VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Monday, November 11, 2019

The Wars (1977) by Thomas Findley

Book Review
The Wars (1977)
 by Thomas Findley

Replaces: Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard

   Another Canadian writer who was overlooked in the original 1001 Books edition, Thomas Findley got added in 2008 with The Wars, his 1977 work of "historical metafiction" about the experience of a Canadian man who enlists in the British army during World War I.  Findley combines disparate narrators and adopts first, second and third person viewpoints during the 277 pages of The Wars.

  Robert Ross is a Canadian teen who enlists at the beginning of the war, eventually making his way to the front lines for some of the worst of the fighting.   The description of the battle scenes are harrowing, but any reader well acquainted with the voluminous (and still being written) library of literature on the First World War is unlikely to find anything new.   Predictably, he cracks up and is institutionalized before returning to the front, and a surprising ending mad less surprising by the prologue, which sets the scene for that surprise without giving any context.

  The Wars replaces Old Masters by Austrian Thomas Bernhard- another loss for the German literature category of the 1001 Books list, and another win for Canada, whose writers seem to be the major English language winners in the first revised edition.

Monday, November 04, 2019

Crossing (2019) by Pajtim Statovci

Image result for pajtim statovci
Finnish-Albanian writer Pajtim Statvci

Book Review
Crossing (2019)
 by Pajtim Statovci

  The 2019 National Book Awards are set to be announced on November 20th.  Crossing by Patjim Statovci is a finalist in the new category of best translated work, alongside Death is Hard Work by Khalid Khalifa (my pick), The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (I thought it was just ok) and two books I haven't read, Baron Wenckheim's Homecoming by Hungarian author  Laszlo Krasznahorkai and The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga.  It's unclear whether this award is going to function as a proxy for a career achievement award- in which case Krasznahorkai would be a clear favorit and Ogawa a runner up, or whether it will be based on the book itself, in which case I think Death is Hard Work, about adult Syrian siblings trying to transport the corpse of their father to its final resting place at the height of the Syrian civil war,  is the clear winner.

  Crossing though is a worthy shortlist pick, translated from the Finnish(!) but written by a gay or trans Albanian immigrant, who I imagine resembles the author in some important biographical detail, and it takes the form of a bildungsroman, starting with life at the end of the Enver Hoxha regime, and following the narrator through a perpietic asylum seeker who makes stops in Italy, New York and finally lands in Finland, where *he* gets into a relationship with a Finnish trans woman, steals her life story, and seeks fame on a Finnish version of American Idol.

   Bujar, the narrator, makes for a complicated figure and Crossing isn't merely a ra ra tale about an immigrant overcoming hardship.  Bujar is forced to make impossible choices between relationships and survival, family and freedom, personal safety and happiness.  His motives are complicated and his actions fall on either side of the imaginary dividing line between ethical and non ethical behavior. 

Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976) by Manuel Puig


Book Review
Kiss of the Spider Woman (1976)
by Manuel Puig

Replaces: Fools of Fortune by William Tevor

   This book is better known in the English speaking world for it's Academy Award winning movie version (1985) and the subsequent musical (1993), but the book stands out as a pathbreaker in Argentina, both for its frank depiction of the life of prisoners under the Peronist dictatorship and for its treatment of LGBTQA themes, a rarity for that time and place.  Such was the controversy that Kiss of the Spider Woman was actually published in English translation before the Spanish language version came out, and it was several years before the Argentinian authorities allowed it to be officially published inside the country.

   The story is straight forward, but the execution is not.  Two people are in prison in Argentina, one, Valentin, is a political prisoner of great interest to the authorities, the other, Molina is a transgender woman (biologically a man) imprisoned for "corruption of a minor."  The prison authorities want to use Molina to get information out of Valentin.  Molina is eager to take advantage of the benefits of such a arrangement but becomes predictably conflicted when it comes to actually divulging any information and betraying Valentin.

  The plot is interrupted or supplemented by several lengthy recapitulations of "films" told by Molina to Valentin, some based on real films, others invented, in an attempt to while away the endless hours.  The style of the book is stream of consciousness, and it is left to the reader to deduce who is speaking, and indeed, what is actually happening.

   Puig's gain as an add to the 2008 edition of the 1001 Books list is another loss for Ireland, since Puig's book replaces Fools of Fortune by William Trevor.  Of course, Puig is another win for Spanish language literature

Quartet in Autumn (1977) by Barbara Pym


Book Review
Quartet in Autumn (1977)
 by Barbara Pym

Replaces: Old Masters by Thomas Bernhard

  Quartet in Autumn was part of an unlikely second act for the English novelist Barbara Pym, whose first act lasted through the 1950's and early 1960s.  The first part of her literary career was characterized by commercial and critical success until about 1961, at which point she was told by her publisher that was too "old fashioned" and that she was no longer publishable.  She then went on hiatus between 1963 and 1977, when she reemerged with Quartet in Autumn, a novel about a coterie of four office drones on the verge of retirement.  Quartet in Autumn was a surprise hit, and earned her a Booker Prize nomination, leading to a revival of interest in her and her writing before her death in 1980.

  She ranks as a major omission from the first edition of 1001 Books, the second edition included two works, this one and Excellent Women- from her first period (1953).  Her omission must have been an oversight based on over-familiarity, since I imagine the editors of the 1001 Books project being the type of people who would not have given Quartet in Autumn the time of day in 1977.  She generally fits into the category of "domestic fiction" about the quiet lives of ordinary men and women, mostly written by women. 

  Quartet of Autumn is also interesting because it tackles old age, and the lives of older people, a set of problems which are typically excluded from the youth and child rearing obsessions of writers of literary fiction.   It replaces Old Masters by Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard- one of my favorite discoveries from the first edition of 1001 Books, and a rare second edition subtraction for German language of literature.   German language literature is a huge winner in the second edition of 1001 Books, but Bernhard is well represented in the first edition, with six(!) titles, so some reduction in representation should be expected.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Last Witnesses (2019) by Svetlana Alexievich


Book Review
Last Witnesses (2019)
by Svetlana Alexievich

   Winning the Nobel Prize in Literature is a career maker for everyone, but Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich went from being essentially unknown to getting her entire back catalog translated and published in English, with all the trimmings- including Audiobook editions for her big hits.  Last Witnesses is her second book focused on World War II, the first being The Unwomanly Face of War, about the experience of women during World War II, and together they make a good trilogy with The Last of the Soviets, about the end of the Soviet Union.   All three are incredibly powerful, and they all make for superior Audiobooks- thank you Nobel Prize for making that happen.

  Last Witnesses is not of epic length like Unwomanly and Soviets, probably because most of the interviewees are talking about events that happened when they were under ten years old.  Many say so, "What can I remember, I was three."  Still, they remember enough.   I'm glad I encountered Alexievich, she's spurred a small obsession with the experience of life in the USSR.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Couples, Passerby (1988) by Botho Strauss


Book Review
Couples, Passerby (1988)
by Botho Strauss

Replaces: The Temple of My Familiar by Alice Walker

   Botho Strauss ranks as a major omission from the original edition of the 1001 Books list.  The status of cross-over playwrights and novelists is a point of friction within the canon as constructed by the editors of the 1001 Books project.  There are no plays- presumably because plays are not books.  Their status mirrors that of creative non-fiction, which is almost entirely excluded from all editions.  The unspoken assumption behind the 1001 Books list is that Book = Novel, with multiple exceptions for novellas, some for short story collections, and essentially none for individual short stories, plays and poetry.

  The biggest exemption from the unspoken Book = Novel for the purposes of 1001 Books is experimental literature, works of which are frequently included in the 1001 Books list.   Strauss is essentially unknown in the English speaking world- his wikipedia page is almost non existent, and I'd personally never heard of him before I read The Young Man- his other contribution to the 2008 1001 Books list.   Like The Young Man, Couples, Passerby is most explicitly not a novel, being more a collection of observations and aphorisms surrounding interpersonal relationships.  Unlike The Young Man, Couples, Passerby is comprehensible.   The Young Man is so dense and surreal that making heads or tales of it requires careful note taking and line by line consideration.  Truth be told I didn't derive much from either book, and it's hard to make a case for Strauss' late inclusion, except as he provides another multi-volume German language author.

The Book of Night Women (2009) by Marlon James

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Author Marlon James
Book Review
The Book of Night Women (2009)
by Marlon James

   The Book of Night Women was Marlon James' second novel, after John Crow's Devil- published in 2005.   James broke through into the wider public consciousness when his A Brief History of Seven Killings, about the rise and fall of Bob Marley as told by a chorus of different voices, won the Booker Prize in 2015.  Black Leopard, Red Wolf, published this year, is on the shortlist for the National Book Award-opening up the possibility of James as a rare double Booker/National Book Award winner.   Like John Crow's Devil, about the goings-on in an isolated Jamaican town in the 1950's, The Book of Night Women is squarely in the category of "historical fiction."  Unlike John Crow's Devil, The Book of Night Women is set in the eighteenth century, at a time when slavery was still a fact of the present.

  Lilith is the protagonist, the daughter of a slave who died in childbirth and the now retired overseer of the estate.  No one would ever accuse James of being a bloodless aesthete, all of his books have visceral scenes of sex and violence that combine realism and a sensitivity to the taste of contemporary audiences of literary fiction for sadistic cruelty.  I purposefully sought out the Audiobook for Night Women- it is read by Robin Miles- she has to be the best narrator working for books that require a Jamaican accent, and again, she didn't disappoint

  At times, I wished I was reading so I could just skip some of the more brutal moments, but that would have been cheating.   The plantation slavery world that James has drawn is well informed, you can hear the clear echoes of the Foucaultian preoccupation with the infliction of coercive power on the body of subjects (I'm not sure if James has read Foucault or not, but I would guess so...)   

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Woman at Point Zero (1975) by Nawal El Saadawi


Book Review
Woman at Point Zero (1975)
 by Nawal El Saadawi

Replaces: The Newton Letter by John Banville

    Any thorough reader of the Western literary canon will notice a paucity of works translated from Arabic, let alone works published in English where the writers are the children of immigrants to the West.  Only one writer in Arabic has won the Nobel Prize in Literature (Naguib Mahfouz- 1988).  Mahfouz is absent from the 1001 Books list- I found some Audiobooks in the Libby Library app but just can't generate the energy to tackle him.

   Woman at Point Zero is a feminist era book that blends fiction and non-fiction- with the text purportedly based on a real interview El Saadawi conducted with a female prisoner awaiting execution for murder.  Nawal El Saadawi is interesting in her own right, a female doctor and public intellectual who clashed with the- also secular- dictatorship of Anwar Sadat, eventually being stripped of her public status and even sent to prison.   Obviously, prostitution is an issue in Egyptian society but it isn't really out there, Egypt being a pretty conservative, repressive place, even during the secular 70's. 

  It's an easy choice to replace The Newton Letter by the excellent but overrepresented Irish author John Banville.   The diversity bonus from a book written in Arabic, by a secular, Egyptian author, about a member of the urban underclass- that's like quadruble diversity bonus points- the mere fact that it has been translated into English is enough to warrant a canonical inclusion.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Southern Seas (1986) by Manuel Vasquez Montalblan


Book Review
Southern Seas (1986)
by Manuel Vasquez Montalblan

Replaces: The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul by Douglas Adams


  Southern Seas is one of a long series of books featuring the exploits of Pepe Carvalho, Barcelonian private detective and gourmand.   The thirteen book series is notable both for the gritty, "noir"-ish presentation of Barcelona, the writing about food and a take on politics that leans left and reminded me of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series by Swedish marxist Steig Larrsson

  Pepe Carvalho is sure to win you some cool points if you run into a sophisticated fan of detective fiction, and if you have been or are planning to go to Barcelona for any reason I'm sure any of the thirteen books makes for a fun backgrounder on the city.  There's a level of sex and violence that registers at the "R" level in the USA: readers who are fed up with straight white guys and their tough talk won't find any relief with Carvalho and his man servant, Biscuter.

  In this book, Cavalho is hired to solve the mysterious murder of a wealthy industrialist who had allegedly decamped to the "South Seas" a year before he was found murdered in a half-built apartment building in an unfashionable suburb.   

Love Medicine (1984) by Louise Erdrich


Book Review
Love Medicine  (1984)
by Louise Erdrich

Replaces: Black Dogs by Ian McEwan

  The absence of Chippewa-American author Louise Erdrich from the first edition of the 1001 Books list was a major omission, and they rectified the oversight in the first revision, replacing Black Dogs by the highly over-represented Ian McEwan with Love Medicine, Erdrichs' first book.  Erdrich won the National Book Award in 2012 for The Round House, and she has a galaxy of lesser awards and nominations.   Until Sherman Alexie broke through a decade later, she was the only Native American writer of literary fiction with a national/international profile.   Certainly, this was the case in the early 2000's, when the editors of the 1001 Books project were formulating their list, so her omission is puzzling.  It's probably due to the part that the UK isn't a big market for Native American issues and the editors were mostly or all from the UK.

   Love Medicine is exactly what your would picture in your head if you only knew that Erdrich was a writer of literary fiction, a Native American from Northern Minnesota, i.e. a complicated multi-generational family saga with plenty of inter and intra generational drama revolving around substance abuse and the genocidal legacy of the Europeans at the hands of the Natives. 

  The Ojiibwe suffered like all Native groups, but their experience was more akin to the managed retreat of the Iroquois than the genocidal experience of the tribes of the plains and southeast. Today, they are the fifth largest Native group in the United States.  So, the dysfunction is bad, but not the worst, and Erdrich's early emergence as a writer of Native themed literary fiction speaks the relationship between Natives and the locals (Erdrich herself is the daughter of a German-American and his Native wife.)

  

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