his paintings just spoke to me directly. First of all, I have a thing for illustrations from the mid-century, especially drawings from the various titles of the Hardy Boys, and somehow Hannah's work reminds me of that type of work. But done on a plane that's serious art but still humorous. In that blog I saw various photographs of Hannah, and it struck me as a dandy who lived in harsh circumstances, yet, kept his chin up and his hair marvelously cut. His sense of style and some of the artwork reminded me of this dandy art duo David McDermott and Peter McGough, who not only dressed from the past but also their artwork went back to the 1920s or even earlier. But their work has a contemporary edge, just like Hannah's paintings. I should have been surprised, but reading Hannah's book, he was or is a friend of McDermott.

Still, this is not imitation, but the meeting of the minds at work here. Hannah was born straight and foppish. It's in his nature and this is why his notebooks of the crazed 1970s in New York City is so thrilling. In essence, he has character, or I should say, if I were a movie producer, he has that "It" quality. The reason why I feel like I know or should know him is that it's uncanny we have the same taste in literature and music. I know, because he lists all his listening and reading material on a regular basis in this book. Which is not tedious to read, but essential to know, because his taste is very much what is Duncan Hannah. The fact he paints portraits of his literary and cinematic heroes is another self-expression. I suspect that these works are self-portraits more than anything else. And I say that not as a criticism, but as praise.

"Twentieth-Century Boy" is Hannah's journal, and it's not a memoir. It reads like one is experiencing these adventures at the instant it happened, and his reflection is only seconds or hours after the incident. Sexual in nature, and always curious about an adventure, Hannah from the very beginning had or still has high standards. His sexual fun is enticing, and a joy to read, but also his encounters with the great from Bryan Ferry to Bowie to Dali to Warhol to Debbie Harry, and beyond, to the various artists who lived and operated in Lower Manhattan during that era are excellent co-stars in his book.

What's surprising is that he very much led the life of a desperate alcoholic, yet, by his photographs, he didn't look drunk. He was always well-dressed and has an exceptional self-awareness. Perhaps he's blessed. Nevertheless, he's a hero of mine. I don't have a brother, but in my head, he's the older brother to look up to. Praise Duncan Hannah and his book "Twentieth-Century Boy."

Saturday, April 7, 2018

"A Spy in the House of Loud: New York Songs and Stories" by Chris Stamey (University of Texas Press)

ISBN: 978-1-4773-1622-1
 First of all, Chris Stamey, the songwriter, and performer is an essential listening experience.  I first heard Chris Stamey when he had his band The Sneakers. I bought the 7" EP at Bomp Records in the San Fernando Valley sometime in 1977.   I bought it because the song titles got my attention, for example, "Love's Like a Cuban Crisis" and "Non Sequitur."  At the very least this band was literate and witty.   Once at home, I became a life-long fan of The Sneakers.  The next time, I was reading The New York Rocker, and I recognized the name, Chris Stamey when he started to work with Alex Chilton on his recordings during the post-punk years in New York City.  Then like dominos falling, a series of independent records came out with Stamey's participation and solo singles and so forth. 

For the majority of the readers here you may have heard his band The dB's, which for many were the ultimate in the power pop era of the very early 1980s.  The thing with Stamey is one should never pigeon-hole him in one type of music social or aesthetic group.   Besides his genius songwriting abilities, he also had ties in the experimental music world and had (or still has) a deep interest in Minimalist music, which comes through his own 'pop' material time-to-time.  Stamey also served as a guest musician for numerous bands, as well as working as a record producer/arranger for others - still, when you associate with Stamey, you are on the side of his brilliance.   "A Spy in the House of Loud: New York Songs and Stories" is a remarkable memoir focusing on his life in Manhattan and other parts of the New York state. Him being an observer as well as a participant in the CBGB's punk rock world, as well as the fascinating social world that was happening at that time.  

There are plenty of reasons for reading "A Spy in the House of Loud," for example, it's another good personal account of life being a working or struggling musician in New York, as well as a practical how-to-do in that profession.   Stamey puts great focus on what it's like working with brilliant musicians like Alex Chilton, Ray Davies (The Kinks), Big Star's Jody Stephens, Rayan Adams, Yo La Tengo, Richard Lloyd (Television, and another musician who wrote a fantastic memoir covering the same era and place), and R.E.M., among others.   Although Stamey's work as an artist/songwriter is very melodic, he also has a sincere appreciation for the loud, the wild, and experimental - for instance, groups like the No-Wave band DNA.  Stamey creative world is a broad landscape, and his memoir exposes the tensions between the music and the practical everyday existence of getting the dough together for making a record and touring life. 

Stamey comes off in his book as a terrific guy, who cares about the music community and has a broadly educated response to music listening and music making.  That said, I think Stamey's records and music is an essential listening experience.   In other words, Stamey is the real deal.  I'm a fan of his music.  As well as this half-memoir and half-instructional book. 

Friday, April 6, 2018

Thom Andersen in conversation with William E. Jones for "Slow Writing" (Visible Press) at ARTBOOK @ Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles


I have been proudly hustling for this upcoming event at ARTBOOK @ Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles. It's coming up this Sunday at 4p.m. It's will be a chat between the great filmmaker and teacher Thom Andersen and artist/author/historian William E. Jones. The purpose is to promote Thom's excellent (and I mean really excellent) book of essays "Slow Writing" regarding film and the by-products of that culture. Bill is equally a fine thinker/conversationist and the two of them is like that daydream of people choosing dinner guests - either live or dead and it will be the greatest dinner conversation ever. Will, the daydream has come alive! These two would be my choice for the perfect dinner conversation. The event is free, and you get to visit the wonderful galleries that are Hauser & Wirth, as well as the fine restaurant/bar on the premise. A total win-win for a late Sunday afternoon get together. I can't recommend this highly enough. -Tosh Berman

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

A Tokyo Romance by Ian Buruma on Tosh Talks





Over the years, and especially going back and forth from Japan, I have read many books by fellow Americans and some British citizens on their time spent in Japan. A lot of them are crap. The ones that stand out are the ones that wrote about Japanese cinema and literature. The girls or guys who went there to get a job as an English teacher are usually not that interesting, but alas, those who are devoted to a specific Japanese artist or thinker, then yes I very much enjoy that type of book. There are two writers that I love when they write about Japan - Donald Richie and the other fellow is Ian Buruma.

Buruma wrote a fascinating book called "Behind the Mask," which is an excellent book on some of the darker elements of Japanese literature and the arts. His new book "A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir" accounts for his time spent in Japan to study cinema, but mostly the theater arts of Kara Juro, an avant-garde playwright, with his theater group in Tokyo. Similar to temperament but not precisely in style as Terayama Suiji. Buruma knew both men, and it's his unique point-of-view, due that he was a foreigner, being involved with Kara's theater group. A lot of foreign writers have written about the oddness of one being part of Japanese society, or living in Japan, and finding it alienating. But then again I think that's the nature of the Western fellow or girl. We're raised to be apart than together, and therefore lies the situation of such countries in Asia and elsewhere.

What makes this book unique for me is that I share Buruma's interest in the Japanese arts, and spending time there as well, I can identify in what he writes about, in regards of living there and appreciating the same sort of artists/writers. Also, the book is full of fascinating figures, some know and some entirely new to me. Donald Richie is a writer I know quite well through his writings in various articles (mostly in the Japan Times) as well as reading his books on Japanese cinema. His Journals are without a doubt, the classic work by him. He is a guy who knew everyone from Ozu to Mishima, and also a gay man living in Tokyo. His insights into the Japanese culture, but also his somewhat detached views are excellent observations of life around him. In that sense, he reminds me of Paul Bowles' travel writing. Buruma shares the same interest as Richie, and is also, a fantastic prose writer. His commentary on Richie, who sort of led him through Tokyo when he first arrived, is a fascinating tour of the metropolis. The second personality of interest is the Actress Yamaguchi Yoshiko. She started her career during the war years making a propaganda film in China, where she was identified as a Chinese actress. But alas, no, she's Japanese and eventually went on to star in the American Film "House Of Bamboo" directed by Sam Fuller. The book doesn't mention it, but she was also married to the artist Isamu Noguchi. Yamaguchi eventually became a member of the Japanese parliament for 18 years and had a TV show where she focused on and interviewed such characters as Mao, Idi Amin, and Kim Il-sung.

"A Tokyo Romance" is a book full of fascinating people, and Buruma himself is interesting because he is also an individual who is half-Dutch and half-English, so he's very much a bi-cultural, or maybe at this point, since he lives in New York City now, a tri-cultural figure. With his background, he has an understanding of what it's like to be in a culture that is very singular in focus and design. A classic book on Japan, but also a rare text in English on the world of Terayama and Kara Juro.



-Tosh Berman

Sunday, April 1, 2018

"Late Fame" by Arthur Schnitzler / Translated by Alexander Starritt (NYRB)

ISBN: 978-1-68137-084-2
There are writers out there who make me feel that I'm wearing a bullseye sweatshirt, and through their writing/work, they make a direct hit on the bullseye.  The great Austrian author and playwright Arthur Schnitzler is one of the writers that get to me on a personal level on a consistent basis through his narratives.  Like Patricia Highsmith, Schnitzler had the ability to get in one's skin, and once placed there, you can't remove the rash.  Not saying he's like a disease, but more of a writer who can look at a system or a social group and understand their dynamics.  In that sense, he also reminds me of Fassbinder the filmmaker.  Still "Late Fame" is a very funny book on a serious subject matter of regret and how one is accepted into a social world. 

The main character is Eduard Saxberger, an office worker, who one time in his youth, wrote a book of poems "Wanderings" that was published and equally forgotten. Decades later, he eventually meets a young poet/writer who is a fan of this one book and invited Saxberger to be part of his (or their) literary group.  So, after an old man who once was a (failed) poet, has another chance into a literary world, seems promising, but alas, life has its many disappointments. 

Both a satire on literary groups in Vienna, as well as how one sees themselves as time goes marching by.  It's very much an older man's piece of literature, and now that I have reached a certain age, I really identify with some aspects of Saxberger's existence.  But don't we all?  

Thursday, March 29, 2018

"A Tokyo Romance: a Memoir" by Ian Buruma (Penguin Press)

ISBN: 978-1-101-98141-2

Over the years, and especially going back and forth from Japan, I have read many books by fellow Americans and some British citizens on their time spent in Japan.  A lot of them are crap.  The ones that stand out are the ones that wrote about Japanese cinema and literature.  The girls or guys who went there to get a job as an English teacher are usually not that interesting, but alas, those who are devoted to a specific Japanese artist or thinker, then yes I very much enjoy that type of book.  There are two writers that I love when they write about Japan - Donald Richie and the other fellow is Ian Buruma. 

Buruma wrote a fascinating book called "Behind the Mask," which is an excellent book on some of the darker elements of Japanese literature and the arts.  His new book "A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir" accounts for his time spent in Japan to study cinema, but mostly the theater arts of Kara Juro, an avant-garde playwright, with his theater group in Tokyo. Similar to temperament but not precisely in style as Terayama Suiji.  Buruma knew both men, and it's his unique point-of-view, due that he was a foreigner, being involved with Kara's theater group.   A lot of foreign writers have written about the oddness of one being part of Japanese society, or living in Japan, and finding it alienating.  But then again I think that's the nature of the Western fellow or girl.  We're raised to be apart than together, and therefore lies the situation of such countries in Asia and elsewhere. 

What makes this book unique for me is that I share Buruma's interest in the Japanese arts, and spending time there as well, I can identify in what he writes about, in regards of living there and appreciating the same sort of artists/writers.  Also, the book is full of fascinating figures, some know and some entirely new to me.  Donald Richie is a writer I know quite well through his writings in various articles (mostly in the Japan Times) as well as reading his books on Japanese cinema.  His Journals are without a doubt, the classic work by him.   He is a guy who knew everyone from Ozu to Mishima, and also a gay man living in Tokyo.   His insights into the Japanese culture, but also his somewhat detached views are excellent observations of life around him.  In that sense, he reminds me of Paul Bowles' travel writing.  Buruma shares the same interest as Richie, and is also, a fantastic prose writer.  His commentary on Richie, who sort of led him through Tokyo when he first arrived, is a fascinating tour of the metropolis.  The second personality of interest is the Actress Yamaguchi Yoshiko.  She started her career during the war years making a propaganda film in China, where she was identified as a Chinese actress.  But alas, no, she's Japanese and eventually went on to star in the American Film "House Of Bamboo" directed by Sam Fuller.  The book doesn't mention it, but she was also married to the artist Isamu Noguchi. Yamaguchi eventually became a member of the Japanese parliament for 18 years and had a TV show where she focused on and interviewed such characters as Mao, Idi Amin, and Kim Il-sung.  

"A Tokyo Romance" is a book full of fascinating people, and Buruma himself is interesting because he is also an individual who is half-Dutch and half-English, so he's very much a bi-cultural, or maybe at this point, since he lives in New York City now, a tri-cultural figure.  With his background, he has an understanding of what it's like to be in a culture that is very singular in focus and design.   A classic book on Japan, but also a rare text in English on the world of Terayama and Kara Juro.