Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, July 02, 2020

How to Pronounce Knife (2020) by Souvankham Thommavongsa

Souvankham Thammavongsa Shows Us the Beauty of a Furious Poem ...
Canadian-Laotian poet and author Souvankham Thommavongsa, author of How to Pronounce Knife

Book Review
How to Pronounce Knife  (2020)
 by Souvankham Thommavongsa

   The Laotian Canadian community is one tenth the size of the Laotian American community- twenty thousand compared to two hundred thousand.  This larger community has its own ethnic divisions- I know from living in California that the Hmong are a group that emigrated to the United States from Laos but are not themselves Laotian.  Almost all of the Laotians passed into the United States via refugee camps in Thailand, and there is some overlap between the Laotian diaspora and Thailand.  Like many of the second generation immigrants, Thommavongsa wasn't born in Canada but emigrated when she was only a year old- this is a common experience for children of the South East Asian immigrants from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia who emigrated after the Vietnam War.

   It is a distinctive voice- different from other Asian communities in that Laotians- especially the Hmong, come from a rural, farming background, they didn't come over with a lot of education or sophisticated work skills and the immigrants tended to work dead end jobs and have problems learning English.  There was alot of war related trauma in the immigrant population, and some of that has been passed down, with the second generation suffering from some of the community based ills- gangs are a problem- seen in other disadvantaged America populations.

   Thommavongsa is the first Laotian writer I've come across, and her collection of short stories ring true, with a variety of different familial and employment scenarios coming in to play, but all of them linked by a certain level of poverty and material insecurity.   In many ways, the Laotian families carefully depicted in Thommavongsa's short stories more closely resemble 19th than 20th century immigrants.   Sure to eye opening for any reader- since the Laotians are so infrequently depicted in literature, television, film, etc, I would guess that Thommavongsa has a bright future in literature.

Storm of Steel (1920) by Ernst Junger Storm of Steel: (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition ...
Art for the Penguin Classics edition of Storm of Steel by Ernst Junger

Book Review
Storm of Steel (1920) 
by Ernst Junger

Replaces: Three Lives by Gertrude Stein

   Storm of Steel is a front-line description of the western front of the first World War, written from the perspective of a German soldier.  It is generally to be considered the first first-hand account:

It was published long before the likes of Blunden, Graves, Remarque and Sassoon, all of which appeared in the late 1920s, at a classic ten-year distance from the events they describe, giving their public and themselves time to recover; only Barbusse’s novel Le Feu (Under Fire), from 1917, came out much before Ernst Jünger’s account was first privately printed with a local firm (the family gardener, Robert Meier, was designated as the ‘publisher’) in 1920, at the instigation of Jünger’s father. The impressively cumbersome original title was In Storms of Steel: from the Diary of a Shock Troop Commander, Ernst Jünger, War Volunteer, and subsequently Lieutenant in the Rifle Regiment of Prince Albrecht of Prussia (73rd Hanoverian Regiment).

     Storm of Steel has survived as a war-time classic, in no part due to the careful effort by Junger and his publishers to revise it over the years to keep pace with development, specifically the Second World War and the negative impact it had on world wide perceptions of German militarism.  Readers in the west have come to accept that the Germans of the First World War weren't bad people in the same way the Germans of the second world war were the worst.  The German army of the First World War had Jews and Aryans, Communists and proto-Fascists, all fighting for the glory of their Fatherland.   History has come to judge that the difference between the sides in the First World War were relatively minimal compared to what came after, and it makes the extreme gruesomeness of the experience that much sadder.

   It also highlights the pre-"War is Hell" attitude in its purest Germanic form. The idea that mechanized warfare might, in fact, not be a horror, but might actually be the highest form of existence is not currently in vogue- where even the military itself spends significant time trying to mute and heal the obvious traumatic impact that modern warfare has on its participants- but was quite popular before and during the First World War.  It's an attitude that has been muted in the west by several generations of predominantly pacifist intellectuals, but Junger is as pure a distillation of that attitude that literature has to offer in any language.

   As someone who grew up in the SF Bay Area in the 80's and 90's, a period where the whole idea of war is considered evil full stop, Storm of Steel is as eye opening as any bildungsroman written from an unusual perspective.   To understand Storm of Steel is also to gain insight on the Nazi's, since you can sub in Hitler for Junger- a tactic that Karl Ove Knausgaard uses to great effect in the final volume of My Struggle.  Actually, it was reading that portion of My Struggle that spurred me to check out the Penguin Classics Deluxe edition from the library.

Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East(2020) by Kim Ghattas

Maps of the Arab world |
Map of the Middle East circa 1979

Book Review
Black Wave:  
Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East(2020) 
by Kim Ghattas

    For a variety of reasons: lack of information, prejudice, language barriers, government restrictions on the flow of information, it can be tough for educated westerners to gain an understanding of the contemporary Middle East.   Many of the basic facts required to build an understanding: the relationship between Sunni and Shia Muslims, for example, are not commonly taught in western schools or discussed by the media.    If you start from the premise that the current brand of religious extremism is "bad," finding a "good" group from a western perspective is near impossible, since the western leaning activists and politicians that preceded the Saudi and Iranian revolutions of 1979 were mostly socialists, making them just as "bad" as the religious extremists. 

  Regardless of the difficulties involved, author Kim Ghattas has done an excellent job of unraveling the events of 1979: The Iranian revolution and the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia, and how they have impacted events since.    Ghattas also includes important events in Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Pakistan and Iraq, giving the reader a solid perspective of the how and the why of the Middle East since 1979.

  The story starts in the 1970's- the Shah of Iran has exiled many Shia religious activists, many of whom have traveled to Lebanon, where the Shia are a rural religious minority, not exactly oppressed, but  largely ignored.  Enter the Palestinian Liberation Army, a largely secular organization who, after a series of defeats in Israel, have relocated to Southern Lebanon- home to- you guessed it- the Shia minority of Lebanon.  It is here where a pivotal alliance occurs: between activist Shia mullahs- who are closer to civil rights activists in the beginning, and leftist radicals espousing a pan-Arabic socialism.

   Training camps are set up in Southern Lebanon where Palestinians train Iranian shia's in military tactics. Ayatollah Khomeini emerges as a distinct voice, not limited to Shia's, and his sermons are disseminated via audiotape with the help of French educated leftists.  Eventually Khomeini returns to Iran, where, with the help of leftists, he dislodges the Shah and immediately turns on his erstwhile leftist allies- who look like the biggest fools in the entire book- has them all killed, renounces the idea of himself as a pan-Islamic leader in favor of  a Shia specific identity  and soon gets Iran embroiled in a lengthy, devastating war with Iraq.

  Meanwhile,  Sunni religious extremists seized the Grand Mosque of Mecca in November of 1979, causing the wealthy Saudi's to refocus their attention on their longtime alliance with the Wahhabi's, a Sunni extremist sect.  The Wahhabi's in turn, become worried about the Iranians, while, at the same time, a generation of Sunni activists takes its cues from the Iranians- changing the approach of Sunni groups like the Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt), Al Qaeda (Saudi Arabia) and the military dictatorship in Pakistan, which is quick to adopt (Sunni) sharia law in a largely secular environment.
  From here, most westerners should be familiar with the ensuing events:  The Russians invade Afghanistan,  Al Qaeda moves there to fight them and the west supports the effort.   The Taliban win in Afghanistan, the Russians get kicked out, the Iranians start fomenting dissent outside Iran through their Hezbollah proxy,  the first Iraq War, the Second Iraq War, the rise of Isis and the emergence of Iran as a regional power, fighting on behalf of the post-invasion Shia government of Iraq and the Allawis of Syria.  Saudi Arabia finds itself in the awkward position of denying responsibility for Isis, even though they are directly responsible.    Black Wave ends with Iranians and Americans finding "side by side" against Isis in Iraq.

  What a wild ride!

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Ornamental (2020) by Juan Cardenas

Ornamental – Coffee House Press
Cover of Ornamental by Juan Cardenas
Book Review
Ornamental (2020) 
by Juan Cardenas
Translated by Lizzie Davis
Published by Coffee House Press

  It was great to read something by a small press- to see it available at the library level as an Ebook and to read about it in the New York Times- I think.  It would be great to just get a list of translated literary fiction in Ebook format with a one line summary- when it comes to smaller presses it is tough to keep track of the new releases, especially widely available ebooks.  I've noticed that most of the contemporary literary fiction I find available through the library in electronic format comes either from the major publishers, new directions and new york review of books and that is it.  No academic publishers, few regional presses, etc.  

   Ornamental is a slick 124 pages, about a Medical researcher in an unnamed Columbian city working on a new pharmaceutical that only works on women.  The specific effect it has on women is like a milder, but still intense form of mdma, with no hang over.  At first, I assumed the medical researcher/narrator was working for a pharmaceutical corporation, later in the book, they sound more like a drug cartel, or the "legit" wing of a drug cartel.  That's a point not mentioned in the Times review.  Cardenas eschews proper names, "The Doctor," "The wife" and then four test patients, "Patient One, Two" etc.  Patient Four emerges as the key figure, with her own set of stream of consciousness monologues inserted between chapters written from the perspective of the Doctor.

  Cardenas has an international voice, emphasized by a writing style that eschews the minute, specific detail in matters of place and time- no music is played, nothing takes place that specifically tags the action to a particular time.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Parakeet by (2020) Marie-Helene Bertino

American author Marie-Helene Bertino

Book Review
Parakeet by (2020)
 Marie-Helene Bertino

     The elevator pitch for Parakeet, the new novel by American author Marie-Helen Bertino is, "Bride to be surprised when Grandmother returns from the grave as a Parakeet and tells her to call off the wedding."  And indeed, that does describe the first chapter, but Parakeet is actually much stranger than the idea of a bride's dead grandma coming back from the grave to tell her to call off her wedding.  Other elements include an estranged playwright brother who won the Pultizer Prize for a play based on her life, which he wrote without consulting her;  her job as a biographer for a personal injury lawyer who helps sufferers of brain trauma, her own trauma and various hallucinations of the more and less lucid variety.  There's also a decent amount of drug abuse and some ok sex scenes, all in a sprightly 240 pages.

    Parakeet is a easy recommendation for fans of Ottessa Moshfegh and  Olga Tokarczuk (she won the Nobel Prize last year.)

The Tigers of Mompracem (1900) by Emilio Salgari

The SF Site Featured Review: Sandokan: The Tiger of Mompracem
Cover of the English translation of The Tigers of Mompracem

Book Review
The Tigers of Mompracem (1900) 
by Emilio Salgari

Replaces: Born in Exile by George Gissing

   This famous Italian adventure novel by Emilio Salgari wasn't translated into English until 2008- just in time for inclusion onto the first revision of the 1001 Books list.  Set in Malaysia in 1849, the tigers of the title are a band of pirates led by Sandokan, an erstwhile local noble who was deposed by the collusion between his local enemies and European allies.   Sandokan falls in love with Lady Marianna Guillonk, the niece of the local representative of the British empire, and moves heaven and earth in his quest to retrieve her from the clutches of her uncle.

    It makes sense to include the tigers as a diversity pick under the theory that Italian literature is underrepresented, but it's hard to make the case strictly on literary grounds- there is nothing "modernist" about the tigers except for the fact that the hero is a local, not a white, European.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Planet of Exile (1966) by Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin. Planet of Exile. | Ursula, Science fiction art, Sf art
Paperback cover of Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin, the second book in her Hainish cycle

Book Review
Planet of Exile (1966)
 by Ursula Le Guin

      Ursula Le Guin's Hainish Cycle is a great Audiobook listen- genre enough to go down easy, inventive enough to hold attention.   Le Guin herself was critical of the idea of a Hainish "cycle" when interviewed.  The books exist in a shared universe, but they take place in radically different places and times.  It is never made clear whether this is an "alternate future" or actually a future/past from "our" world.   The major links between each book are the shared timeline- The Hainish "seeded" humanity on several worlds through the galaxy, then lost their ability to travel between worlds, then picked it back up and recontacted the civilizations which had sprung up in the meantime- including "our" Earth, called Terra.  The reconnected human worlds form a tenuous alliance and start exploring the galaxy together, then they are attacked by aliens and reform under a different name later on.

   The pattern of contact between humans and "HILFs": highly intelligent lifeforms take place under what might be called "Star Trek" constraints: No intervention unless there is a decision made to elevate an existing HILF group into interstellar civilization.   This point is quite crucial in the first two books- both of which take place on isolated planets cut off from the wider interstellar civilization.

    In Planet of Exile, the second book in the series,  a smallish colony has been cut off from the wider civilization after an unspecified attack- an event unknown to anyone in the book.  The interstellar "humans" have picked up the the ability to communicate telepathically- a trait which was "discovered" in the course of the first book, but wasn't a skill of the interstellar humans.    On their exiled planet the interstellar humans are slowly going extinct due to long term incompatibilities between colonist and local DNA/biology.  The remaining colony faces a "long winter" due to the local planetary arrangement, and a seasonal onslaught by uncultured barbarians fleeing the harsh northern winter.

    Alongside the colonists are the Tevar, a herding people who can build stone cities and look down on both the Gaal, who they see as barbarians, and the "Outlanders."  Once Le Guin gets her pieces in place events unfold along genre lines, but the set up is way beyond the complexity that you see in similar books. 

The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies (2014) by Clark Ashton Smith

Penguin Classics cover of The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies

Book Review
The Dark Eidolon and Other Fantasies 
by Clark Ashton Smith

    Clark Ashton Smith was an American author- poetry and short stories- active on the west coast in the early 20th century.  Although he obtained early notoriety as a Romantic style poet, he is best remembered today for his "weird fiction" period between 1926 and 1935, during which time he maintained a frequent correspondence with H.P. Lovecraft, whose Cthulhu Mythos show up in several of his best stories:

But one fortuitous result was that some of these books were placed in the hands of H. P. Lovecraft (1890–1937), who in August 1922 sent Smith what could only be called a fan letter expressing wonderment at the exquisite beauty and imaginative power of his verse. As a result, Smith established a correspondence with the Rhode Island writer that would only lapse with the latter’s death. The next year, the pulp magazine Weird Tales was founded, and Lovecraft found a ready haven for his weird fiction there. He later claimed that he had persuaded the magazine’s first editor, Edwin Baird, to renounce his “no poetry” policy, and some of Smith’s poems began appearing there as well

     I like but don't love Lovecraft himself- almost all of his stories revolve around a "nameless horror" which is nonetheless exhaustively named and described, purple prose being the sine qua non style of the original weird fiction movement. 

     Although there are hardly plots to his stories, his descriptive ability in the realm of cosmic horror is  unmatched even by Lovecraft himself:

I had never seen an image of Tsathoggua before, but I recognized him without difficulty from the descriptions I had heard. He was very squat and pot-bellied, his head was more like that of a monstrous toad than a deity, and his whole body was covered with an imitation of short fur, giving somehow a vague suggestion of both the bat and the sloth. His sleepy lids were half-lowered over his globular eyes; and the tip of a queer tongue issued from his fat mouth. In truth, he was not a comely or personable sort of god, and I did not wonder at the cessation of his worship, which could only have appealed to very brutal and aboriginal men at any time.

       That's the frog god Tsathoggua- frogs and toads turn up in several places in Smith's stories.

About him were scattered all the appurtenances of his art; the skulls of men and monsters; phials filled with black or amber liquids, whose sacrilegious use was known to none but himself; little drums of vulture-skin, and crotali made from the bones and teeth of the cockodrill, used as an accompaniment to certain incantations. The mosaic floor was partly covered with the skins of enormous black and silver apes; and above the door there hung the head of a unicorn in which dwelt the familiar demon of Malygris, in the form of a coral viper with pale green belly and ashen mottlings. Books were piled everywhere: ancient volumes bound in serpent-skin, with verdigris-eaten clasps, that held the frightful lore of Atlantis, the pentacles that have power upon the demons of the earth and the moon, the spells that transmute or disintegrate the elements; and runes from a lost language of Hyperborea, which, when uttered aloud, were more deadly than poison or more potent than any philtre.

     This is a description of Malygris the magician who does... I'm not sure exactly, but his lab sounds litty.

       Anyway, Smith has this shit for days- he can't tell a story for shit, but the atmosphere is incredible, and doesn't that count for something?  Smith certainly is a must for the weird fiction crowd.

The Down Days (2020) by Ilze Hugo The Down Days: A Novel eBook: Hugo, Ilze: Kindle Store
Cover of The Down Days by South African writer Ilze Hugo

Book Review
The Down Days (2020) 
by Ilze Hugo

     The Down Days is like a cross between a sober work of literary fiction about a near future, virus stricken South Africa and a Die Antwoord album.  In the aftermath of an annihilating outbreak of a virulent type of "laughing sickness"  a la the 1962 Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic, the residents of a not-Cape Town remained "Sick City" are struggling to survive.  Travel in and out of the city is forbidden, residence within the city is linked to a daily testing system designed to prevent spread of the laughter illness- which ends with the liquidation of the victim's internal organs- so, not so funny.

    Laughter, it goes without saying, is forbidden. The remnants of South Africa's rainbow nation have moved beyond race and any kind of recognizable 21st century cultural identity.  I felt reasonably sure about identifying some Dutch/Boer patronyms and a couple of characters who were identified as white, but the disease born threat of destruction seems to have eliminated our current race/class based divisions. In the case of class, it is clear that everyone who had the means left,  characters squat in abandoned sea side mansions, etc.
    Unfortunately The Down Days was written before our current global pandemic and published during said pandemic, making it hard to really appreciate either as science fiction genre or literary fiction.  The Down Days is not particularly science fictiony, and the actual story- which has something to do about ghosts and a young girl trying to find her lost brother.  The Down Days is an enjoyable ride, but there isn't a big pay-off at the end.  I'm actually somewhat surprised it got a United States release.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

The Long Ships (1941) by Frans G. Bengtsson

The Long Ships

Book Review
The Long Ships (1941) 
by Frans G. Bengtsson

   I'd never heard of The Long Ships by Swedish writer (The Long Ships was his only novel) Frans G. Bengtsson until Marlon James talked about it on his podcast.  James was discussing teaching students, and he was talking about what he tells parents when they ask him to recommend books for students who don't like to read.  He said The Long Ships was his go-to for high school age students.  I'd never heard The Long Ships despite an avid interest in fictional representations of northern European life during the Viking period.  Loved- the first couple seasons of Vikings- the narrative television show on the History Network. Love- Norsemen- the Norwegian comedy(!) about viking life that is on Netflix.   I'm generally familiar with the history of the period albeit the history written by the western European victims of Viking depredations.   Yet I'd never heard of The Long Ships, which has to be hands down the best fictional representation of vikings in the history of literature.

  After hearing Marlon James talk about it on his podcast, I saw that the New York Review of Books Classics has a 2010 edition, with a forward by Michael Chabon.  I'm an increasingly frequent reader of books from NYRB Classics- the cover of The Long Ships is a particularly good example of the aesthetic sensibility of their book design.

  The story is straight forward: As a boy growing up on the Danish coast in the 10th century AD, "Red Orm" is kidnapped by a crew of pre-Swedish vikings on their way to raid in France.  Orm replaces a crew member he kills during the kidnapping, and in short order the ship finds itselfin Moorish Spain, where they find themselves enslaved, first as galley slaves and then as body guards for the Caliph of Cordova.   That's just the first episode- before it is all over Red Orm has seen England, Denmark, northern Sweden and much of north-eastern Europe, all in the pursuit of treasure.  In between times, he marries and raises a family, converts to Christianity and attends the viking Thing- a gathering of local groups to mediate disputes.

  Ir is ripping good stuff, I genuinely enjoyed the reading experience.

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