VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Inland (2019) by Téa Obrecht

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Balkan-American writer Téa Obrecht 


Book Review
Inland (2019)
by Téa Obrecht


 Inland is the second novel by Téa Obrecht.  Her first novel- The Tiger's Wife, published in 2010, it won the Orange Prize in the UK and was short listed for the National Book Award.    Nine years is a long time between published novels, and I checked out the Audiobook last month with the thought that Inland might but a National Book Award longlist- although it might not be eligible till next year- it didn't get nominated this year.

  The Audiobook is partially narrated by Anna Chlumsky- who I loved in VEEP- and the stroy is set in pre-statehood Arizona in 1893.  Narrating duties are shared by Nora (voiced by Chlumsky) a wife and mother who is anxiously awaiting the return of her husband- an intellectual pioneer who has failed in a succession of western towns.  The other narrator is Lurie- a former outlaw who falls in with a bunch of camel jockeys.

  I read some rhapsodic reviews, and I like revisionist stories of the old west- Cormac McCarthy- to name the most famous writer in that area; but I wasn't taken by Inland.  Nora did not move me with her plight, and Lurie was barely interesting.   Everyone in the book is simultaneously over-articulate for the character and largely unsympathetic.

The Map and the Territory (2010) by Michel Houellebecq


Book Review
The Map and the Territory (2010)
 by Michel Houellebecq

     The 1001 Books Project included Houellebecq's first three novels in the first and second editions.  The Map and the Territory, his fifth book, was released after the second edition came out, and it was included in any subsequent edition, but it did win the Prix Goncourt, which is the French Pulitzer Prize, more or less, and Houellebecq continues to publish with regularity, though he was hasn't yet had a hit in the USA, and I'm assuming that he has more of a following in the UK, since there are plenty of literate people over there who actually read novels in French, and a greater audience for literature in translation.

   If I was to trace a trend in his novels it is that each successive novel has grown more "high concept" and elaborate in terms of the characters and the story.  Whatever, his first book is basically an anti-bildungsroman in the mold of Catcher in the Rye, but French, and the protagonist is a yuppie working with computers. Atomised begins the trip towards elaboration with the character of Michel, the biologist who eliminates sexual reproduction, but also keeps to his root obsession with the unhappiness of families and the emptiness of modern existence.

   Platform is very high concept, with sex tourism, extensive monologues on the state of the leisure-industrial complex and a gruesome bombing by Muslim terrorist.   This thematic ambition is rare to non existent in contemporary European fiction, which mostly involves sad failures being sad about everything, call it the European existential novel.   And while most Houellebecq's characters are miserable assholes, they at least do things besides being poor and sad.

 The Map and the Territory delves into the world of modern art, featuring a typically Houellebecq-ian protagonist who sounds like a post-modern artist who could really exist.   Sure, he's hateful, but he's fun- fun to read- so much of the literature I read is tedious or a chore.  

Monday, September 16, 2019

Scrappy Little Nobody (2016) by Anna Kendrick

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Sexy Anna Kendrick/GQ photo
Book Review
Scrappy Little Nobody (2016)
by Anna Kendrick

  It's only mildly embarrassing to declare myself a fan of Anna Kendrick, based on her performance in Up in the Air.  I learned from this book that she was in the Twilight movies but the closest I've come to that franchise is a sighting of Kristen Stewart with her girl posse in Echo Park five years ago.  The Audiobook is freely available at the Los Angeles Public Library- over 60 copies available at a time!  Also, Kendrick herself reads her own book, which was something I enjoyed listening to Julia Louis Dreyfus read the Veep memoir of her television character.

  So yeah, I listened to Scrappy Little Nobody, Anna Kendrick's best-selling 2016 memoir, and I have to say that I found it incredibly, heart crushingly sad, and I can't believe that Kendrick and her publishers didn't see it the same way.  Take, for example, the saddest portion of the book, where Kendrick describes the imaginary parties she would like to throw for her non-existent friends, she doesn't have time for parties or friends because she has been working non stop since she was in junior high.

 I'm not a snob when it comes to celebrities, I'm interested in the process of fame as it relates to art, and you can make an argument that actors are artists (they would certainly make that argument.)  Unsurprisingly, Kendrick doesn't spend any time on the craft/art of acting, presumably because the assignment is to create a series of themed "essays" with the depth you expect from twitter- where Kendrick maintains a well-curated presence.

  I am of the frequently voiced opinion that all famous artists are monsters because they possess the irrational believe that they, among thousands, are destined for fame.  I also think Kendrick is interesting enough to have some thoughts on that subject, but baby, they ain't here.

Larva: Midsummer Night’s Babel (1990) by Julian Rios


Book Review
Larva: Midsummer Night’s Babel (1990)
by Julian Rios

Replaces: Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord by Louis de Bernieres

    It is hard to say much about Larva: Midsummer Night's Babel.  Originally published in Spanish in 1983, it was immediately hailed as a "post-modern masterpiece," which should tell you that it is most likely five hundred pages long and nonsensical.  That does indeed proof to be the case!  Larva shares similarities with Joyce and anticipates the concerns of psycho-geography.  I guess the idea is that Larva is a present-day retelling of Don Juan set in a well articulated London, but I only know that because I read it on the internet and the front flap of the book jacket. 

   I'm not sad to see Senor Vivo get replaced- Louis de Bernieres seems like a one book guy, and that book is Captain Corelli's Mandolin, not Senor Vivo and the Coca Lord, but I'd be hard pressed to tell anyone, "Yes, you must read Larva: Midsummer Night's Babel," and I'm almost positive the readership for this book in the US is restricted to participants in university writing programs.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2019) by Olga Tokarczuk

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Polish author Olga Tokarczuk

Book Review
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2019)
by Olga Tokarczuk

  Big ups to Polish author Olga Tokarczuk, who is finally receiving some English language attention in the aftermath of her Booker International Prize win for Flights- originally published in Polish in 2007, then published in English translation in 2018, where it promptly won the Booker International Prize and scored a National Book Award for Translated Works nomination in the same year.  Similarly, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead was originally published in Polish  in 2009 and received an English translation (and an English language Audiobook- bless you PenguinRandomHouse for your largess) this year. 

  Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is described as both "detective fiction" and "literary fiction."  It also has strong roots in the existential/philosophical literary tradition of late 20th century central and eastern Europe.   Anyone who has read Flights will expect witty, sparkling prose from Tokarczuk and those readers will not be dissapointed.  Janina Duszejko, Tokarczuk's narrator, is what you might call an "old crone," living alone after a career as a civil engineer.  She spends her retirement on an isolated plateau near the Czech border, where she teaches English part time to the local school kids, cares for the summer houses of city dwellers during the off season, and carries on a long running, low intensity skirmish with the local hunting/poaching culture.

  The status quo is interrupted when a neighborhood poacher turns up dead.  The first death is followed by a series of deaths among the local power elite, and Duszejko decides to investigate.   The mention of literary fiction and the tradition of the European philosophical novel should be enough to forewarn potential readers that this is not your normal whodunit, and Duszejko is no Ms. Marple in that she despises the local victims.

  The Audiobook edition, read by a narrator who used a Polish accent- raises a question about Audiobooks read in translation.  Why, if the book has been translated into English, does the English language reader affect a Polish accent?  After all, the narrator is speaking in Polish, not English.  Isn't more consistent for the reader to use an American accent?   It's also an issue in a lesser-Murakami book I'm listening to right now, where all the characters speak heavily Japanese accented English, and the characters don't speak English at all.

   Generally speaking I'm up for ANY author who can get their non-English work of literary fiction a major label release in the United States- if there's an Audiobook- I'm there.
   

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

John Crow's Devil (2005) by Marlon James


Book Review
John Crow's Devil (2005)
 by Marlon James

  I've been waiting for the single copy of the Los Angeles Public Library Audiobook on this title for over six months!  There is no doubt that interest in Marlon James is way up- it wouldn't surprise me if John Crow's Devil, his 2005 debut novel, gets a reissue one of these days.  I would have listened to the Audiobook in any case, following one of my theories that Audiobooks are at their best when the reader possesses an accent that the listener does not- I can't imagine myself reading the heavy Jamaican patois of most of the character in John Crow's Devil without doing them a disservice.

  Reader Robin Miles is the gold standard for books requiring a Caribbean accent- she's done all of Jamaica Kincaid's  and Edward Danicat Audiobooks.  John Crow's Devil is an excellent first novel, if not a world-beater like his Booker Prize winner about Bob Marley, but it is confident and self-assured, and shows many of the themes he would revisit in his break-out books.

  Set in an isolated village in World War II era Jamaica, John Crow's Devil could be called "Jamaican Gothic," with an element of the fantastical that you could describe as "magical realism" although I'm certain James would bristle at the usage of that phrase. His characters: the Rum Preacher, the Apostle, the Widow possess an allegorical weight, even as James develops the narrative by delving into the pasts of most of the main characters in flash-back form. 

  There is plenty of sex and death to be had- clearly, James from the beginning has been inspired to give a "red blooded" edge to his stories, even as he incorporates LGBT themes into the mix.    When I saw James speak, he professed to despise the bloodlessness of contemporary intellectual culture- that is present here, in his first book, and I think it is a key to why he managed to break out with a Booker Prize- if you can fit it in the form of literary fiction, sex and death still sell.

The Wall (2019) by John Lanchester


Book Review
The Wall (2019)
by John Lanchester


   With an abiding interest in the intersection between dystopian futurism and literary fiction, I was a fool for The Wall by English journalist/author John Lanchester even before it made the 2019 Booker Prize longlist.  It didn't make the shortlist.   The Wall posits a near-future Britain after "the change" which, though never explained (see: differences between dystopian genre fiction and dystopian literary fiction) appears to be a massive rise in sea levels by the melting of the polar ice caps.  Global civilization is a state of disrepair.  Great Britain (or at least England, Scotland and Wales) have clung to a semblance of normality behind an island encircling wall.

  Kavanagh, the narrator, is a fresh recruit to the Defenders, the civil-defense entity who is tasked with keeping out the rest of the world, called, "the others."  Supposedly, all citizens of whatever they call the UK in this book are tasked to serve a two year term.  Letting an other through the wall means exile- in the event of penetration, one defender is sent "to sea" for every other that makes it through the wall.    The first portion reads like an update on The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati, a book from the 1940's about a  young soldier similarly situated on the cusp of a gigantic desert, but Lanchester pumps up the action as the plot proceeds.

  It was a great Audiobook- it didn't really get a wide release in the US, so I was able to pick it up from the Los Angeles Public Library with a minimal wait, and the first person narration by Kavanagh makes for an easily translatable experience.

Monday, September 09, 2019

Professor Martens' Departure (1984) by Jaan Kross

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Estonian author Jaan Kross
Book Review
Professor Martens' Departure (1984)
 by Jaan Kross

Replaces:  Wise Children by Angela Carter

  Estonian author Jaan Kross is one of those "almost but not quite" Nobel Prize nominees who are always described as, "the best known author of country x and nominee for the Nobel Prizee."   Here, the country is Estonia.   Kross is better known in German, where his career spanned the rise and fall of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union- he was imprisoned both by the Nazi's for his Estonian nationalism and the Soviets for the same thing, before returning to the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic in the mid 1950's and settling down as a professional writer.

   Kross was prolific during his career, he died in 2007, leaving behind 17 novels- maybe six of those have been translated into English, including Professor Martens' Departure, which most reminded me of An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguo- both books involve a notable historical figure recalling his life with regret.   The Professor Martens of this book is actually two Martens'- separated by a century- both of whom where Estonian scholars of International Law who made their names and careers working for the Russian Empire.

  The later Professor Martens is the major narrator, and he shifts relatively seemlessly between episodes from his life and the life of his earlier "double."   Important episodes include an affair with a Belgian artist, his role in the Russo-Japanese Treaty of Portsmouth (New Hampshire) and his career and education.  There is also a portion where the contemporary (late 19th early 20th century) bemoans his failure to win the just-launched Nobel Peace Prize.  Maybe that's why he never won.

 Kross replaces Wise Children- Angela Carter's last book.   Carter actually lost two of her three titles in the 1001 Books project in the first revision- keeping only Nights at the Circus, and it's another example of how the first revision of the 1001 Books list replaced "diversity" picks from the UK and USA with straight white men from lesser known countries. 

Saturday, September 07, 2019

My Struggle (Volume 2)(2009) by Karl Ove Knausgård


Book Review
My Struggle (Volume 2)(2009)
 by Karl Ove Knausgård

    I was lukewarm about the first volume of My Struggle- I listened to the Audiobook- as I ended up doing for Volume 2 after a couple of unsuccessful attempts to read an Ebook copy.  At the end of Volume 1, I felt like I could understand the appeal, but that I didn't quite connect with the book.

  Volume 2, which I mostly listened to while helping my Mom with her hip surgery in the Bay Area the past week, was quite a different experience- often moving me close to tears and leaving me with the conviction that at least the first two volumes of My Struggle- both of which were written before the first book was released and became a world-wide phenomenon- are among the greatest works of 21st century literature, and are both dead-bang canonical.

  I can see where the following four volumes- all of which were written and published after Knausgard became a world-wide literary phenomenon, might be...different, since the theme of the first two volumes deals so explicitly with Knausgard's perceived failings as a writer and human being.   If the sacrificial family member of Volume One is his father- a man who quite literally drinks himself to death in that book, the sacrifice of the second book is his second wife, Linda Boström, a Swedish poet and mother of his children.  In this book, Knausgard reveals the nature of his struggle for the first time- that is, to maintain a quest for artistic and/or personal greatness while surviving the prosaic mundanities of everyday life.  In this regard, his wife and children are cast as the role of the villains, as is Knausgard himself.

  I resisted My Struggle for so long that I feel almost ashamed lauding it now, but man- I really connected with the themes as a I drove to and from the hospital surrounding my Mom's surgery.  Knausgard truly is a Proust for the twenty first century.

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

The Young Man (1984) by Botho Strauß

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German author Brotho Strauß
Book Review
The Young Man (1984)
by Botho Strauß

Replaces: Time's Arrow by Martin Amis

  "More obscure" is one observation to be made about the difference between the original edition of the 1001 Books project and the 2008 revision.  The general trend is to include more authors from less represented regions and languages, replacing authors largely from the United Kingdom who had three or more titles in the original edition.

   Strauss went from zero books in the first edition to two books in the second- making him a big omission, especially since both titles were published before 1990 and were presumably known to the editors when they were putting the first book together.  It's hard to say anything about the contents, but I am going to quote liberally from the excellent wikipedia page to spare myself the labor:



Leon Pracht, a young man, abandons a budding career in the footsteps of his father—a historian of religion specialised on Montanus—after the positive reception of his debut as a theatre director. He is recruited for an adaptation of Jean Genet's The Maids in Cologne, starring the two diva actresses Petra "Pat" Kurzrok and Margarethe "Mag" Wirth. However, Pat and Mag turn out to be too much to handle. Leon asks for advice from the local star director Alfred Weigert, but still fails to actualise his vision for the play.

A woman enters a forest and finds a department store named The Tower of the Germans. After a phantasmagorical episode she finds herself naked in front of the proprietor of the Germans. The proprietor of the Germans is a large, floating head which is half man and half carp.

A man is doing a study on an alternative community whose members are known as the Syks. After observing their unusual habits he commits a social error which freaks out a local woman. He is banished from the colony and takes part in a dreamlike ritual involving scatological sexual activity. Afterwards his female colleague writes a scathing report about his unprofessional behaviour.

A king dies and is condemned as a criminal, which becomes a long-lasting national trauma. At a terrace behind the castle, a number of people are gathered: the paramedic Reppenfries, his sister-in-law Paula and wife Dagmar, the beautiful Almut, the "modern" Hanswerner, the mail clerk Yossica, and the narrator, Leon. Each person tells a personal story or discusses art and philosophy.

Later, Leon finds Yossica who has been transformed into a clump of earth with a face. She explains how she, an aspiring songwriter, had met two peculiar talent scouts, Schwarzsicht and Zuversicht. The first, dressed in ragged clothes, offered her a slowly developing talent which eventually would result in timeless quality. The second, dressed elegantly and dancing, offered her to become the leading star of a new trend. Yossica tried to trick the agents so she could have both, but the attempt failed badly and she became a lump of earth. She asks Leon to bring her with him and put her in soil so she can grow into her former self.
Leon works as a photographer and lives with Yossica. She convinces him to go and meet Alfred Weigert who is staying at a skyscraper hotel in their city. Weigert has had a massive success as Ossia, the main character is a series of comedy films which he also directed. As Ossia—the name he has become known under also in private—he brilliantly captures the German national character, playing a Prussian vagabond described in the press as a mix between Parsifal and Paracelsus. Leon had been involved in the making of the first Ossia film but after that left the industry. When Leon and Yossica meet Ossia in his room, he has aged poorly and become an overweight recluse. He has not appeared as an actor in his last two films, which have been disjointed, pseudo-profound and not nearly as successful as the previous ones. In desperation, Ossia asks Leon to collaborate on a new film project. Ossia hands him notes to read and starts to explain the project, intended as a vehicle for Pat in a great female comedic role, but the film lacks structure and Leon disapproves of it. Leon asks Ossia to come along for a walk to get some fresh air, but Ossia declines and remains inside the tower.

       There you go, people! Even reading the description it is hard to make sense of what any of it means.  The fact that it is a "phantasmagorical" type of book written in German and translated into English doesn't help, but I would observe that it seems more like a book that would have been written in the 1920's than the 1980's.   It also reminded me of Italo Calvino, another author I need to revisit because I just didn't get much out of him the first time through. 

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