VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Year of the Hare (1975) by Arto Paasilinna.


Book Review
Year of the Hare (1975)
 by Arto Paasilinna

Replaces: Concrete by Thomas Bernhard

  This extremely popular (in Finland) picaresque novel didn't get an English translation until 1995- also an Audiobook- but it was a welcome departure from the parade of woeful existentialist protagonists who have featured prominently in most of the additions to the first revision of the 1001 Books list.  I get it, if you include diverse viewpoints you are going to end up getting voices that sound similar to the voices that already exist inside the canon- with a different viewpoint but similar structure.

    Kaarlo Vatanen is a ennui stricken Finnish journalist, who, after injuring a hair while driving to a small Finnish town on assignment, spontaneously decides to abandon his life and embarks on a series of adventures with said hare.  He gets drunk, gets into fights, works as a firefighter, sells salvaged German armaments from World War II, gets engaged even though he is married, goes on two separate bear hunts and ends up getting arrested inside the Soviet Union.  Year of the Hare was a fun Audiobook- seemingly the first addition to the 1001 Books list that has an Audiobook version available.    Year of the Hare replaces yet another title by Austrian author Thomas Bernhard- I feel like three of the last four books I've read from the revised 1001 Books list replaced Bernhard books.

Typee (1846) by Herman Melville


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Young Herman Melville
Book Review
Typee (1846)
by Herman Melville


   The crazy fact about Herman Melville is that his first book, Typee, more or less a travelogue about his adventures as a cannibal captive on the Marquesas Islands of the South Pacific, was a hit, and made him a popular and literary celebrity.  You can surmise that none of his later creative and critical failures, i.e. Moby Dick, would have been countenanced were it not for the success of this book.   In other words, Melville was a variation on the pop star who decides he or she only wants to be known for "serious" music, or the matinee idol equivalent in film.    This makes him not just a forerunner of literary modernism but also an example of "modern" celebrity culture and the impact it can have the creative life of the artist.

   Melville is one of the older writers I've singled out for further review in Audiobook format.  I think I read Typee in high school english- and I still have that paperback on my book shelf, but I enjoyed the last Melville book I listened to in Audio format, so Typee seemed like a natural choice.  I wasn't disappointed, Typee is perfect as an Audiobook, being a single narrator recounting of an adventure- akin to a story you might hear someone tell in person. 

   Other than his obessession with cannibalism- which ultimately proves to be a valid concern, Melville is pretty slim on culture specific details that might have shocked his mid 19th century readership.  He references slim, beautiful maidens who cavort in the nude, but doesn't appear to engage them in sexual encounters.  Still, considering he was writing before the 20th century rise of cultural relativism, he is progressive, inveighing against the influence of Christian missionaries and defending the island lifestyle on its own terms.

  

Friday, November 15, 2019

Fates and Furies (2015) by Lauren Groff


Book Review
Fates and Furies (2015)
 by Lauren Groff


  I enjoyed Florida, the collection of state-centered short stories that Lauren Groff published last year.  It was a National Book Award shortlist nominee- losing to The Friend by Sigrid Nunez but making the longlist over An American Marriage by Tayari Jones and There, There by Tommy Orange- two books I thought were better than Florida.  I thought There, There, about the lives of "urban Indians" living in the Bay Area, was good enough to win and should have won.


  Still, when I saw Fates and Furies, Groff's popular 2015 novel- also a National Book Award finalist- in the Little Library down the street, I grabbed it.  Groff is one of the those few authors who is able to combine a wide general audience with critical acclaim, so she bears watching.  Basically the criteria are "New York Times Bestseller List" and "National Book Award Nominee" are the minimum levels of success to grab my attention, as far as American fiction goes.  Fates and Furies is the kind of literary fiction that relies on spoiler level surprises in the course of 400 or so pages.   You can't really criticize Fates and Furies without ruining the plot for a potential reader- something straight out admitted in a New Yorker review that questioned it's literary merit.


  I think I side with the haters for Fates and Furies.  I just didn't buy any of it, and I didn't like anyone and it was set in a milieu (the world of serious theater) that I also don't like.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

So Long a Letter (1979) by Mariama Ba

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Author Mariama Ba
Book Review
So Long a Letter (1979)
 by Mariama Ba

Replaces: Marya by Joyce Carol Oates

  Huge canon diversity win here, replacing a second-tier Joyce Carol Oates title with a book written by a female, Francophone, West African (Senegalese) writer.  Francophone West Africa is entirely absent from the 1001 Books with the exception of this title.  Slim, at 96 pages, is a novella written in the form of a letter from the wealthy first wife of a deceased government minister, about her experience being abandoned by her husband for a younger woman, but surviving the experience, and also reflecting on the Senegalese liberation movement, of which her husband plays an important part as a teacher and Union organizer.

  It is a privileged view point of the post-independence African experience, no terrible civil war here, but it is also entirely African in perspective, also the characters (and Ba) are Muslim, which is as underrepresented as Francophone Africa.

Blaming (1976) by Elizabeth Taylor


Book Review
Blaming (1976)
by Elizabeth Taylor

Replaces: The Diary of Jane Somers by Doris Lessing

  No, it's not that Elizabeth Taylor, rather it is English author.  Blaming was published after her death.  Like Barbara Pym, another overlooked English author who was omitted from the original 1001 Books but added to the first edition, Taylor writes what you might call "domestic fiction": fiction about ordinary people living ordinary lives, with no meta-fictional fuckery, unusual viewpoints or exotic locations.  In Blaming, Amy, a 60's empty nest housewife is suddenly widowed when her painter husband dies unexpectedly during a Mediterranean cruise.    Amy is befriended by Martha, an awkward American novelist, and they continue a halting friendship upon Amy's return to London, where she tries to figure out what to do with her life.

  The characters are unlikeable in a manner that reminded me of the Larry David school of interpersonal relationships: Friends are a bother, people are terrible.  Despite being the wife of a succesful painter, Amy is about as unartistic as you can get, she doesn't seem to read or have any unusual opinions.  She doesn't like caring for her grandkids, and cringes at almost any social interaction.   I can see why Taylor might be the type of author to see her career rescuitatted in the decades after her death, a woman writer, writing quiet, domestic, fiction, it is the precisely the type of literature overlooked in the literary critical/popular marketplace of the mid to late 20th century.

  The book(s) it replaces on the 1001 Books list is the collection, The Diary of Jane Somers, originally published by Lessing under that pseudonym Jane Somers.  Lessing was decades away from her 2007 Nobel Prize, but still, it is a strange, if not uncommon stunt for an established author to pull.  Lessing was incredibly prolific, with forays into science fiction (the Canopus in Argus series, five books) and her wild quasi-fictional biography the Children of Violence series, which has its own dystopian science fiction entry, five books.  She's also got close to twenty separate volumes of short stories and even four books grouped as "Cat Tales" about Cats, I presume.

  So, it's hard to mourn the loss of The Diary of Jane Somers from any canonical list of 20th century literature.  I think it's probably not even her third of fourth best book, all told.  Taylor doesn't do anything to increase diversity except in the introduction of a petit bourgeois/non family based "office worker" milieu, basically unrepresented in the serious precincts of literary fiction.

Sabrina & Corina (2019) by Kali Fajardo Anstine

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Author Kali Fajardo-Anstine, photographed in Denver, the scene of most of the stories in Sabrina & Corina.
Book Review
Sabrina & Corina (2019)
by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

   The 2019 National Book Award Prize Ceremony is next week, and I've been racing to finish up the shortlist before the award is handed out.  The nominees are Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James, The Other Americans by Laila Lailami, Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips and Trust Exercise by Susan Choi.  I'd read Black Leopard before the shortlist was announced.  I couldn't make it an hour into Trust Exercise when I checked out the Audiobook.  It's a coming-of-age-novel set in the American south, I just couldn't handle the precious teen protagonist. 

  I made it slightly further into Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips, about two young sisters who disappear in Kamchatcka(!?!) and the way it impacts the lives of people living there, mainly a precocious adolescent girl.   Again, with the precocious teen girl protagonist, and also I couldn't get over the fact that it was set in the Russian Far East, and written by an American author.   I'm finishing up The Other Americans Audiobook, about the hit and run death of a Moroccan high desert, told by a variety of different narrators, but mostly by his daughter, a precocious post-college composer who returns from the Bay Area after the accident.   I live The Other Americans, but I don't love it, and it just doesn't seem like a prize winner.

  That leaves Black Leopard and this book, Sabrina & Corina, a series of short stories about the lives of indigenous/latina women living in the Denver area.  Sabrina & Corina seems precisely like the type of book that both could and should win the National Book Award- Fajardo-Anstine has a genuinely novel perspective, that of women from the lower quartiles of the socio-economic ladder with mixed indigenous/white/latina heritage.   I found Sabrina & Corina to be mildly revelatory in that regard, and I think Kali Fajardo-Anstine is a major talent.   She would have my vote if I were on this jury!  I love her social media presence! Authors need to do more of that.

The Back Room (1983) by Carmen Martin Gaite


Book Review
The Back Room (1983)
 by Carmen Martin Gaite

Replaces: Foe by J.M. Coetzee


  Another diversity win- female Spanish language authors being a rarity in the 1001 Books project.  Isabel Allende is in there.  Laura Esquivel (Like Water for Chocolate) is in there.  That's it for women authors writing in the Spanish language.  Clarice Lispector, the Brazilian writer is represented, but Portuguese isn't the same as Spanish.

  The Back Room is familiar as another representative of the European existentialist novel with a hero- this time a woman- doing nothing, wallowing in memories and tacking between the uneventful present and the eventful past.  Basically, the narrator is interviewed by a stranger who comes to her apartment, she is a writer, and the questions concerns her past and the recent past of Spain, the Republic, the rise of Franco, etc.

  Gaite replaces yet another title by J.M. Coetzee- getting his 10 books trimmed to a more manageable number in the 2008 first revision of the 1001 Books list.

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

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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

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