VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Herbert (2019) by Nabarun Bhattacharya

 


Book Review
Herbert (2019)
by Nabarun Bhattacharya

      Bengali author Nabarun Bhattacharya (1948-2014) came from a left leaning family that already counted several authors among its members.  Nabarun seems like the rebel in the family- an avowed Marxist who has been mostly (entirely?) ignored by English language audiences because none of his books were in translation.  That has changed with Herbert, his 1994 classic, which I believe is the first of his novels to get an English translation. 

   It's an interesting story- about a low-rent psychic who is tapped by an impresario for "bigger things."  Increased attention leads to increased woes, as he is quickly targeted by  an anti-psychic group for exposure.  It is a bracing story, crackling with more life and energy than many other books coming out of India.  Highly recommended- more of his books ought to be translated into English.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The Discomfort of Evening (2020) by Mareke Lucas Rijneveld

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld - Wikipedia
First time author and Booker Prize winner Mareke Lucas Rijneveld

 

Book Review
The Discomfort of Evening(1967)
by Mareke Lucas Rijneveld

Everybody loves an auspicious debut, and they don't come more auspicious than The Discomfort of Evening, by first-time Dutch novelist Mareke Lucas Rijneveld.  The Discomfort of Evening just won the Booker International Prize, just in time for the American edition to be published.  I feel like maybe someone must have tipped them off?  

  The Discomfort of Evening is a harrowing coming-of-age story about a young woman (just turned 13) living in a contemporary community of Reformed Church members- which seems like a very strict, almost Amish-esque kind of Calvinism.  Her father is a dairy farmer (Rijneveld allegedly still works on a dairy farm) and her brother has recently died in a swimming accident, leaving her alone with said parents and her younger sister.

  There is nothing totally horrific in The Discomfort of Evening- some of the reviews hinted at really disturbing material, but you know, it's a farming family, so animals die and fathers try to cure their daughters chronic constipation by putting pieces of soap up her butt. Normal farm family stuff, I surmise.  I had a feeling, based on the buzz around the British edition, that this a serious contender for the Booker International Prize and now having read it I can see why.   The only shortlist title I didn't get to this year was The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Camara.

The Plain in Flames (1967) by Juan Rulfo

 

Book Review
The Plain in Flames(1967)
by Juan Rulfo

Replaces:  A World of Love by Elizabeth Bowen


  I don't know if Cormac McCarthy read The Plain in Flames, Juan Rulfo's classic collection of short stories depicting harsh life in the era of the Mexican Revolution, but it is impossible not to think of Cormac McCarthy's depiction of Mexico, and it's also impossible for any English language reader not to be reminded of the setting of The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene.  Of course, The Plain in Flames is the authentic stuff of Mexican literary culture, a kind of ur depiction of the Mexican peasant class, which you would have to say represents the "soul" of the Mexican people, especially as the culture combines a Spanish overlay with deeply indigenous folkways.

  The scenery is haunting, the stories, also haunting.  Life in early 20th century Mexico just feels so spartan and severe.  And sad. Terribly, terribly sad.   The Plain in Flames might as well be from a different planet than the Anglo-Irish country house antics of A World of Love by Elizabeth Bowen- one of the least significant titles from the original edition.  I mean, the Anglo Irish aristocracy gets so many picks in the original 1001 Books list (mainly through Elizabeth Bowen.)

Friday, September 11, 2020

Blonde Roots (2008) by Bernardine Evaristo

 


Book Review
Blonde Roots(2008)
by Bernardine Evaristo

   After I finished Bernardine Evaristo's Booker Prize winning Girl, Woman, Other earlier this year, I went and looked at her previous novels.  Blonde Roots, an exercise in alternate history where Africans call Europe the "grey continent" and export  white slaves to "New Japan" obviously appealed to me, since it combines elements of genre with literary aspiration.  One of the critiques I read of Blonde Roots is that it was too enraptured with the details of world building that the story never really takes off, and I guess that would be a judgment of the marketplace as well, since Blonde Roots wasn't a hit.   Still, I found it very interesting, and it was a very interesting audiobook, since the characters speak with accents that are essentially, made up. 

   Doris, the white slave from the "Cabbage coast" is the major narrator, though she splits duties with the orotund prose stylings of her master, Bwana, who addresses the reader in a mirror universe of the white planters of 18th, 19th and 20th century prose fiction.  Obviously, the book is written in English and Bwana comes from the United Kingdom of Great Ambossa and it's great capital city of Londolo.  It's not clear when Blonde Roots takes place- slavery is very much in place, but crowd scenes often have the tinge of the 20th century- mohawks and political slogans.   So yeah, maybe Blonde Roots isn't a stone-cold prize winning classics, but it is a wild Audiobook and worth tracking down simply for the listening experience.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Hard Rain Falling (1966) by Don Carpenter

Hard Rain Falling
Cover art for the New York Review of Books Classics edition of Hard Rain Falling.

 



Book Review
Hard Rain Falling(1957)
by Don Carpenter

  Hard Rain Falling is a "lost classic" of American crime fiction, rescued from out-of-print status by the New York Review of Books Classics edition published in 2009.  If you wanted to trace the roots of American crime fiction, you would want to go back at least until to the 1730's, when English painter William Hogarth did his series of a Rake's Progress, dramatizing the decent of an 18th century dandy into degeneracy and sin.   The major evolution between then and now is the decoupling of crime fiction from some kind of ending which provides moral uplift- this being the major difference between Hard Rain Falling, written in the mid 1960's, and You Can't Win by Jack Black- published in the 1920's, where the uplifting ending or reform is required.

  Jack Levitt is the main protagonist- he shares time with Billy Lancing, a light skinned African American who Levitt befriends, later loves (when they are together in San Quentin) and loses (Lancing is killed in prison.)  Levitt is an orphan- the introduction is a brief description of the circumstances of Levitt's birth, and this experience colors his subsequent experience- since he is basically turned loose on the streets of Portland at 14.   He commits crimes big and small, and is eventually done in by a kidnapping and statutory rape case out of a county resembling Sonoma County, after he's found in a San Francisco hotel room with the under-age daughter of a local dignitary.  It's a classic tale, old as time. His prison story isn't as harrowing as the more naturalistic accounts that would later occur, but it is a realistic depiction of prison life- interesting in the 1960's, when people were just becoming interested.

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

The Birds (1957) Tarjei Vesaas

 

Book Review

The Birds (1957)
by Tarjei Vesaas
Replaces: Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow

  Another 1001 Books second edition addition of a Norwegian author- taking his place alongside Cora Sempel, author of Alberta and Jacob (1926).  You could argue that they should both be dropped in favor of Karl Ove Knaausgard, who is not included in any edition of 1001 Books.   The Birds is a short classic about Matthew, a mentally challenged- the exact nature nature of his disability is vague.  He lives with his sister a still-young-enough-to-marry spinster who supports the both of them by her weaving.

  Told from the perspective of Matthew it is clear that his sister feels trapped, but that Matthew is incapable of releasing her from her burden (him).   Things begin to change when a handsome lumberjack takes up as a boarder in their house. A modern reader will likely see the ending coming from a mile away, but there is no denying that The Birds is a little masterpiece, and an early example of neuro-atypical narrator being treated with something more than contempt by an author. 

Monday, September 07, 2020

Time of Silence (1962) by Luis Martin-Santos

 

Book Review

Time of Silence (1962)
by Luis Martin-Santos

Replaces: A Man Asleep by Georges Perec

  Pedro is a doctor, working as a cancer researcher in Madrid.  He's studying the impact of cancer on a particular lineage of mouse, predisposed to getting said cancer.   When he runs out of the original supply, he turns to the mice bred by a man living in the Madrid slums with his wife and daughters.   Pedro rapidly becomes entwined in the life of this family- performing an illegal abortion on one of the daughters.   She dies, and he is soon arrested for the crime, only to be released, only to see his fiance murdered by the erst-while boyfriend of the dead daughter. 

  Time of Silence was the only authored by Luis Martin-Santos, a doctor who ran a psychiatric hospital outside Madrid.  Time of Silence was very controversial when it was originally published in Spain- 20 pages were censored in the original edition, and they weren't restored until 1981.

Friday, September 04, 2020

Tender is the Flesh(2020) by Agustina Bazterrica

Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica | Pushkin Press | 9781782276203
Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica- my pick for dystopia of the year.

Book Review

Tender is the Flesh (2020)
by Agustina Bazterrica


   Tender is the Flesh arrives in English translation as an Argentinian sensation, winner of the Clarin Award for Best Novel.  Imagining a near-future where the only meat is human flesh, the narrator has adapted to the most dystopian of dystopias, trading his skill in butchering cows to butchering humans for consumption.  In fine genre tradition, much of Tender is the Flesh takes places in lengthy procedural's, a walk down the factory floor, an interview with prospective employees, trips to the (human) leather factory and the animal experimentation lab.  Marcos is still a man with modern problems, his dad is in the end stages of dementia at an expensive nursing home- Marcos wants to make sure he isn't eaten when he dies.

  After the death of his infant son, his wife has lapsed into severe depression, so severe that she is forced to retreat to her parent's home in the country.  Marcos is at alone, at loose ends, when he receives a "gift" of a "genetically pure" human female- tongueless- meat humans have them removed close to birth so they can't talk, but still with her limbs- one factory specific detail from Tender is the Flesh is that pregnant meat humans have all their limbs amputated to prevent from killing the fetus inside them. 

   Horror is piled upon horror, and Tender is the Flesh works equally well as commentary of factory farming, which is immoral by any neutral standard, as well as commentary on international capitalism.   Bazterrila develops her plot carefully, and she never abandons the explaining impulse, with new and even more horrific details about the post-eating human society emerging all the way until the last chapter.  

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

The Girl with the Louding Voice (2020) by Abi Dare

Abi Daré | Penguin Random House
Author Abi Dare

Book Review

The Girl with the Louding Voice (2020)
by Abi Dare


   This debut novel by Nigerian author Abi Dare tells the harrowing tale of Adunni, a 14 year old girl living in rural Nigeria who flees an arranged marriage with a much older man, only to find herself a virtual slave to Big Mama, the wealthy owner of a Lagos area cloth factory.  The most remarkable aspect of the prose of the book is that it is written in broken English, complete with non-standard grammar and vocabulary.  It made for an excellent Audiobook- hearing the actual VOICE of Adunni made a huge difference for me, really drawing me into the story.

   Dare does a decent job of developing her plot, but once Adunni escapes her arranged marriage (really more of a sale) the trajectory of the story of a maid of the underclass escaping her fate becomes predictable.  It's obvious that Dare is not herself an escaped Adunni, her biography more resembles a wealthy woman who becomes Adunni's patron to escape the clutches of Big Mama.   But you know that Adunni is going to win in the end- it's clear.  Honestly, it's the only thing that made the excessive cruelty suffered by Adunni at the hands of Big Mama bearable over the length of a novel.  

The Guide (1958) by R.K. Narayan


 Book Review

The Guide (1958)
by R.K. Narayan

Replaces: How It Is by Samuel Beckett

   R.K. Narayan is another Indian writer who wrote in English.  Narayan was Tamil, he set most of his books in a fictional South Indian town of Malgudi, which is located in Tamil Nadu- the Tamil homeland in Southern India.  Tamil's have played an outsize role within the Indian diaspora, generally being more adventurous then their Northern Indian counterparts and less invested in the idea of India as a nation.  The Guide is about Railroad Raju, an ex-tour guide who emerges from prison at the beginning of the novel and assumes the guise of a mystic, where he develops a local reputation.  

   The narrative switches between his present and his past, where he falls for the wife of a client, and stage manages her career as a dancer, before falling victim to local rivals, eventually leading to his imprisonment.  The Guide reminded me the most of early Naipaul- an international writer covering his roots, although I don't think Narayan ever escaped Malgudi.

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