VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Empire of the Sun (1984) by J.G. Ballard

Image result for empire of the sun movie
Christian Bale played the lead role in the movie of Empire of the Sun, the 1984 novel by J.G. Ballard.
Book Review
Empire of the Sun (1984)
by J.G. Ballard

  Empire of the Sun is a fictionalized version of Ballard's actual experience in World War II, as a child separated from his parents at the beginning of World War II in China.  Captured by the Japanese, he is confined to a prison camp outside of Shanghai where he probably had the mildest experience of being interned in a Japanese prison camp of anyone.   He probably benefited from being close to Shanghai. If you read other depictions of life in a World War II Japanese prison camp, like say, the ones in A Town Like Alice,  the camp in Empire of the Sun sounds like a summer camp.

  There is no doubt that Empire of the Sun is a ripping yarn and a compelling narrative.  It's hard to say much more than that.

The Wasp Factory(1984) by Iain Banks

Illustration of the Wasp Factory itself from the novel The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Book Review
The Wasp Factory(1984)
by Iain Banks

  The Wasp Factory, the debut novel for Scottish writer Iain Banks, is a nasty little bit of work; the novel equivalent of a bare-bones noir which introduces the world to a talented film maker.  There is much to like in The Wasp Factory, and just as much to hate, certainly just as much to offend.  Like many early works by notable British authors in the 1980's and 1970's, The Wasp Factory combines sensible, economical prose with thematic concerns that border on the grotesque, with a heavy dose of the gothic and macabre.

  Set on a remote Scottish island, The Wasp Factory is told from the perspective of a psychopathic teenager, living alone with his aloof father.  Frances(the narrator) calmly discloses to readers that he has already murdered three people- including his brother and a female cousin- before he hit puberty.  He professes to have left that behind as a "stage" and he now contents himself by wandering the island and murdering animals in creative ways.

  The Wasp Factory of the title is a mechanism Frances constructs out of an abandoned clock face, which gives captures wasps 12 different ways to die.  The major action concerns the escape of Frances' more floridly psychopathic older brother Eric from a local insane asylum.  It's hard to discuss much more without at least hinting at the plot twist which appears at the end of the book. Banks went on to make his name as a science fiction writer, and received much critical and popular acclaim in that world (Elon Musk has named several space related projects after starships in his sci fi books.)

Friday, February 24, 2017

Money: A Suicide Note (1984) by Martin Amis

Martin Amis: Money A Suicide Note
Book Review
Money: A Suicide Note (1984)
 by Martin Amis

  I was really looking forward to reading Money: A Suicide Note and I am pleased to report that it was not disappoint.  Indeed, you could argue that it is just as relevant in the era of Trump as it was in the era of Reagan.  It's the story of John Self, a cockney made good in the world of advertising, who has abandoned his craft in an attempt to film "his story" which is called both Good Money and Bad Money at various points.  He is assisted by a breezy "20 something" film producer, Fielding Goodney (played by Pete Campbell from Mad Men in the BBC version).  Back and forth he goes between London and United States, his rapidly deteriorating mental and physical health tracking the state of his film production.

  Although it was the style of Money: A Suicide Note which engaged me: brusque, masculine, lurid, Amis also knows how to put together a plot, and the denouement comes as a startling surprise. Money: A Suicide Note also contains meta-fictional tricks like including the author as a character (brought in to rewrite the original script for the film.)  John Self is a memorable character, sympathetic despite the fact that he is a confirmed woman beater, alcoholic, whore monger and of course, successful ad executive, all of which would seem to make him the opposite of sympathetic, but then, that is a testament to his skill as a writer.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Color Purple (1982) by Alice Walker

Whoopi Goldberg as Celie in The Color Purple
Book Review
The Color Purple (1982)
by Alice Walker

    The Color Purple was not the first book to depict the experience of African American women, but it was arguably the most successful narrative depiction of that experience, likely because of the Whoopi Goldberg/Oprah Winfrey starring movie version.  Not to take anything away from the book, but the movie created an indelible, iconic image in the mind of the general public.  The Color Purple is often called an epistolary novel (a novel written in letter format) but it's really a hybrid of epistolary style and straight forward third party narration.

  The scenes of Celie's life in the rural South are contrasted with the life of her sister as a missionary in West Africa.  The southern part of the novel is similar to other (not necessarily southern set) books written by Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison in the 1970's, but Walker introduces a level of stylistic sophistication that was maybe lacking in the more straight forward narrative of the 1970's.

  Perhaps the most unusual fact about The Color Purple in terms of the canon is that it has a happy ending, almost unheard of for "serious" literature, and maybe grounds for questioning whether it is truly canonical, especially compared to Caged Bird, Sula and Song of Solomon.


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Flaubert's Parrot (1984) by Julian Barnes


Book Review
Flaubert's Parrot (1984)
 by Julian Barnes

   You could argue that Julian Barnes, with only one novel on the 1001 Books list, is underrepresented.  He's been Booker Prize shortlisted three times, including for Flaubert's Parrot, and he won in 2011 for The Sense of An Ending, not included on the 1001 Books list.  Flaubert's Parrot is a little slip of a book, not 200 pages all in.  It has a structure that flows back and forth between subjects related to the narrator's quest for a stuffed parrot said to have inspired author Gustave Flaubert and subjects related to his own personal life.  The book is simultaneously "about" the narrator and his life, and different interpretations of the life of Flaubert.

  Narrator Geofrrey Braithwaite is a retired Doctor, widowed, English, tracing the foot steps of author Gustave Flaubert at various locations in France.  As you might expect from a narrator who is obsessed with Gustave Flaubert, Braithwaite has opinions about literature, and he shares those thoughts with the reader.  This commentary on literature (Example- Braithwaite would ban novels that contain incest as a plot point) creates one of the first memorable "meta" moments in literature.  Emphasis on the "memorable."   One of the major. mainstream events of the 1980's was the introduction of humor into post-modern books, and an attendant widening of the audience for works that contain dense, self contained arguments between the narrator and a long-dead English critic about the attention that Flaubert paid to his description to the color of Emma's eye in Madame Bovary.

  Flaubert's Parrot, alongside Waterland, represents a flowering of the type of literature I would equate with my personal taste- starting in the 1970's but really coming into form by the mid 1980's and beyond, up through the publication of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, in 1996.  It's a vast flourishing of literature that encompasses specialist-only areas of knowledge and embraces footnotes and other accouterments of twentieth century graduate student life.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Image may contain: 1 person, beard and text
Jamey Johnson on tour with Margo Price and Brent Cobb.



Stagecoach Spotlight Tour
Jamey Johnson
Margo Price
Brent Cobb

04 25 The Observatory North Park - San Diego, CA.
04 27 The Theatre at Ace Hotel - Los Angeles, CA.
04 28 Brooklyn Bowl - Las Vegas, NV.
04 30 Marquee Theatre - Tempe, AZ
05 03 Ogden Theatre - Denver, CO.
05 08 Crystal Ballroom - Portland, OR.
05 09 Showbox Sodo - Seattle, WA.
05 11 Warfield Theatre - San Francisco, CA.


   The rise and rise of Margo Price has been nothing short of astonishing, one of the best stories in indie music in the past decade and a true inspiration to legions of "local musicians" nation wide who are on the verge of throwing in the towel.  From the perspective of a record label operator, what stands out is that Price had a finished record that she was trying to find a label to release.  She just couldn't find any takers until Third Man, in what was a borderline reckless decision, decided to put some umph behind the release.   There are a million bands like that in dozens of markets.  It's the equivalent of lighting striking, but the question is what kind of fire does the lightning strike set.  It could be a small fire, a big fire, or just smoke.

   My point being is that the lightning strike is just a brief moment in time, and it doesn't repeat. The process of fanning the resulting spark into a fire, that is why you need a label, a booking agent and a manager, or need to be able to do those things yourselves.   You can also try to get the label, booking agent and manager and try to make lightning strike- either way it's a tough bid.  But the point of the Margo Price story is that you have to be ready to make and finish a record without financial backing.  Doing that increases your chances of a lightning strike by a hundred fold.  That is what Margo Price did, against great odds.

The Sorrow of Belgium (1983) by Hugo Claus


Book Review
The Sorrow of Belgium (1983)
by Hugo Claus

   It is both easy and accurate to describe The Sorrow of Belgium as a "Flemish  The Tin Drum."  Whether that description means anything depends on how familiar you are with the Flemish and The Tin Drum, respectively.  The Flemish are a Dutch speaking minority in the modern nation of Belgium, where the French speaking Walloons (and Flemish who emulate Walloons by speaking French) is dominant, and the Flemish, while not exactly oppressed, are not at the top of the pyramid.

  Thus, for Louis, the narrator, and son of a middle class Flemish household in the time before World War II, the rise of Hitler is viewed with excitement.  The Flemish were part of the greater Germanic nation (a group which also included the Eastern Germans of The Tin Drum) and they benefited from the German occupation, economically and socially.   The pro and anti German locals of the Flemish part of Belgium were known by the color of their shirts, Black shirts for pro, White for anti.  Louis, mirroring his family line, is pro-Germany, and he goes so far as to enroll (and then dis-enroll) in the local analogue of the Hitler Youth (called the VNV. )

  I didn't particularly enjoy reading a 700 page memoir from a Flemish Hitler Youth, but I suppose The Sorrow of Belgium is proof of the enduring appeal of the European realist novel well into the 20th century.  The Sorrow of Belgium wasn't even published in English until 1990 which brings the publication history almost up to present day.   Like The Tin Drum, there is insight to be had from those on the periphery of World War II- first of all, they weren't wiped out like the more affected groups, and second they maintained some distance from the center of the maelstrom created by Hitler and the National Socialist.

  It is interesting reading about how the local Dutch speaking Belgian minority debated the rise of National Socialism as it related to their own quasi-nationalist leanings.  Other than that, there is a limit, a personal limit, when it comes to pro-Nazi memoirs, even if narrated by children.

Waterland (1983) by Graham Swift


Book Review
Waterland (1983)
by Graham Swift

  Waterland is an inventive novel that manages to make a palette of seemingly unpromising locales and themes into something more than the sum of its parts.   Loosely speaking, Waterland is a work of historical fiction or historical meta-fiction, centered around the history of an area of the East Anglia Fens/Wetlands.  Tom Crick, the narrator, is a history teacher on the edge of (forced) retirement. He is told by the headmaster that history is being phased out as a separate department, and almost simultaneously his wife is arrested for attempting to steal a baby.  These events spur a series of recollections about his personal history and the history of Waterland, which he in turn describes to his class of high school students, a last act of defiance that forms most of the "action" of the present time of the plot.

  Wikipedia identifies Waterland as strongly affiliated with "New Historicism," which was a cross-discipline movement to use literature to illuminate history and vice versa.  Waterland achieves both those goals, seemingly effortlessly, while keeping Waterland well within the heartland of the tradition of English fiction, with sex, death and madness along for the ride.   There is a familiarity about the themes and events of Waterland that serve to mask the theory behind, the literary equivalent of a spoonful of sugar to make the medicine go down.

  In 1983 the meta-historical novel barely existed, and it is easy to see why this early example found such a receptive audience,

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Worstward Ho (1983) by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett
Nobel Prize for Literature winner Samuel Beckett
Book Review
Worstward Ho (1983)
 by Samuel Beckett

    Samuel Beckett won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969, and he didn't die until 1989, giving him two decades to exist as a veritable literary saint on earth.  Samuel Beckett is a colossus of 20th century literature and drama.  He has a direct link to James Joyce, the high priest of high modernism, and his own work represents a bridge between the modern and post-modern,   He also was a key avatar in the linguistic turn as it manifested itself both in literature and academia.  Finally, he is an apostle of minimalism, a movement that continues to inform large swaths of varied artistic disciplines.

   At the same time, he was never a huge popular figure.  In popular culture, most people don't know who he is, and if they do, he's vaguely associated with the play, Waiting for Godot- two guys waiting for a person who never arrives.  In popular culture, Beckett is a Simpsons reference.   You would expect Samuel Beckett, who died in 1989, to on a cusp of a revival- 30 years from death represents a generational opportunity to revive the titles of an Author and introduce them to a totally new generation, one who need to purchase copies of the author's titles.

  Among the critical/serious/academic class, Beckett is a saint and participation in that culture requires knowledge of his career high-points, but it's not like he is a hot topic on campus.  Beckett is a given.  He's been a given for a generation.  He was a given in the Bay Area in the early 1990's, where I took a girl on a first date to a Berkeley Repertory Theater production of Waiting for Godot.   Amazingly, that title doesn't make the 1001 Books list, probably because all plays- from Shakespeare onward are excluded from the 1001 Books definition of a "book."   Even without Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett is a key figure in the 1001 Books list, with Worstward Ho the last of his eight titles.

  Murphy, his first title on the 1001 Books list, was published in 1938, giving his included titles a date range of 45 years!  My recommendation, having now read all eight books on the list, is to focus on early Beckett.  Of middle and later Beckett, it can be summarized as "difficult to understand."  Unless you have some vested interest in understanding Samuel Beckett, it's his early novels- Murphy and Malloy, specifically which are the only books that are likely to bring the casual reader something like pleasure.

  It's impossible to pass from the topic of Samuel Beckett without addressing existentialism, an attitude which his entire oeuvre exudes.  Existentialism suffuses much of art after World War II, but Becektt is one of the few artists whose work fully anticipated existentialism before it existed. The idea of the meaningless of existence animates all of his work, and there is some irony in the fact that a man so obsessed with emptiness could create work which has proved to be so full of meaning.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Fools of Fortune (1983) by William Trevor


Book Review
Fools of Fortune
 by William Trevor

  I feel like the Anglo Irish aristocracy is dramatically over-represented in the original 1001 Books list.  Even granting Irish status as the first "colonial" environment and the attendant proposition that Ireland was also the location of the first "post-colonial" literature, the Anglo Irish (as supposed to the Irish themselves) were at best a highly parasitic bunch of land barons.  That they produced excellent novelists is no surprise, since they were both wealthy enough to have the time, energy and education to write and they were also semi-despised outsiders who were ultimately largely expelled.

  Still, when you compare the 20th century Irish colonial experience to places in Africa and Asia, the Irish tend to come bottom of the table. Consider that as of 1983, the 1001 Books list has not a single book by a Chinese speaking author and the first novel on the list ABOUT China is Empire of the Sun, by J.G. Ballard.   Meanwhile, I count as many as 15 novels on the original 1001 Books list that come from Anglo Irish writers.   I'm not counting the books of IRISH authors like James Joyce and Samuel Beckett.

 Fools of Fortune is such a late example of the Anglo Irish experience that it almost reads as an exercise in historical fiction.  He traces the fortunes of a very liberal Anglo Irish family through the story of Louis, a child at the beginning of the book.  His family owns a mill, but is relatively unique in that the father and family going back two generations are supporters of Irish independence, to the point where the Grandfather had given away his ancestral estate to the farmers- a highly unusual act.

     The action picks up during the time of "the troubles" during and after World War I, where a sometimes brutal war of independence was waged and the English behaved, and were treated like, an occupying army.  Louis' father learns this the hard way, when he is murdered by a "Black and Tan" in reprisal for his support for the Irish independence movement, embodied by Michael Collins, who appears in Fools of Fortune as a minor character.

      The murder of Louis' father at the hands of the English occupying forces sets in motion a series of events one might expect from a 20th century novel, leavened somewhat by a love story between Louis and his English cousin, Marianne. What seems to be a highly Louis centered narrative suddenly switches half way through, as we learn about events from the eyes of Marianne, Louis' beloved.

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