VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The Rebel (1951) by Albert Camus


Book Review
The Rebel (1951)
by Albert Camus

  It is hard to fathom how The Rebel qualifies as the only work of philosophy (as supposed to fiction/literature) to make the 1001 Books list. I still own the copy that I bought at a Berkeley used book store in high school and never, not once, have I been tempted to take it off the shelf and revisit Camus' truculent wisdom.  Perhaps the inclusion comes from Camus' grounding of much of The Rebel on the behavior of famous literary characters, with a particularly detailed accounting of the development of nihilism in Russian literature during the 19th century.  With some shock, I realized that at some level I had remembered this portion of the book, since a bastardized version of his analysis percolated through my brain in recent years as I've read Turgenev and Dostoyevsky.

   His analysis of "the rebel" and his (sorry ladies!) behavior through different layers of history was a precursor for the thinkers who formulated the idea of a "counter culture"- it's no wonder that The Rebel and Camus' other famous works were readily available in every Bay Area book store in the early 1990's.  As counter cultures have grown large enough to swamp the idea of a mainstream culture, and said mainstream culture has responded, Camus' analysis of the politically active rebel man has been replaced by a media savvy, gender undifferentiated critic: reflecting a similar cultural shift among writers, from the privileged, white, avant garde, preaching rebellion while adhering closely to many societal standards, to the queer and non binary, non white, and non male critical theorists of the 1970's and 1980's.


  In that important sense, The Rebel is simultaneously a relic of the past of "dead white males" and a precursor to the post-1960's explosion in diversity- pity it is such a bore to read. 

Monday, September 24, 2018

The Tale of Genji (1100) by Murasaki Shikibu


Book Review
The Tale of Genji (1100)
 by Murasaki Shikibu

Replaced: Metamorphoses by Ovid (Review 2015)

  The Tale of Genji is a 1500 page proto-novel, written by a woman, Murasaki Shikibu, AKA Lady Murasaki around the turn of the millenium in Japan.   The Genji of the title is a royal prince, not in direct line for the throne, who is renowned for his beauty and the type of skills which were highly valued in feudal Japan:  He can write a mean hand at calligraphy, is a master of the ceremonial dance, and can play instruments and sing.  He is also a connoisseur of women, something along the lines of a don juan without the vicious cuckolding.  Apparently, the social structure of Japan left many aristocratic single women, and there were no religious or social prohibitions of a wealthy, aristocratic man enjoying the company of many women more or less at the same time.

  The Tale of Genji is a startling riposte to the conventional idea of the novel developing exclusively in western Europe in the 18th century.  Here, in Japan, in 1100 A.D., a woman wrote a book that, if not exactly a novel, is certainly novel-like enough to merit inclusion in any history of that literary genre.  Unfortunately, The Tale of Genji is not particularly accessible to a casual reader- not only is it 1500 pages, but nearly 500 pages of that length is arguably a sequel with a different author, about the children of Genji.  I stopped reading after Genji died, because, for all it's obvious literary merit, much of The Tale of Genji is repetitive and there is little to nothing EXCEPT endless details about love affairs, calligraphy, poetry, etc.    In fact, I think the closest western analogy would be the chivalric romances of the late middle ages in France, Spain and England.   Those chivalric tales are another underrepresented proto-novel genre that is emphasized in the 2008 first revision of the 1001 Books project.

    

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Valhalla (1980) by Newton Thornburg

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Original hardcover edition of Valhalla by Newton Thornburg
Book Review
Valhalla (1980)
 by Newton Thornburg

  One of the most surprising authors on the core list of 600 some odd books that comprise the 1001 Books List, i.e. those authors who have never lost their status for a particular volume throughout each revision of the book from 2008 to today, is American mostly-crime fiction pulp novelist Newton Thornburg, whose down at the heels, post-Vietnam War kidnap/revenge story, Cutter and Bone, is a core title of the 1001 Books list.

   What is surprising is that Thornburg is essentially forgotten in the United States, in the sense that he doesn't even have an authors Facebook page, let alone a long term publisher with a vested interest in raising his posthumous status. Set in Santa Barbara, just up the coast from Los Angeles and San Diego, Cutter and Bone was a true discovery of the 1001 Books project- an author based out of my cultural back yard, an area I'm interested in and travel to every few months, from a recent time period, and wholly unknown to myself, and really, unknown to everyone I know.  Finding authors like Newton Thornburg ny chance is essentially the whole long-term point of the 1001 Books project.

  Naturally I wanted to read more, and when I saw a description of Valhalla, Thornburg's very poorly received borderline racist post-apocalyptic survival novel, I just had to get my hands on a copy- which I finally did via an Ebook (though not a Kindle Ebook) that was available through the Los Angeles Public Library.   There is, indeed, much to despise in Valhalla, but it also entertains, and it gives voice to a part of our culture rarely immortalized in canonical level fiction.  Which is not to argue that Valhalla deserves canonical status, because,  it doesn't.  But it is fun and far different from what one reads in contemporary apocalyptic fiction, whose survivors tend to espouse the kind of values popular with the people reading said books.  In fact, what is amazing about the current crop of apocalit is how bland and anodyne the apocalypse can be in the hands of an author more determined to tell a story about characters and relationships. Not so here- Thornburg's "Mau Mau" street gang inspired post apocalyptic barbarians are anything but politically correct, and the sex and violence describe push Valhalla to an "only for adults" level.

   

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Severance (2018) by Ling Ma

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American author Ling Ma makes a bold debut with Severance, her combination of post-apocalyptic zombie thriller and first generation American bildungsroman. 
Book Review
Severance (2018)
by Ling Ma
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Augst 2018


   You could call this book "#Apocalypse" or "Apocalypse, Meh," and both suggestions would convey the tone, if not depth, of Severance, the first novel by first generation American author Ling Ma.  Narrator Candice Chen, the daughter of Chinese immigrants who settled in Salt Lake City, is the last woman out of New York City, after a fungus inspired disease renders nearly every human on Earth, "fevered;" a state which resembles that of a zombie lacking ill intent.

   The book switches back and forth between the present, where Candice falls in with a group of (the only) survivors travelling to a well stocked "facility" partially owned by group leader Bob. In between is a fairly straight forward bildungsroman about Chen's experience as the daughter of immigrants, and her work and love life in New York City as a lower level editor of Bibles at a company that handles outsourced printing jobs in China.

  The almost universally laudatory reviews posit that Severance is more than the sum of its parts, though I would reduce the number of those parts to two: the post-apocalypse narrative and the more conventional first generation American bildungsroman. Like Ma's writing, the idea is clever.  Whatever the ultimate verdict on the literary merit of Severance- this was another title I thought might be on the National Book Award for fiction longlist announced earlier this month, there is no denying that Severance is funny and thoughtful at the same time, and it makes fresh what otherwise is heavily trodden territory (post apocalyptic literary fiction and American immigrant bildungsromans.)

  I would join the chorus of recommenders, and make a plug for the Audiobook- because the only weakness- Ma's choice to rely exclusively on a single voice for narration- translates perfectly to the Audiobook format, which favors such books where there is a single narrator or lengthy spoken monologues, and does less well with a diversity of narrators and conversational dialogue.

 

 
   

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Smila's Sense of Snow (1992) by Peter Hoeg

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Actress Julia Ormond played the half inuit/half Danish protagonist Smilla in the move version of Smilla's Sense of Snow
Book Revew
Smila's Sense of Snow (1992)
 by Peter Hoeg

  I was 16 in 1992, when Smila's Sense of Snow was published, 17 the next year when the English translation came out.  It was a minor literary sensation back then, before The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series catapulted scandi-noir into the consciousness of the literate English speaking public.  Indeed, Smila's Sense of Snow is almost a template for the elements of Dragon Tattoo:  A young, female outsider protagonist, a mystery that involves the intertwined relationship between Scandinavian business and society and a distinct sense of outrage about the moral calculus of capitalism.

  I distinctly remember the hard cover edition my parents bought, this time I read it as an Ebook, on my Kindle app. There, it was more evidence of the difficulty have reading on my Kindle cell phone app.  It took me almost the entire 21 day borrowing period, and I barely finished before the library check-out expired automatically.   Not because Smila's Sense of Snow as a bad choice as an ebook, quite the opposite: Anything that involves genre or is already familiar to the reader is going to be ok to read as an Ebook.  Rather, it is the fact that the cell phone presents so many other options to engage me when I'm using it.  Compare that reading experience to an actual book or listening to an audiobook, both of which more or less require undivided attention.  I end up flipping back and forth between the Ebook and Instagram, going to Facebook, reading articles in my feed, refreshing my email, sending text messages, anything but reading.  My whole idea is that I would increase my efficiency and spend less time doing useless stuff on my phone, but the useless stuff, really any distraction whatsoever, is enough for me to close the Kindle app on my phone.

   Like many canon level works of detective/crime fiction, Smilla's Sense of Snow holds up well, both in terms of the book itself and the setting: early 1990's Copenhagen and bits of Greenland.  If someone told me that Smilla was published last year, instead of in 1992, I wouldn't be surprised.  The editors obviously prefer Hoeg to Dragon Tattoo author Larsson, who has never been selected in any edition.    

Monday, September 17, 2018

The Incendiaries (2018) by R. O. Kwon

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R. O. Kwon, author of The Incendiaries

Book Review
The Incendiaries (2018)
by R. O. Kwon
Published July 2018 by Riverhead Books

 The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon has been tabbed as an auspicious debut novel, and the backing of Riverhead Books, the prestige imprint for PenguinRandomhouse in the United States, certainly can't hurt.   One of the major advantages of the novel as an art form is the adaptability it has displayed over the nearly four centuries that it has dominated literary output.   A format that works for many different writers, the bildungsroman, for example, a narrative about the growth between childhood and adulthood,  was pioneered in early 19th century Germany, popped up in every major national literature in the mid 19th century onward, and provides a disproportionate number of "first" novels, both good and bad.

  The bildungsroman is also a genre that blends well with other genres: almost the entire corpus of fantasy novels as a genre is some kind of coming of age story.    The bildungsroman, or "coming of age story" in English, has also been hugely influential in other art forms, television and film, to name two.  So for each new voice that comes along, a bildungsroman is a well understood step to bridge the gap from unpublished novelist to hot young novelist.

  Kwon writes about a small group of Korean-American students attending a non descript college on the East Coast.  Although Kwon switches perspectives around to build suspense, the major narrator is Will, a recovering religious fanatic(?) who has abandoned his west coast bible college in favor of a new start.  His love interest is Phoebe, a "manic pixie" dream girl, who harbors a tragic secret.   John Leal is the third major player- a half Korean- half white student religious leader who turns into the fulcrum of the plot.  Kwon delves into the back stories of the major character- not Leal- just Phoebe and Will, both of whom reflect different aspects of the experience of childhood from the perspective of an assimilated Korean-American.

   I didn't know the gender of the author of The Incendiaries and based on the main narrator being a man, I wrongly assumed the gender of the author.  At the same time, I wasn't at all surprised.  There is no rule that says a bildungsroman narrated by a man has to be written by a man, and indeed Kwon's bold choice has paid off in terms of the critical applause and best-seller status, recently obtained.  Having read The Incendiaries, I'm surprised it didn't make the National Book Award fiction longlist, but it was a down year of Asian American nominees, after last year.

  It is fair to observe that none of the critical and popular applause is due to The Incendiaries being a typical bildungsroman, of course there is something more, but you certainly have to read to find out what.

  

Friday, September 14, 2018

2018 National Book Award Fiction Finalists Announced


2018 National Book Award Fiction Longlist


A Lucky Man(stories), by Jamel Brinkley (Gray Wolf Press) #
Gun Love, by Jennifer Clement (PenguinRandomHouse) !
Florida, by Lauren Groff (Review Sept. 2018) !
The Boatbuilder, by Daniel Gumbiner (McSweeneys) $
Where the Dead Sit Talking, by Brandon Hobson (Soho Press) @
An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones #
The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai $
The Friend, by Sigrid Nunez $
There There, by Tommy Orange (Review Aug 2018) @
Heads of the Colored People, by Nafissa Thompson-Spires #

# = African American author
! = Florida
@ = Native American author
$ = Inside the Bubble

    All hail the 2018 National Book Awards Fiction longlist.  The National Book Award also added an "in translation" category, similar to the one that the Booker Prize introduced.   I'm interested in the in translation category but not this year!  Surprising that The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner wasn't nominated (it made the Booker Prize longlist) and same with The Overstory by Richard Powers.   Circe, by Madeline Miller was another title I thought had a cut and it didn't make the cut. 

  No Asian American representatives, despite a full slate of candidates, including Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng.  I thought There There was a very strong book, and looking at the other choices, I don't see any books that have separated from the pack.  In fact, I haven't heard of any of the books I haven't read except The Boatbuilder, which was published by McSweeney's, and I read McSweeney's in my feed.   

  Many of these titles aren't even available at the library, which I think tracks with the fact that I haven't seen any reviews of the books I haven't read.  I read Florida and There There because I saw prominent reviews and read them.  The National Book Award Longlist is a huge springboard to get those reviews out there- so it's really a starting point for most of these authors.  It seems like they focus on longlist authors who can really benefit from the designation, in a way that Kushner and Powers do not.   It makes, sense, and I can dig it.  They certainly spent enough years handing out prizes to white dudes.

   Looking forward to the longlist and all the different viewpoints.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) by Mohsin Hamid


Book Review
The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007)
by Mohsin Hamid

Replaces: On Beauty (2005) by Zadie Smith (Review 2018)

  The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid  is one of over 250 books that was added in the first revision and removed in 2012.  It seems reasonable that there would be a lot of "like for like" swaps as the list moves onward into the present.  On Beauty, by Zadie Smith scored major WOC points for the first list, but deviates from the second edition priorities of non-English, non-white voice in the sense that Smith's voice is largely a voice of privilege, even if the narrator writes as an outsider.  Also, On Beauty is a campus novel, which is under-represented in the first edition, and clearly out of sync as a genre with the priorities of the second list.

  Hamid is a candidate for achieving the kind of South Asian/English language audience for literary fiction that is very rare.   His most recent book, Exit West (Reviewed 2017) was a very well received sci-fi/literary fiction genre straddler that continues to sell reasonably well and won some prizes and got on some year end top 10 lists.  Like his narrator,  Hamid attended Princeton University and he writes from a point of privilege.  Changez, the narrator, is telling his story to an unnamed American visitor (not tourist) at a market stall restaurant in Lahore, Pakistan.   The entire book is Changez talking to the American- no responses are included, though it is obvious that Changez is in conversation.

  This makes The Reluctant Fundamentalist an excellent Audiobook choice, since the book itself consists of a person speaking at length without interruption, mirroring the format of the Audiobook itself as a medium.   Changez is a charming narrator, although his American dream of making 80,000 a year working for a firm that values businesses for the purpose of acquisition price seems almost laughably prelapsarian, and the events of the book, framed around the trauma of 9/11, mirror the before and after motif.

  As the reader learns, the title describes Changez in terms of the attitude he develops towards his business life of analyzing business value for sale, and Hamid leaves alternative interpretations in doubt almost until the very last page.
  

Hard Times (1854) by Charles Dickens


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Josian Bounderby of Coketown, as a risible a Dickens villain as one can find.

Book Review
Hard Times (1854)
 by Charles Dickens

   Charles Dickens was a major casualty of the first revision of the 1001 Books list.  Between 2006 and 2008 he lost six of his ten titles, including Hard Times.  I don't agree with their choices, specifically the decision to drop both Hard Times and A Christmas Carol, his two most accessible books, and the only two out of his ten original selections that clock in at under 500 pages.  The mere fact that Hard Times clocks in at 240 pages is sufficient to recommend it as a canon worthy title.   The reader receives the same reading/listening experience in a third of the time it takes to tackle one of the major works- and they are pretty much all major works.   It isn't as if Dickens was a great literary craftsman-  where we hang on his every word.

    Hard Times is also notable because of the direct critique of mid-Victorian period utilitarianism in the character of Josiah Bounderby, who might be the first character in the history of literature to conceal a normal upbringing in favor of presenting himself as someone raised in the gutter, while his mother sneaks in once a year to watch him from afar.   

  Like most of the 19th century canon, Hard Times makes for an ideal Audiobook.  Dickens himself was obsessed with reading his books aloud to an audience, and spent an incredible amount of his time both preparing and executing this approach on a series of reading tours.   I'm sure, were Dickens alive today, he would read his own titles himself on the Audiobook edition.   Along with Coetzee, Dickens is the only author to have 10 books on the original list.   His presence on the core list with four titles is second only to Coetzee's five.

  It's always worth noting that while Dickens was always a popular success, his critical appreciation lagged for half a century- it was decades and decades before he was firmly elevated and ensconced in the canon, and it wasn't until after World War II that he became the 19th century novelist- him and Jane Austen, appreciated in a way that almost escaped him entirely during his own life.

Metamorphica (2018) by Zachary Mason


Book Review
Metamorphica (2018)
 by Zachary Mason
Published July 2018 by Macmillan Press

  I try to keep abreast of new forms of fiction.  "Flash fiction" is a term that may or may not represent a new literary genre, depending on who is asked.  The wikipedia entry for this term is illustrative noting that flash fiction has "its roots in antiquity" and has more recent antecedents in the "short short story" developed for American magazine's in the early 20th century.  Recent developments in technology have given the idea of flash fiction a push, as writers experiment with stories written one tweet at a time, or in the comment section of blog posts.

  As is often the case, the canon keepers have resisted flash fiction, probably because it is tough to base an entire classroom lecture around a fifty word short story, and equally hard to base a lecture on twenty different short stories that are each more than fifty words.  At the same time, "real" novelists have incorporated some techniques popularized by flash fiction- I'm thinking of the many voices and perspectives of last year's Man Booker prize winner, Lincoln in the Bardo, written by American author George Saunders. 

  I checked out the Audiobook of Metamorphica by Zachary Mason based on a capsule description, "Ovid's Metamorphoses as flash-fiction," which struck me as a potential critic and audience pleaser.  Published in July of this year, Metamorphica doesn't appear to have struck a chord with the reading public, but the reviews have been good.  My choice of an Audiobook for this title, was a poor one- I don't think the Audiobook format works for fiction that progresses in units that average under one page per "story."  Without the lay out of the text, the Audiobook tends to blend different stories together, and even with the chapters and sections announced by the narrator, the listener lacks a sense of the format.   Metamorphica is less confusing then another Audiobook of flash-fiction might be because he hews closely to the structure of Metamorphoses itself-  a compendium of Greek myths written for a "modern" (i.e. Roman) audience.

  Metamorphica is ideal for a reader who hasn't read Metamorphoses itself,  Conversely, if you have read Metamorphoses you might find yourself asking, as I did, whether brief snippets recounting the same stories from the view point of an Instagram model, who the Godlings of Greek myth often resemble in the original prose, is a worthwhile exercise.    It doesn't help Mason that Madeline Miller has recently scored a cross over critical/popular success with a similar work, Circe, which tells the tale of that witch with a modern voice.

  For the less familiar stories, the Audiobook format was fatal- if I was reading the print or Ebook edition I would have stopped to look up the underlying myth, but you can't really do that in an Audiobook.   I also remain unsold on flash fiction as a genre. Convince me.
   

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