VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Boomer1 (2018) by Daniel Torday


Book Review
Boomer1 (2018)
by Daniel Torday


   I'm finding it hard to keep enough Audiobooks lined up to get me through my weekly driving around for work.  Most of the books picked by the editors of the 1001 Books project for the initial revised 2008 edition are obscure enough to not have an Audiobook version available on the Los Angeles Public library app.  After that, I'm looking for newly released literary fiction, but wait times are often measured in months.

   Narrated by American actress Maggie Siff, Boomer1 is the first Audiobook that I actually didn't like.  I'd hate to think it was because I didn't like the voice of the reader, a woman.  It was more because I didn't like the book itself, a "satire(?)" about the "rise" of an anti-Baby  Boomer terrorist organization founded by internet savvy millennials.  I've read in various places that Boomer1 is supposed to be funny on some level, but if so, I didn't get it.  In fact, I found Boomer1, and the characters of Boomer1, to be some of the least amusing characters I've come across in recent years.

  Today splits narration duties between Mark Bloomfield, bluegrass musician, professional failure and terrorist, his ex girlfriend Cassie Black (nee Claire Stankowitz) a fiddle playing, bi sexual hipster and his Mom Julia, also a fiddle player. Of the three, Cassie was the only one who kept my attention.  Sad Mark and sad Julia don't make for a compelling mother/son literary duo, the mother literally (and metaphorically!) unable to hear, the son unable to listen.



Friday, November 09, 2018

Show Review: Tyler Childers @ The Troubador


Tyler Childers performs at legendary Los Angeles venue, the Troubadour.

Show Review:
Tyler Childers
@ The Troubador

  It must be hard for middle aged major label record label executives these days, especially those from the rock era.  I'm not saying that I feel sorry for them, but you can't help but wince on their behalf when you look at the artists who have captured the pop star/rock star label in the internet era.  Take, for example, the micro genre turned chart topper world of internet rap:  drug addicted young adults, funded by gang money, topping the charts without a physical record, let alone an album or a major label backed album campaign.

   I'm pretty sure that there is no coming back from the precipice opened up by the streaming era.  Soundcloud rap provides strong evidence that if one is simply popular enough, you can leverage the rest of it. I'm not sure that really was the case before Soundcloud rap started storming up the actual charts, the model was more that one would bring oneself to the attention of the "real" music industry via promotional tools like Soundcloud, not that one would actually use those formats to become a top 200 most popular artist in the world type person.

  The thing is though, is that all those rock and roll guys are still around.  The way the cultural industrial complex works, if you make a lot of money for a large corporation over an extended period of time, you get to stick around.  If you don't make anyone money, you are out, but if you do, you get to become one of these guys (very few are women).  My point being that there were a LOT of these guys there.   

   Specifically, Ian Thornton, the Huntington West Virginia based manager of Tyler Childers.   When I walked in with Amy (Monotone) he was with Bill Bennett, former Warner Bros Nashville exec and current Hollywood/country fixer.  They were shortly joined by others from Monotone, and label executives from Interscope, RCA and Sony. zero mentions on Stereogum  Also present was Jeffrey Azoff, son of Irving Azoff.  So, to be clear, Ian Thornton manages Tyler Childers.  Tyler Childers does not have a record contract.  Many people are both interested in managing Childers and signing him to a record contract, and it is clear that he a) has a manager and b) perhaps isn't that interested in signing a record contract.

  All of this took place in the front bar of the Troubadour, during the set of opening act Blank Range.  There was also a description worthy mix of fans, guy in an NRA shirt under his denim vest, Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend, a guy wearing a "Make Nashville Rock Again" hat. And women! It was not the sausage fest of a Jamey Johnson or Sturgill Simpson concert.  I honestly don't know if Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend is a fan or if he just decided to hang out with his manager Ian (Montone, not Thornton).

  It was a lot of what might be called "feeling out," but there is no question that Thornton is running that ship. The show itself was a triumph.  Not the immortal triumph of his first appearance at the Ryman Auditorium, opening for Margo Price, earlier this year, but a triumph.   The buzz in the audience was palpable.  Childers opened with his hit, Whitehouse Road, which seems like something he didn't have to do.  I sensed that he was nervous, and a little bit unsure of the crowd.  It was different at the Ryman Auditorium, which he owned like he was born to play there.    If I had a chance to say something to him, I would have told him not to worry, that the crowd was with him and that he could do no wrong.

    I would say that his live show is not quite as developed as Stapleton or Margo Price, but that he is better life than Sturgill Simpson, who I've now seen in "jam mode" twice.   I think ultimately it is the quality of his voice, as supposed to his lyrics- which are really good- or the band- which is just ok, that has given him his viral quality.  He is an astonishing internet era story of an artist from the most outsidery of outsider places, who has developed outside any publicized "scene."

  Even more astonishing that he nets a total of zero mentions on Pitchfork, zero mentions on Stereogum, only Brooklyn Vegan has been tracking his unlikely rise.   It is both shameful and embarrassing that Pitchfork has slept so long on Childers.  Certainly, if you are going to cover artists like Willie Nelson, Chris Stapleton, Margo Price and Sturgill Simpson, you have to include Tyler Childers on that list.  He belongs there, unquestionably, beyond debate.

    How incredible, also, that, like Price and Simpson (but not Stapleton) he has come from wholly outside the formidable Nashville music industry.   This really is THE indie/local music scene story of this decade, in my mind.   It is something that is really happening, generating interest among audiences and professionals/corporations alike.  That is the succesful combination that you need. 

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Flight (2018) by Olga Tokarczuk

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Polish author Olga Tokarczuk won the 2018 Man Booker International award last year and is nominated for the new National Book Award translated fiction prize this year, for her book Flight.
Book Review
Flight (2018)
Translated by Jennifer Crost
by Olga Tokarczuk

  It has been a big couple years for literary fiction translated into English.  First, the Man Booker Prize changed their international award to award a specific book, instead of giving it to a particular author.  Second, the National Book Award announced a new award for works translated into English, starting this year.   Olga Tokarczuk has been the big winner so far from both of these changes.  First, she won the Man Booker in translation award last year.  Second, she is the prohibitive favorite among the works selected for the National Book Award shortlist.

   Tokarczuk then, is the face of this new trend towards appreciating books translated into English.  Good for her, and us, too, because Flight is an inventive work of fiction, part "flash fiction," part short story collection, part novella, part novel, part roman a clef.  In other words, Tokarczuk has taken well familiar forms and created something new.  Her characters range across time and space, and in puzzle like fashion, the reader is asked to either figure out how they all connect, or I suppose, ignore connections and appreciate the whole of the work.

  I checked out the Audiobook edition, simply because I couldn't lay hands on a hard copy, and I wasn't disappointed, but I would have enjoyed reading the actual book.  It would have been easier to "unlock" the puzzle. As an Audiobook, I was simply swept along by the current. 

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

The Bitter Glass (1959) by Eilís Dillon


Book Review
The Bitter Glass (1959)
by Eilís  Dillon

   There are some obscure authors left in the 44 odd titles left on the original 1001 Books list that I have yet to review here.  Obscure authors, and the authors I've already read, often with books I actually own, those are the two remaining groups.   Certain nationalities are over represented  among the category of obscure authors, Irish and Korean stand out.  Mainly they are obscure for my purposes because they are not in print in the United States.  We take for granted that in the internet era, everything is available always, but that isn't really true outside of thin band of books and film that people continue to return to over time.  Music is different these day, but you would probably be surprised at how few books are really available.

  Dillon, for example, is almost wholly out of print.  You can get many of her books on Kindle, but recently, only her children's books have been reprinted (in 2016, by the New York Review of Books children's lit department.)   The copy of The Bitter Glass I tracked down looked like the first and only copy the Los Angeles Library ever bought- from the 1970's.   Set after the war of independence but during the Irish Civil War which followed, it follows a group of young people, sent ahead to the country house by elders, who are separated by one of the two sides blowing up the railroad between their location and the nearest town (Galway).  Isolated, they are asked to provide refuge to a group of rebels and their seriously injured cohort, while the child one of the travellers is caring for sickens and dies.

  And that is about it.  You would think that the events of the Irish War of Independence and subsequent Civil War would draw more attention from the editors of the 1001 Books list, but I think this is the only work of fiction that addresses the Irish Civil War, which I didn't even know was a thing until I read The Bitter Glass.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Dreamland (2018) by Sam Quinones


Book Review
Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic (2016)
by Sam Quinones

  The road to hell is paved with good intention, and I was reminded forcefully of that proverb reading Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones.  In this case, the good intentions were a group of doctors who overturned a century of anti-pain medication bias in the medical profession.  In the past, American doctors had been reluctant to prescribe adequate levels of pain medications, often for entirely non-scientific reasons having to do with early 20th century bias against narcotics.

  Dreamland begins with those doctors, and their efforts to help people like war veterans, cancer patients and the dying manage their sever levels of pain.  Of course, this book would not have been written if everything had gone to plan.   What began as a genuinely good hearted attempt to rectify non scientific reasons for keeping people in severe pain was quickly taken advantage of by a handful of pharmaceutical companies who ended up earning billions of billions of dollars selling pain medication to the non-sick.

 The dramatic increase in market size of Americans addicted to opiates in turn opened doors for heroin traffickers.  In Dreamland, those traffickers are the Xalisco boys, a loosely affiliated consortium of heroin manufacturer/distributors who pioneered lo-conflict telephone ordering of heroin in dozens of regional cities in the United States during the past two decades.   Two years after the publication of Dreamland, the dynamic which Quinones describes:   People start with getting addicted to pain pills and gradually migrate to heroin, is even more advanced, as the spigot of "legally" prescribed pills has been turned off by the Feds, while the amount of heroin, and deaths caused by said heroin, continues to spiral upward.

   Quinones takes 400 pages to tell the story, but it can really be summed up in the paragraph above, just add your own memories of news stories or things you've read on the internet.   One of the amazing facets of the current opiate crisis is that it is inside out- affecting those places which have typically been hit hardest by new drug epidemics, i.e. the inner cities of the major coastal metropolises.  The reasons for this are almost as interesting as those that underlie the crisis itself.

 The new Mexican heroin distribution groups avoided places with already existing networks of heroin dealers- New York City, Baltimore, instead focusing on less travelled areas like Ohio, Portland Oregon and the northeast. Also, Mexican dealers simply refused to sell to African-Americans out of prejudice.  It's a crisis that is barely visible where I live. If I wasn't a criminal defense attorney who practices in Federal Court an represents people caught trying to smuggle heroin into the United States, I wouldn't see any evidence of it all here.   However, in many parts of the country, it is the leading cause of death. Period.  This book tells you how that happened.

Fallling Man (2007) by Don Delillo


Book Review
Fallling Man (2007)
by Don Delillo

Replaces:  Saturday by Ian McEwan (Reviewed 4/18)

  It is hard to fathom how Falling Man, Don Delillo's forgettable post-9/11 take on the impact of those events on those in and around ground zero, made it into the first revised edition of the 1001 Books list.  Delillo is himself over-represented in the first edition, Falling Man isn't even a top five title in his bibliography, it didn't sell, critics didn't like it.

   Considering that it was published only months before the revised edition went to press in 2008, it's entirely possible that it was the last book added, in which case it is a clear example of how time and distance are required before anyone can judge which book may or may deserve inclusion in any particular canon.  You can see where the editors might guess wrong, Falling Man is by a recognized author about an important subject (9/11 attacks) that had not (and still has not) received the kind of canonical treatment that one expects from literature in the 21st century.

  For all the pedigree, Falling Man is not that book.  Instead, it is a lesser work by Delillo, who is well familiar with the themes of the consequences of terrorism on the mental functioning of survivors, as judged by the importance of that theme in several of his books.   Perhaps Delillo anticipated these attacks, since he was certainly aware of the state of anxiety which preceded them.  In Delillo's universe, and the universe of his characters, there can be little suprise about the severity of the 9/11 attacks.   There is no for surprise in Falling Man, let alone the unexpected delight often discovered in works of great literary merit.  I didn't, and I simply can't imagine anyone taking pleasure in the reading of Falling Man, and if there is to be no pleasure, the author might as well have something to say about his subject, and Delillo, apparently, does not.  Or at least nothing different then what he said in books like Libra and Underworld.  The world is a dangerous place.  Innocent people are hurt for no reason, other innocent people are not hurt also for no reason, and perpetrators of mind-numbing violence have their own reasons, with motives similar to those innocents they harm.


Thursday, November 01, 2018

Fruit of the Drunken Tree (2018) by Ingrid Rojas Contreras


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First time novelist Ingrid Rojas Contreras, author of Fruit of the Drunken Tree a bildungsroman about life in the time of Pablo Escobar
Book Review
Fruit of the Drunken Tree (2018)
 by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

  Fruit of the Drunken Tree  is another debut novel by a young American author with much promise.  Although most of Fruit of the Drunken Tree is set mostly in Colombia, Contreras wrote in English, and she lives in San Francisco. Contreras was raised in Bogota, and while fiction, this book draws heavily on her girlhood in Colombia.  The central narrator and author stand in is Chula, a perceptive seven year old who lives in an upper middle class neighborhood with her older sister Cassandra and her Mother, a rare example of a woman from the slums who has ascended into the middle/upper class.  Their father, an engineer who works on an oil platform, is present less often.

  The plot arrives in the form of Petrona, a teenage maid from a near by slum.  Petrona shares narrating duties with Chula, and it is through her that the reader grasps that harrowing events are in store for Chula and her family, while Chula herself remains unaware, and even hides facts from her mother and sister which may have prevented the dangerous events of the second and third act.

    It is clear from the first chapter, which makes clear that Chula and her family have left Colombia permanently for the United States, that something terrible will happen, but it is the genius of Contreras from guessing, what, exactly is afoot until it is actually happening in the book.  It's authorial craft at it's finest and I'm sure that it is the pacing that has drawn much of the positive attention paid Fruit of the Drunken Tree by critics.

 You might call Fruit of the Drunken Tree a good example of the late 20th/early 21st century kriegbildungsroman or "war education novel" a twist on the traditional coming-of-age novel which defines the bildungsroman formula.  A kriegbildungsroman is a coming-of-age novel set against the backdrop of armed conflict, either international or civil, and it finds its roots in the aftermath of World War II, when authors in all parts of the world, but especially Europe and the colonial south: Latin America, Africa, Asia, had the life experience of coming of age in the midst the mechanized horror of mid to late 20th century armed conflict. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Comedown (2018) by Rebekah Frumkin

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The Comedown is the first novel by American author Rebekah Frumkin
Book Review
The Comedown (2018)
by Rebekah Frumkin

   I checked out the Audiobook of the first novel by American writer Rebekah Frumkin based on strong Kirkus review.   The "first novel" is an important category of literary fiction.  The first novel is the best chance of an previously unknown/little known writer gaining some kind of traction with a popular and/or critical audience.  Considering the difficult economics of literary fiction (low sales, specifically) firing a miss with your first book of literary fiction might very well mean you don't get a second novel published.

 The Comedown is an auspicious debut, filled with multiple voices and enough sex and drugs to get a casual reader interested in the story of two families who are united by a drug deal gone bad.  Frumkin develops characters of all races and genders.  One family is white, one family black.  There are Jews, Christians and cults.  There are straight people, gay people and trans people. The characters take drugs: cocaine, marijuana, ecstasy, LSD, crystal meth. 

   Frumkin seems more concerned with character than plot.  The sheer number of different narrators means that the same events are retold from the perspective of different characters, condensing the number of events in the plot.   I thought the major weakness was the plotting of the third act, and found the ending so unsatisfactory that it made me question the worth of the entire book.

   Still, The Comedown is notably for the plurality of voices, and her treatment of drug usage is perceptive and beyond the simple "drugs bad, people who use drugs bad;" equation that continues to permeate popular culture despite years of education about the role of disease in spurring addiction.  

Washington Black (2018) by Esi Edugyan

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Canadian author Esi Edugyan was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize this year for Washington Black

Book Review
Washington Black (2018)
by Esi Edugyan

   Washington Black is Canadian author Esi Edugyan's second novel.  Her first novel, Half-Blood Blues, was shortlisted for the 2011 Booker Prize.   Same for Washington Black, which made it to the shortlist this year but lost to Anna Burns for her parable about Northern Ireland, Milkman.    Edugyan has the right stuff for a career in literary fiction, both of her books bringing alive different parts of history with characters who are well drawn. 

  Washington Black is filled with adventure, following the eponymous hero from his roots as a slave on a west indies sugar plantation to a career in London as the assistant to a well known marine biologist.  Black's voice is undeniable, managing to encapsulate both the slave experience as well as the energy of being a participant in the heroic period of 19th century naturalism. 

   I enjoyed the listening experience of the well crafted Audiobook, which clocks in at about 12 hours.  I would have preferred to read the hard copy, but I couldn't find it. Washington Black is an easy choice for fans of literary fiction and historical fiction alike.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Namesake (2003) by Jhumba Lahiri

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Kal Penn played Nikil, the central narrator in the Mira Nair directed movie version of The Namesake, the 2003 novel written by Jhumba Lahiri.
Book Review
The Namesake (2003)
by Jhumba Lahiri

Replaces: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (Reviewed June 2018)


     The Namesake was a break-out hit for Bengali-American writer Jhumba Lahiri, and it followed her debut collection of short-stories, Interpreter of Maladies, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1999.    Her next novel, The Lowland, published in 2013, made the shortlist for both the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award, which I think was unheard of for an author based out of the United States in 2013.  In other words, Lahiri has demonstrated that she is an author who pleases both critics and audiences alike.  Her perspective, that of the child of Bengali-Indian immigrants raised in the Boston area, is different enough to evoke interest, but similar enough to the experience of the type of white Americans who read literary fiction to not raise any hackles.

  Similarly, the style of the novel, which combines aspects of the bildungsroman with the multi-generational immigrant family story, seems both familiar yet different enough to prevent boredom.  Lahiri skillfully deploys multiple narrators while largely relying on Gogol, the male child of the immigrant couple of Ashoke and Ashima, to be the "main" narrator.    Like many immigrant family narratives, the immigrant parents come across as borderline super human and heroic, while the children seem more like disappointments.    Gogol fits this pattern, excelling reasonably well in his schooling, but rejecting his parents and the life they have built in a way that seems callous, if understandable.

  The ambivalent relationship between the immigrant parents and the fully American children is captured by the title and central metaphor of the book: Gogol is named after the Russian author Nikolai Gogol, an inspirational figure for his father, but spends basically the entire book complaining about it, ultimately changing it to Nikhil.   Nikhil was played by Kal Penn in the Mira Nair directed movie version, and I was actually thinking of Penn even though I didn't know he played Nikhil in the movie.

  I wasn't sad to see Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides get the boot.  I wasn't sold on Middlesex- the first edition hardback sat unread on my shelf for a decade, and it is still unread, since I listened to an Audiobook version.  I also picked the Audiobook version for The Namesake, mostly because it was immediately available but also because I wanted to hear the voices of the characters.  I do recommend the Audiobook.

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