Reviews

Steven Moore's Love of Literature Is Infectious

Steven Moore develops layered landscapes of literary history, and deftly brings the reader to the various authors' time and place.


The Novel: An Alternative History 1600-1800

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Length: 1,024 pages
Author: Steven Moore
Price: $39.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-08
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In his 2010 book, The Novel: An Alternative History Beginnings to 1600 Steven Moore traced back the history of the most popular literary form by going to its very origins (most literature programs and histories usually pick up around the 1700s, time by which most historians feel like the form had reached its official genesis). Moore, however, is a meticulous researcher who went back in time to reveal that the novel was much older and in fact, shockingly, not a European creation. What other historians thought of as proto-novels, Moore argues, were in fact fully formed works that deserved the attention granted to bonafide classics such as Don Quixote.

The Novel: An Alternative History 1600-1800, spans two centuries of the world’s most popular literary form and introduces readers to an entirely new way of thinking about literature. Moore acknowledges that the first installment was a little bit more liberal in its inclusion of things that resembled novels, and in this volume’s introduction reassures us that this will be a tighter version, particularly because the time he covers gives us some of the most famous novels in history, most of which almost everyone will be familiar with.

The first chapter throws us right into Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which Moore assured us was written with such mastery of the form because the author was very familiar with the form of the novel (making a case for the revelations of his first installment). Cervantes was an avid reader who admired Bocaccio and was jealous of the success of Guzmán of Alfarache, a novel by Mateo Alemán that had achieved uncomparable commercial success.

Moore reminds us that Don Quixote wasn’t always a single work, but rather two volumes separated by more than a decade, he also expresses that it’s the book with the most references to other works in history, meaning that Cervantes not only delivered the ultimate novel, but was also dangling in the art of literary criticism centuries before it was “invented”. “The picaresque genre Cervantes parodied was in full swing at the beginning of the 17th century” he writes, “propelled by the extraordinary success of Mateo Aleman’s Guzmán of Alfarache.

Moore’s research and his knowledge seem so vast, that he might have been able to write an entire book on the intricate brilliance of Cervantes’ work alone, but he also is interested in discovering what, if any, connections exist between works of such iconic value and other works that were being produced around the same time. After exploring Spanish literature he ventures into German, Latin and French, delivering valuable information on works both well known and those obscure to people outside the world of academia.

Moore derives true pleasure out of re-creating worlds that would otherwise seem unreachable to modern readers. He uses his knowledge of literature to develop layered landscapes of specific times in history and deftly gives us the context to understand why authors were writing the things they were writing.

He’s also quite generous and seems intent on having his readers discover the more obscure books along with him. When discussing Chinese literature he mentions the example of 18th century novel Yesou puyan, which isn’t only the longest novel in the country’s history (“a dragon of a novel” he calls it), but is extremely frank in its depiction of sexuality. Moore suggests that this work is like a cross between the works of Samuel Richardson and the Marquis de Sade, which give people unfamiliar with Yesou puyan a whole new way to imagine if this book would appeal.

Each of the works mentioned in The Novel: An Alternative History 1600-1800 include a plot description and a short mention of the historical context during which the work was published. Moore is fully aware that passing times as well as translation and edited versions, make some quotes end up being misplaced, so he makes a point out of explaining how he acquired the references he mentions.

Perhaps because it’s easier to research, the English novel takes up most of this volume, as Moore explores some familiar works (like The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling which he calls one of the greatest novels of all time), with lesser known titles including the very first English novel written by a woman (Countess of Montgomery’s Urania) which Moore suggests “has more value than being a feminist landmark”, but also happens to be one of the greatest works of its era.

After his geographical observations, Moore turns to thematic similarities and in the latter half of the chapter on the English novel (which is practically half the book) he discusses works according to how they fit within some parameters he’s determined, including modern romances, politics and something he calls “Quixotic quests” in which he discusses The Fool of Quality a pedagogical novel by Henry Brooke in which the author created a fresh dynamic with the reader, involving him in the very creation of what would occur in latter chapters.

If there is a flaw in The Novel: An Alternative History 1600-1800 -- if it can even be called a "flaw" -- it’s unintentional, since it sometimes makes you feel both inadequate and mildly existential (when will I have time to read all these great works?). Yet readers can feel that Moore has empathy with this problem, as he seems to have struggled trying to decide what to include and what to leave out, as well. His passion for literature and the joy he receives from preserving its history are felt in every single page of this work. Volume three can’t come soon enough.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

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