VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Monday, April 06, 2020

Deacon King Kong (2020) by James McBride

James McBride at the 2013 Texas Book Festival.
American author James McBride
Book Review
Deacon King Kong (2020)
 by James McBride

   James McBride won the National Book Award in 2013 for The Good Lord Bird, a work of historical fiction set in Civil-War era America.   Deacon King Kong is set in 1969, in a fictionalized version of the Brooklyn housing project where McBride grew up (McBride first came to the attention of a national audience with his 1995 memoir, about growing up in Brooklyn as the son of an African American minister and a (converted to Christianity) Orthodox Jewish mother.

  I managed to check out the Audiobook version of Deacon King Kong- which is an excellent product- but I'd also recommend the book itself, because Deacon King Kong is the kind of book that comes to live in your hands.  At time, I actually regretted not being able to read the sentences the narrator was intoning.   The plot is an elaborate, though not confusing web following the travails of Sportcoat, a down and outish deacon at a Brooklyn church, who makes his living as a part time handyman and full time drinker- King Kong is the name of the local home-brew.

  The plot is set into motion when Sportcoast shoots his former baseball protege and current heroin dealer, Deems Clemens.  Before things come to rest, McBride expands his story to include the whole neighborhood, Irish cops, Black cops, Italian gangsters, Irish gangsters, Black gangsters, all brought vividly to live by McBride in a way that simultaneously evokes the "great American novel" and the grand Hollywood tradition of storytelling a la Robert Altman, Spike Lee or Martin Scorsese (McBride has collaborated with Lee on two films).  Surely a contender for another National Book Award or the Pultizer Prize, Deacon King Kong is not to be missed.

Travelers (2019) by Helon Habila

Helon Habila - Wikipedia
Nigerian author Helon Habila
Book Review
Travelers (2019)
by Helon Habila

  Travelers is the new novel by Nigerian (living in the US) author Helon Habila, about the interconnected lives of a small group of African migrants- some legal, others not, living in Europe.  Travelers is divided into six parts, linked by a nameless narrator, an African academic, working in the United States who has travelled to Berlin to work on his thesis.  There he falls in with a group of undocumented migrants.  Other memorable characters emerge in subsequent sections, Manu, a Libyan doctor of sub-saharan African descent, working as a bouncer at a night club that caters to older white women looking for younger, foreign companions, while he looks for his wife every week at Checkpoint Charlie after they are separated crossing the Mediterranean.   Then there is Portia, the daughter of a professional dissident poet who is looking for answers after her brother is murdered by his wife, a white Swiss woman.   There is the story of Karim, an Eritrean who has fled through Yemen, Syria and Turkey.  All of the tales are memorably described, and Travelers has a way of making the migration situation in Europe come alive in a way that straight forward news fails to achieve. 

Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs (2020) by Camilla Townsend


Aztec Civilization - Ancient History Encyclopedia
Map of the Aztec "empire" on the eve of the Spanish arrival
Book Review
Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs (2020)
by Camilla Townsend

  The past couple decades have seen a wealth of new materials for scholars interested in pre-Columbian history.  Many of the achievement have been archeological- including rapid advances in jungle-piercing LIDAR technology which has allowed archeologists to see beneath the thick jungle canopy of Central America.  This has led to the discovery of multiple significant "lost" sites.  There has also been growth in the area of traditional scholarship, with a renewed interest in history written by the losers- mostly the mixed-race children of Aztec elites and Spanish conquistadors, who continued to write Aztec history AFTER the conquest, in a way that was simply ignored by the first several generations of pre-Columbian scholarship.

  Camilla Townsend arrives on the scene to synthesis these materials- drawing heavily on this little known post-conquest but still recognizably Aztec voices to tell a novel version of Aztec history.  The first order of business for Townsend is debunking the persistent myths of Aztec history: That Montezuma, the Aztec emperor, was cowed by Spaniards they thought were literal Gods is a big one.  Townsend also explains the whole idea of an Aztec empire is misleading, rather the Aztecs were an agressive, late arriving people in an already "civilized" area.:

The element of central Mexico’s way of life that seems to have spread more easily than any other was the notion of a central town square surrounded by pyramidal structures, where people gathered and shared cultural events, and where there was almost always a ball court with slanted walls on two sides. There, athletes played before their people, using their hips to keep a rubber ball aloft, until finally they scored a point by causing it to hit the ground on the opposing team’s side. Often there was a stone ring carved on each side of the court; only the most skillful could send the ball through such a hoop. The crowd yelled with excitement and frustration while watching the dramatic games. Later, when empires arose, there would be occasional games played to the death, with the losing team sacrificed.

   The arrival of the Aztecs into Mexico bears some resemblance to the arrival of Germanic barbarians to the Roman Empire, they drifted in from the north, serving as mercenaries for stronger groups, and eventually ended up running the place.   Their weakness would have been the same as any new world Empire the Spanish might have encountered in the new world: Aztec dominion was brutal and exploitative, and their demands of tribute and sacrifice caused most if not all of their subjects- many of whom spoke the same language and were the same ethnicity as the Aztecs- to hate them.  Thus, when Cortes showed up, they were eager to fight.

  Townsend also defends the Aztecs against some of the more colorful claims regarding their well-established practice of human sacrifice:

   Horrendous misconceptions have grown around the Aztec practice of human sacrifice. In novels, movies, and even some of the older history books, hundreds of people at a time were made to climb the narrow steps of the pyramids to the top, where their hearts were cut out and their bodies hurled downward, while the people screamed in near ecstasy below. In reality, it seems to have been a gravely quiet, spellbinding experience for the onlookers, much as we suspect it was in other old worlds, like that of the ancient Celts.

   She leaves aside equally colorful claims about the cannibalism that was said to surround human sacrifice, but it stands to figure that the valley of Mexico- a place where dogs were raised for meat in the absence of larger animals- wouldn't waste so much good protein.   Honestly, the more I read about pre-Columbian empire, the less I mourn its passing.  True, the Spanish weren't great colonial overlords, but the Aztecs were dicks and their own people didn't mourn the passing of their ineffectual aristocracy.

Friday, April 03, 2020

The Big Goodbye (2020) by Sam Wasson



Movie Tourist: Chinatown (1974)
Jack Nicholson in Echo Park, scene in Chinatown

Book Review
The Big Goodbye (2020)
by Sam Wasson

  Chinatown is generally regarded as one of the best films of all time.  Depending on who you ask it might be number one.  It is certainly one of my favorites, probably a top ten movie for me, personally. I've watched it a half dozen times, including in Echo Park, outside, with the Echo Park setting from the film behind the outdoor screen.   I was excited when I read about The Big Goodbye, journalist Sam Wasson's deep dive into the making of Chinatown.  Towne did a lot of original interviews for this book- which- considering that the main principles are dead (Producer Robert Evans) in permanent semi-criminal exile (Director Roman Polanski) or in their dotage (Star Jack Nicholson)- is pretty impressive.

   There's an aspect to any book or article about a specific work of art where you risk diminishing it as you take it apart, but at the same time, any great work of art is more than the sum of its parts- certainly the case in Chinatown.   At the same time, the parts of Chinatown are exquisite.  The Big Goodbye is also an excellent portrait of the hey-day of late 1960's, early 1970's Hollywood, where cocaine was handed out like party favors, and fucking a 15 year old was an understandable error in judgment. 

   Judged by contemporary standards, everyone involved sounds like a me-too era monster- writer Robert Towne excepted.   The Big Goodbye is a must for readers who are serious about Los Angeles as a subject, others might find the macho behavior pretty indefensible. The last third of the book- everything that takes place after the movie comes out- doesn't measure up to the making of the film.  In particular and entire chapter on the forgettable and forgotten sequel, The Two Jakes, is comical in comparison to the events of the rest of the book. 

Thursday, April 02, 2020

House of Stone (2019) by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma

About — Novuyo Rosa Tshuma
Book Review
House of Stone (2020)
by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma

  This is another first novel out of the Southern Africa diaspora- following The Old Drift from last year- by Zambian writer Narwali Serpell.  House of Stone is a auspicious debut by Zimbabwean-by-way-of-the-Iowa-Writers-Workshop author Novuyo Rosa Tshuma.  Tshuma comes from Matabeleland, a region inside modern Zimbabwe.  Matabeleland is basically the western half of Zimbabwe.  The majority there are the Ndebele people, a Bantu group that comprises 2.5 million of Zimbabwe's total population of 14 million.   The Ndebele's were the victims of one of the lesser known attempts at genocide at the hands of Robert Mugabe and his supporters, who were members of a different ethnicity, the Shona.  These massacres of Ndebele's at the hands of the majority Shona was called the Gukurahundi and it took the form of a series of grotesque massacres against unarmed civilians who were accused of supporting the losing ZAPF party in the struggle for Zimbabwean independence.

   It is important to understand this aspect of the region's history because Tshuma does not spend significant time with any exposition.  Her unreliable narrator, Zamani, refers to historical events but does not explain- there is no omniscient third person narrator to guide the reader through the unfamiliar- part of the greatness of Heart of Stone.  Zamani has returned from abroad as the boarder for Abednego and Agnes, a Ndebele people who have directly experienced the Gukurahundi in traumatic fashion.  Zamani is obsessed with these events, for reasons made clear in the course of the plot, but Tshuma deftly weaves her narrative in a way that keeps the reader guessing until close to the end. 

  House of Stone was a stand out for me- one of my favorite books I've read this year.

The Mercies (2020) by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Whale, Woman, Smoke: Kiran Millwood Hargrave on 'The Mercies ...
Kiran Millwood Hargrave, author of The Mercies
Book Review
The Mercies (2020)
 by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

  Author Kiran Millwood Hargrave has a good sale/critical track record in the field of ya books- The Mercies is her adult lit debut.  Hotly tipped, you could call it, and it isn't everyday you get a work of LGBT flavored historical fiction about witch trial in Northern Norway circa early 17th century.
I checked out the Audiobook from the Los Angeles Public Library after a months long wait.  I wasn't disappointed, exactly, but I wasn't transported to a different place and time, either.   Northern Norway isn't the most alien landscape I can imagine- even in the 17th century- I've been making my way through Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard six volume series and there is an entire volume set in the same general area as The Mercies.

   There is nothing too graphic, but The Mercies is 100% not YA fiction with graphic depictions of marital sex/rape and the frequent discussion of ways to kill a witch, and killing of witches.  The plot isn't great, an average reader will see events spooling out well before they occur. After all, witches, early 17th century Norway, a village of women where all the men died in an unfortunate storm (no doubt part of the little Ice Age of the 17th century!)... you can see where this is going...

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Border (2017) by Kapka Kassabova

Map of Bulgaria/Greece/Turkey border- Svilengrad and Edirne feature prominently in Border (2017) by Kapka Kassabova
Book Review
Border (2017)
by Kapka Kassabova

  Border is a fun non-fiction title about the corner of south eastern Europe where Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey meet, written by a Bulgarian expat who now lives in Scotland.    Kassabova does an excellent job weaving together personal stories with recounting the complicated history of the area.  Just recounting the events of the 20th century alone contains enough history for a thousand years.   Bulgaria, for example, gained independence from the Turks after World War I, were World War II allies of the Nazis, became a heavy Stalinist Communist state after World War II and then expelled close to half a million Muslims in the closing days of Communism- a little noticed ethnic cleansing that presaged the much gorier events to the west in Yugoslavia.

   The expulsion of the largely Muslim population of the Bulgarian border region, coupled with the post-Communism economic collapse has left the areas Kassabova visits as ghost towns, thinly populated by a remnant population of hold-overs,  Christian refugees from Turkey and insane expatriates, drawn to the region for reasons unknown and usually unexplained.

  Any general reader- likely starting from a knowledge base of zero, is going to learn tons about this area, and given the paucity of Bulgarian anything in western popular culture, this book might be the only chance you get.

 















Castle Gripsholm (1931) by Kurt Tucholsky

Castle Gripsholm
Cover of the New York Review of Books Classics edition of Castle Gripsholm by Kurt Tucholsky

Book Review
Castle Gripsholm (1931)
by Kurt Tucholsky
New York Review of Books Classics published 2019

   I'm leaning on New York Review of Books Classics and New Directions to supply me with Kindle books from the library- not a high level of demand for either list.  There is no rhyme or reason for it, I select "publisher" from the search page and scroll through the selections, looking for books that are available and that either look short or interesting or both.   Castle Gripsholm is a novella written by German journalist Kurt Tucholsky.  Tucholsky died in 1935, probably a suicide. 

   He's mostly remembered today for his satire- he ran a satirical magazine during the Weimar Republic, but Castle Gripsholm isn't satirical, rather it is a "summer story" about three friends who take a summer vacation in Sweden, where they encounter a young girl who is suffering at the hands of the cruel mistress of a boarding school.  The girl's mother is in Switzerland, and the plot involves Peter, his girlfriend (called Princess) and another couple- Peter's friend Karlchen and his girlfriend Billie.   Castle Gripsholm was a hit in the original German- selling close to a million copies.

  It still has some appeal today- the translation doesn't seem dated, and the idea that a vacationing couple would rescue a child from a cruel boarding school is more in line with modern sensibilities than those of Europe in the 1930's.   Here is a taste of the prose- at 144 pages with a twenty page intro Castle Gripsholm doesn't seem like a solid buy recommendation, but it might be worth perusing on a quiet afternoon- there are a lot of those these days.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Devil's Pool (1846) by George Sand

George Sand: Controversial and Popular Writer
French author George Sand
Book Review
The Devil's Pool (1846)
 by George Sand

Replaces: The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne


   George Sand was the nom de plume for French author Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin.  She was hugely prolific in the mid 19th century, publishing over 50 novels between 1830 and 1870.  She also wrote thirteen plays in between.  According to her Wikipedia entry, she was THE most popular french author in England in the 1830's and 40's, eclipsing Victor Hugo and Honore de Balzac.    Perhaps it's not fair to say that she's been forgotten, but the fact that she didn't make the original 1001 Books list, while Hugo and Balzac were both big players, tells you where she landed in the early 2000's.   I'm sure that everyone who hasn't studied 19th century French literature would be hard pressed to name a single work by Sand.

   If The Devil's Pool is the best representative of her lengthy bibliography that the editors could find, her diminished profile is easy to understand:  She doesn't have any hits!  The Devil's Pool isn't a hit.  Here is a taste of the prose in translation:

I knew that young man and that beautiful child; I knew their story, for they had a story, everybody has his story, and everybody might arouse interest in the romance of his own life if he but understood it. Although a peasant and a simple ploughman, Germain had taken account of his duties and his affections. He had detailed them to me ingenuously one day, and I had listened to him with interest. When I had watched him at work for a considerable time, I asked myself why his story should not be written, although it was as simple, as straightforward, and as devoid of ornament as the furrow he made with his plough.

    Maybe a new translation would help?  In retrospect, Sand was perhaps more of a celebrity than a canon level writer.  It doesn't help that her prose was nowhere near as racey as her personal life, which included rumored lesbian affairs and very public cross-dressing.

Garden, Ashes (1965) by Danilo Kis


Book Review
Garden, Ashes (1965)
by Danilo Kis

Replaces:  Troubles by J.G. Farrell

   The big winner in the first revision of the 1001 Books list is Spanish and Portuguese language books: Spain, Portugal and Latin America are all huge gainers, almost entirely at the expense of writers from the UK and the USA.  Behind the Spanish/Portuguese/Latin Americans are what you might call the marginal Europeans from the south and east of the continent.  Ukraine, Poland, Czechia and the Balkans constitute the second biggest clump of added books.  Kis (1935-1989) was born in what is now Yugoslavia, then Serbia, the son of a Jewish father and an Eastern Orthodox mother.

   The unusual angle for Garden, Ashes is that it is a Holocaust memoir without the Holocaust, roughly based on the life of Kis' father, who was mentally unstable and eventually was deported to Treblinka.   Called Eduard Sham, he featured prominently in three of Kis' books.    Garden, Ashes features the kind of elliptical narrative that is synonymous with European fiction after World War II.   I felt like Garden, Ashes was more about the vagaries of growing up with a mentally ill parent than the circumstances surrounding the Holocaust in south eastern Europe.   

Blog Archive