VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Cry, the Beloved Country (1948) by Alan Paton


Book Review
Cry, the Beloved Country (1948)
by Alan Paton

  I was assigned Cry, the Beloved Country my freshman year in high school, as part of freshman English.  It's very easy for a non-student/non-educator to forget the life-or-death role that schools play in the canon formation process.  The ability of a novel to become a fixture in high school or college English/Literature classes in the United States has become the most important single factor in ensuring canonical status for that work.

  Alan Paton is also one of the great one-hit wonders of 20th century literature.  He emerged form obscurity as an administrator of a provincial South African juvenile reformatory, when on a tour or Western prisons, he handed the hand written manuscript to some American friends.  Those friends were well connected and influential, and before he let the US a few weeks later he had a book deal. The book was an immediate hit in the United States, and to a less degree in the UK (and not in South Africa), the popular success paving the road for it's introduction as a "taught" book.   Along with Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe it is one of the tent-poles of African literature, at least as that term is understood by western audiences.

   Cry, the Beloved Country continues to hold up as a classic,  Reading it this time, I was struck by the similarities between this book and To Kill a Mockingbird.  Stephen Kumalo, the long suffering country parson whose desire to track down his sister and son in the slums of Johannesburg forms the impetus for the narrative, is only one of a dozen memorable characters, black and white (though entirely, it should be said, male.) created by Paton as he realizes his complex vision of apartheid era South Africa.

   Multiple scenes illustrate that South African society was never unilaterally set against the interests of black Africans.  The murder at the heart of Cry, the Beloved Country: by the son of Stephen Kumalo of a well-known white reformer, proves to be a bringer of both blessings and curses to Kumalo's isolated village. The tragedy of Apartheid era South Africa is that it obscured what was some of the most progressive, hands on thinker and doers on the topic of race and economic development.  Unfortunately, many of these people were victims of the very same policies they so vociferously opposed, and over time they either moved into the shadows or actually left South Africa.
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Monday, April 23, 2018

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (1987) by Douglas Adams


Book Review
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (1987)
 by Douglas Adams

  In Junior High, Douglas Adams was one of my favorite authors, specifically, the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was  a threshold title between Young Adult/Genre Fiction and the headier world of literature.  In my own experience, Adams preceded the Beats and Herman Hesse, and his treatment of philosophical issues, humorous though they might be, spurred my own interest in, "Life, The Universe and Everything"

  I remember the paperback copy of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. I can still remember the cover art from the decade plus it sat on my bookshelf.  I don't have the paperback any longer, so I read the Ebook on my Kindle smartphone app.  This is an almost perfect book for an Ereader- it's decently long but not too long, and the prose is breezy enough to make switching between the book and other apps easy. 

  As for the book itself, not as funny as I remember it, but in 2018, large swathes of the humor industrial complex have adapted to the combination of humor and whimsy that marked this book as distinctive when it was released.  There is even, most improbably, a television version.

The Corrections (2001) by Jonathan Franzen


Book Review
The Corrections (2001)
by Jonathan Franzen

  I've been consciously avoiding reading The Corrections since it was released in 2001.  I was, at the time, a fan of his early novels, Twenty Seventh City, about an Indian-American mayor of St. Louis, and Strong Motion, but the hubbub over The Corrections (Oprah's Book Club, National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist) turned me off, as did the precis of the book about a dysfunctional Midwestern American family.   Finally reading it 2018, it was everything, and more, that I thought it would be vis-a-vis the problems of privileged white folks in mid to late 20th century America.

  Which is not to say that The Corrections doesn't have it moments, particularly in the portions that deal directly with the diminished capacity of the family patriarch and the struggles of his wife and three children to deal with it.  I listened to the Audiobook version which I learned, only afterwards, was a, horrors, abridged version.  Reflecting on the experience though, my horror lessened.  Surely the abridgment was justified. 

  Franzen deserved his success, if only for the fact that he really does blaze new territory in the depiction of the onset of alzheimers/dementia, which I believe is a growth area for literary fiction.  The problems of the children themselves range from unsympathetic to unbelievable, and the mother doesn't come off much better.  Or maybe it all hits a little bit too close to home for his child of Jews who moved from St. Louis to San Francisco within the same general timeline of this book. 

Don't Move (2004) by Margaret Mazzantini


Book Review
Don't Move (2004)
 by Margaret Mazzantini

  I surmise that Don't Move, the 2004 novel by Italian author Margaret Mazzantini made a splash- both in her native Italy, where it sold a million copies, and in English translation, but I missed all that, and it came to me as one of those random selections at the end of the original edition of the 1001 Books list.  The only copy I could locate was the hard copy, no Kindle or Audiobook for this title.

  The plot is something that only makes sense in the context of Europe:  A succesful Italian surgeon sits at the bedside of his adolescent daughter in the aftermath of a traumatic scooter accident.  As he waits for her to recover (or not) he recounts an affair with a slatternly woman named Italia.  They meet, as could only be the case in a French or Italian work of art, when he, the surgeon has car trouble and needs to find a phone to call for help.  Italia offers him the use of the phone in her shack,  He uses the phone, calls for help, then returns shortly thereafter and violently rapes her.  At first consumed with the fear of discovery, he returns to the scene of the crime, rapes her again, and only then realizes that, perhaps, she is into it.

 She is, indeed, into it, and their relationship starts as a series of quasi-violent or actually violent sex scenes and evolves into something...else.   More would spoil the story, which isn't quite a thriller, but more like a morality tale woven into something resembling a thriller.  

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Saturday (2005) by Ian McEwan


Book Review
Saturday (2005)
 by Ian McEwan

  Ian McEwan is an author who immediately challenges the "Early/Middle/Late" principle of 3 works for any author in the literary canon.  Saturday is the last of seven books he place in the first edition of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.  Since 1001 Books was published in 2006, he's published six more novels, one of which (On Chesil Beach, 2007) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.  He has yet another novel coming out this year, which would seem to indicate that there is no clear point at which to demarcate the periods of McEwan's writing except for the beginning. 

  As far as the beginning goes, The Cement Garden, 1978, which is his first published novel, makes a great choice.  None of his other early books clearly surpasses it, and it was published first, so pick that one.   The next question is, what is the cut-off point for mid-period Ian McEwan, and of course, here the difficulties begin.  At least setting the boundary between early and middle should be possible.

  I think the proper dividing line is Black Dogs (1992) and Enduring Love (1997).   Enduring Love is the first book that really explores his mid-period combination of the exquisite workings of fate with specialized medical and scientific knowledge wielded for good and/or evil by a troubled protagonist.   Picking a middle period representative is pretty easy, probably Atonement (2001), which is his best seller, his most famous and maybe his best book as well.  It's the cut off for the middle period where his continued productivity causes problems.

   It could be anywhere, really,  On Chesil Beach, his last book to be nominated for a major literary prize, makes a certain amount of sense, or the next book, Solar (2010).  The late period representative is impossible to determine.   Cutting out the other five books brings his 1001 Books total down to two, which seems about right for a truly representative canon.

   Saturday, then, is a cut. It is squarely inside his middle period, about a single day in the life of a neurosurgeon who has a chance encounter with a Huntington's disease suffering cockney gangster in a fender bender caused by Iraqi war protestors.  The liberal use of brain surgeon language makes Saturday an ideal Kindle read- being able to touch a particular term and bring up the Wikipedia page before progressing was invaluable in this case, and you can count on McEwan for a reasonable length for all of his books. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Kafka on the Shore (2002) by Haruki Murakami



Book Review
Kafka on the Shore (2002)
by Haruki Murakami

  I would argue that a good principle for the 1001 Books project is that no single author should have more than 3 titles on the list.   The theory being that no author has more than three great periods, and there is no need for one period to be represented by more than one title.  Presumably, if you read the canonical title representing "Middle Murakami" you can go out and find the non canonical books on your own.   For any author, the first period is either the "first novel" or "early work," typically shorter than the representative of the "middle" or "mature" period, where the works tend to be lengthier, more imaginative, recognized my major literary awards, etc. Finally there is the "late" work, something more experimental, or perhaps a work of non-fiction or a work more personal in nature than the early or middle representative work.

   Under that schema, Kafka on the Shore would be the best representative of "Middle Murakami."  It is not only ambitious in terms of length (650 pages) but it also represents a more in depth explorations of themes both fantastical and mundane from his earlier books.   At the same time, Kafka on the Shore isn't that long- not compared to the 1000+ page 1Q84, which is probably the other strong contestant for the "Middle Murakami" pick.   Murakami's success in translation  has importance for what it tells us about his audience- which has a suspicious resemblance to what heavy users of the internet also appreciate, namely cats, Japanese culture and magical realism.

  When I checked, the paperback edition of Kafka on the Shore was the second top selling product on his Amazon page, behind only the pre-sale for his forth coming book Killing Commendatore.  He's published multiple titles, fiction and non-fiction since Kafka on the Shore was published in Japanese in 2002 (English 2005.) 

   I decided on the Audiobook version- generally speaking, the closer you get to the present, the more likely the major releases have a high quality Audiobook edition, and Kafka on the Shore qualifies.   At 20 hours, it's a hefty commitment, but Murakami's translated prose sounds great read aloud, and nothing is so complicated that you might want to stop and look at the print.   Listening to a Murakami audio book is like hearing someone tell you a story around a campfire. 

Celestial Harmonies (2004) by Peter Esterhazy


Book Review
Celestial Harmonies (2004)
 by Peter Esterhazy

   This 850 page monster by the scion of one Hungary's most famous aristocratic families is one of those English translations which works better in the UK, where the Esterhazy family name holds some actual clout among the cultural elite, than the US, where most people think Hungary is what happens when you don't eat, and the pedigrees of ancient European royalty function best as punch lines. 

  To be sure, the Esterhazy family got a raw deal of it when the Communists took over Hungary, but they handled it with aplomb, at least as depicted in this book.  In true European fashion, Celestial Harmonies is divided into two 400 page parts.  The first part, written as numbered paragraphs, are various observations about different members of the Esterhazy family line, stretching back in time to the origins of the family.  He includes entire portions of other books- actual entire pages of The Dead Father by Donald Barthelme- which he acknowledges both before and after the main text.

  The second half of Celestial Harmonies is a more or less conventional work of biographical fiction about the experience of Esterhazy's father under Communism.  Compared to similar stores about people living through Russian, Chinese and Cambodian versions of this same transition, the Esterhazy's had an easy time of it and to his credit, Esterhazy doesn't try overmuch to enlist the sympathy of the reader for his poor dad. 

Monday, April 16, 2018

Tropic of Cancer (1934) by Henry Miller


Book Review
Tropic of Cancer (1934)
 by Henry Miller

   The publication date of 1934 is misleading.  Tropic of Cancer wasn't published in the United States or Great Britain until 1961 and after that it figured prominently in the obscenity law spawned litigation that helped redraw the rules of free speech in the United States to their modern, lenient standards  This puts Henry Miller in the same category with James Joyce, whose frank descriptions in Ulysses made it another trailblazer in American publishing jurisprudence. Since then the debate has been whether Miller deserves it, helped by the tremendous popularity the suddenly-au-courant book involved with the start of the1960's.  Tropic of Cancer is the Paris book, Tropic of Capicorn the New York book.

   And while Tropic of Cancer may have been judged "not obscene" by the it certainly is a dirty book.  That is kind of the point, the over all dirtiness, both sexual and in terms of hygiene, that seems to be the very point of Henry Miller, a kind of non-religious spiritual mortification of the spirit, the 20th century equivalent of a medieval flagellant. I was young when I read Tropic of Cancer for the first time- high school.   As a 41 year old, Miller's sexual obsession is less interesting that it was to my 16 year old self, for obvious reasons.

   I think in terms of literary merit, the jury is still out on  Henry Miller. He's still read, because of his proximity to the Beats and the importance of his depiction of 1930's Paris in the psyche of the American back packer.  On the other hand, he is never spoken in the same breath as the pioneering Modernists, and nor is he an iconic mid century figure like Samuel Beckett.  He's also surely lost some audience in recent decades to Charles Bukowski, who transported the Miller-ian obsessions of sex, loafing and cadging to the sunny climes of Southern California. 

What I Loved (2003) by Siri Hustvedt


Book Review
What I Loved (2003)
by Siri Hustvedt

  Another educated guess from the original editors of the 1001 Books edition from 2006.  This is Siri Hustvedt's only appearance on the 1001 Books list.  The boxes she ticks for inclusionary purposes are not strong: white, educated, American, artistic, cosmopolitan.  In fact, her list of credentials seem more appropriate to a 19th century writer than one writing at the beginning of the 21st.   The privilege meter does not go down when you add the not strictly relevant but still interesting fact that she is married to list super favorite Paul Auster, making them number one power couple of the 1001 Books list, unless J.M. Coetzee is partnered to someone on the list.

  What I Loved reflects this background: The perspective of comfortable artists and academics living in pre-911 New York City.  The friendship at the center of What I Loved is between an art history professor at Columbia University, and a hard-to-describe but succesful studio artist.  Hustvedt doesn't neglect the early years entirely, but narrator Leo Hertzberg is a comfortable academic from start to finish, with nary a hint of privation that isn't self-inflicted.

  The problems which consume Hertzberg and artist Bill Wechsler are stereotypical, cold women, messed up children, absence or presence of significant others. Much of the heart of the book involves Wechsler's son, Mark, who becomes an interesting case in the manifestation of mental illness as things grind to their (close to 500 pages later) conclusion.  As an exercise in white privilege, it is an extraordinary book, perhaps a last gasp, or a companion piece to Auster's own considerable contribution.  The decision of a woman writing a book from the perspective of a man shouldn't itself be particularly novel, but it is, particularly a book that looks so closely at issues of male personality and is basically centered around the troubles of being a father.

  Judge from the principles of inclusion and diversity, Hustvedt is either an also ran or waiting for a chance to displace an Author like Joyce Carol Oates with a mid to late career masterpiece. 

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Heart of Darkness (1899) by Joseph Conrad

Image result for apocalypse now
The Francis Ford Coppola film, Apocalypse Now, is largely based on Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and the success of the film has done much to secure the status of Heart of Darkness as a canonical book. 
Book Review
Heart of Darkness (1899)
by Joseph Conrad

  I listened to Heart of Darkness as an audiobook narrated by Peter "Robocop" Weller.  Don't forget he also played William Burroughs in the movie version of Naked Lunch.  I've noticed that the older the underlying text, the more difficult the audiobook.  On the other hand, Heart of Darkness is a novella, not a full length novel, so that the audiobook version clocks in at under five hours.  Length, I've come to learn, is much more significant for an audiobook than it is for text, at least for me, because I read faster than the audiobooks run.

   Despite having five book in the 100 Books list, only one has appeared on this blog because I'd read all of them before this project had crystallized: Nostromo, The Secret Agent, Lord Jim.   There is no question in my mind that Joseph Conrad is one of those authors who has been done dirty by recent trends in North American academia.   As I've written on many occasions, I'm not adverse to the diversification of the canon- indeed, I think expansion and revision is the main point of a 21st century canon, but Conrad should be seen as an avatar of that process, rather than a last gasp of the "old white males" of the 19th century.

 Conrad took an audience that had been habituated to see the developing world as an "other" and made it possible for audiences to imagine them as real places, where morality should apply.   To get the point of decolonization, there needed to be an understanding of the reality of those places, both in terms of factual reporting and in the life of the Western mind.  There's no question that Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness as a cutting critique of Western Imperialism.  The fact that even his sympathetic characters have attitudes that squarely qualify as "racist" today were liberal in the context of Conrad's time. 

  And of course, one should not attribute the statements of Conrad's characters to the author himself. The horror that Kurtz envisions as he expires on the riverboat back to "civilization" is the intersection of the western thirst for ivory with the eagerness of locals to abet in their own destruction.  Ivory camps in the Congolese jungle was the earliest stage of the colonial exploitation of Africa.  The early days vibe of Heart of Darkness is also established by secondary images: The early description of a French warship literally firing into the African jungle, apropos of nothing, hitting nothing, accomplishing nothing, is just as evocative as the later meat of the story.
  

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