VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Honorary Consul (1973) by Graham Greene


Book Review
The Honorary Consul (1973)
 by Graham Greene

   The Honorary Consul was a late-career highlight for Graham Greene, who many thought was done after a very quiet 1960's.  When you consider that he wrote classics like The Power and The Glory and The Third Man in the 1940's, it's hard not to marvel at his continued vitality over the decades.  To summarize an entire life time of work, Greene is at the top of the chart in the categories of "Catholic novelists" and "Spy novelists."   Obviously, both are but crude summaries of infinitely complicated ideas worked out over a career of popular and critically well received work, but Greene was a little before his time in terms of the spy novel part of his career- more a fore-father then someone, say, like Ian Fleming, who raked it in.

  On the other hand, his experience as an English convert to Catholicism has proved durable, and I would argue it is those books, and the books that overlap Catholicism and espionage, that are his enduring contribution to the canon.  I think that the 1001 Books staff would agree, seeing as one of the few Greene books to be cut between 2006 and 2008 is The Third Man, about as classic a work of spy fiction as you can imagine.

  The Honorary Consul combines Catholicism and espionage in a way that both expands the author's ideas in both dimensions while proving familiar to anyone who has ever read any of his prior books.  It's a kind of technique you might be tempted to call "meta fictional" or post-modern, were those the kinds of things that were ever said about Graham Greene.

  Much of the pleasure in Graham Greene comes from the scenery- hear a remote Argentinian border town near the border of Paraguay, abutting the vast steppe-desert-forest of the Chaco.  The English community there is small to non existent, consisting of Charley Fortnum, the Honorary Consul of the title, a man who squeaks by on his mate plantation and the ability to import (and quickly resell) a luxury car every two years.  The narrator, Dr. Eduardo Plarr, is a half English/half Spanish immigrant from Buenos Aires.  The mechanics of the plot are set in motion when Fortnum, who often serves as a tour guide for visiting dignitaries, is kidnapped instead of the visiting American Ambassador.

  Plarr is called upon by the kidnappers, political rebels from Paraguay, to provide attention to Fortnum, and everything spirals mildly out of control from there.  It's the kind of plot the reader expects from Graham Greene, but not too familiar. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

No Laughing Matter (1967) by Angus Wilson


Book Review
No Laughing Matter (1967)
 by Angus Wilson


  I checked No Laughing Matter out of the San Diego Public Library about three months ago, and it sat on the shelf until two weeks ago.  No Laughing Matter is only 500 pages, but it covers so much time that it feels like twice that many.  Wilson doesn't help matters by switching between six main characters (siblings) and inserting mini-plays into the more conventional narrative.

  What I got out of No Laughing Matter was that there was a writing sister, a gay brother who bought and sold art, a sister who went to prison for swindling an old couple out of a painting, a brother who was a successful radical journalist and then I think one brother who was a conventional rich dude.  Portions of events are memorable- the writing sister heads to the south of France for a casual affair, the writing brother goes to Moscow at the behest of the Communist party prior to World War II, the other sister gets sent to prison for her art swindle.

  But large portions are so impressionistic that I found events difficult to follow.  I had little to no idea what the interstitial plays were about.  Wilson, who was gay for a large portion of his life where homosexuality was still a death penalty offense, writes about the same subject as authors like John Galsworthy with a decidedly more modern take on what essentially are the same sequence of events.  A last portion set in the south of Portugal brings the multi-generational English family drama into the Sixties, capital S.

  Ultimately, there was nothing to make No Laughing Matter anything but heavy, heavy, sledding, for English fiction completists only.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Tent of Miracles (1967) by Jorge Amado



Book Review
Tent of Miracles (1967)
by Jorge Amado

Bahia, location of Tent of Miracles by Brazilian author Jorge Amado
  Amado is typically considered the most popular/best Modernist novelist.  He had a lengthy career as a public intellectual and abroad, wrote multiple novels that embraced the fractious modern society of Brazil and was even elected to Congress in Brazil as a Communist.   Tent of Miracles is part of his series of Bahia novels, and mostly concerns the life and times of Pedro Archanjo, a self taught savant of the social sciences who fiercely opposes the racist ideologies of the university professors.  He is also a spiritual talisman for his community, living and loving, fathering children near and far and generally promoting miscegenation as a Brazilian solution to racism.

  I'm told that Tent of Miracle is a satire, and while the prose evokes an occasional chuckle, I think a modern English language reader is going to find much that is particularly funny.  On the other hand it is an insightful portrayal of Brazilian society in the mid 1960's, and what with the Olympics imminent, there is no better time to read up on Brazilian literature.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Ogre/The Erl-King (1970) by Michael Tournier


Book Review
The Ogre/The Erl-King (1970)
 by Michael Tournier

  I had zero expectations for The Ogre, which is typically described as a memoir of a French P.OW. during World War II.  That description doesn't do justice to The Ogre, which is a richly researched portrait of life in the innner sanctum of the Third Reich, with important portions of the narrative taking place in the Prussian hunting retreat of Hermann Goring, second in command of the Nazi regime.  The Ogre refers to both the narrator and powerful characters like Goring.  In one scene, Goring, who revelled in his role and title of being "master of the hunt," emasculates a slaughtered stack and holds forth on the visceral nature of taking a creatures testicles.

   Tournier doesn't shirk from the more disturbing details of the Holocaust, with the late entry of an escaped concentration camp victim.  The theme of pedophillia is present throughout- with the early portions of the narrative seeing the main character, Abel Tiffauges,  charged with raping a child, and the related discovery of hundred of pictures he had been secretly taking of young children.  The charges are dismissed due to the onset of World War II, and Tiffauges is quickly captured by the Germans, where he rises in importance by virtue of his extreme adaptability and lack of nationalist sentiments.

    The end result is something like a World War II memoir written by Nabokov.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Slaughterhouse Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut


Book Review
Slaughterhouse Five (1969)
by Kurt Vonnegut

  Kurt Vonnegut is an author I associate with college undergraduates and precocious high school upperclassmen, and Slaughterhouse Five is the most well known title of his, to the point where I have seen actual Slaughterhouse Five novelty baseball jersey's at every Boston Red Sox game I've ever attended.  Vonnegut is not just associated with college students in general, he is particularly associated with college students from the north-east, and actually lived and wrote in the Boston area.

  Slaughterhouse Five is about a time travelling optometrist who experienced the Dresden Fire Bombing as a POW and was later kidnapped by aliens in a flying saucer.  Like his abductors, Billy Pilgrim experiences all times simultaneously and Vonnegut structures the narrative in episodic fashion.  This technique- jumping backwards and forwards in time within the narrative- is of course a tried and true modernist stand-by, but never is it dealt with so specifically as Vonnegut addresses it.

  The experience is a kind of comic-book take on the high modernist novel, and by utilizing plot elements like an alien abduction, Vonnegut assured the attention of a genre audience.   Like other Vonnegutian novels of ideas, the underlying ideas themselves are not particularly complex.  That no doubt helped him with his target audience in the 1960's, and today it's a key to his continuing appeal with kids attending college.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

The Plot Against America (2004) by Phillip Roth


Book Review
The Plot Against America (2004)
by Phillip Roth

 I bought The Plot Against America in an independent book store in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, essentially to read on the 6 hour plane ride between Boston and Los Angeles, which I did, with time to spare.  I've abandoned the Kindle for travel reading for two main reasons.  First, I like to go to book stores when I travel and buy books, preferably with a book mark, as a souvenir of places I've been- not a book about that place, just from that place.  Second, when you are talking about books from, say, the 1960's forward, they are more expensive on Kindle than what you can find them for in Used book stores.

 For example, I bought The Plot Against America in Portsmouth as a remaindered book, new with the exception of a red mark across the bottom that indicated it had been returned to the publisher, probably from a chain book store. It cost seven dollars, and I got to feel like a good guy. On Amazon, the Kindle version of this book is eleven dollars.  It's a 300 page book in paperback, with thirteen point type and generous margins.   The presence of a remaindered copy of The Plot Against America a decade after it was published (and the classic one cent hardback copies on Amazon) raises the question about whether it was too soon for the 1001 Books to select it in their 2006 edition.  The Plot Against America was one of only eleven titles removed between 2008 and 2010, and the first of those eleven that I've read.

  Therefore, The Plot Against America qualified as a canonical title in the precincts of the 1001 Books project for under five years.  That is not a classic.  It's an admission that the editors included it the first edition by mistakes, and they rectified that mistake quickly.  Also on the list of 2010 removals are two other books that were popular upon initial publication:  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay. by Michael Chabon.

    I would imagine that this is familiar territory for the sort of people reading this blog.   The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time is actually a book I've consciously avoided reading because it sounds annoying.  I liked The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay and The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2012) but passed on Telegraph Avenue (2012) despite growing up there.  Perhaps because I grew up there.  All these titles being discussed are in the rare cross over of books that are well regarded by critics and best sellers.   Like the other books here, The Plot Against America takes the familiar approach of combining "high" literary technique with genre fiction plot.  In this case, it's a variety of "What if Hitler won World War II?" history based speculative fiction.

  Unusually, while The Plot Against America was embraced both by high minded critics and the reading public, it was ignored by speculative fiction enthusiasts.   The "what-if" addressed by Roth is a world where Charles Lindbergh runs as an isolationist Republican candidate in the American Presidential campaign of 1940... and beats Roosevelt, who was running for his third term.

  Lindbergh quickly moves to make a preemptive peace with Germany and Japan, and the books carries the reader through to when Hitler betrayed Stalin and attacked Russia.  The characters are wholly familiar to readers of Roth's other works, an extended family of non-specific Azhkenazi Jews living in New Jersey.   The narrator is a Roth stand in, the ten year old boy who is the youngest of two brothers.  The father is an insurance salesman, which, I believe is also the occupation of the father in Portnoy's Complaint.  In fact, having recently read Portnoy's Complaint I can say that the similarities in that department are striking.

  The larger trend of literary authors delving into genre fiction, typically as a ploy to actually sell some books (and hopefully some film or tv rights) is deeply interesting to me, and seems to be a point of similarity between the music industry and the literature/fiction industry.   It's one thing to make garbage and sell it, and it's another to make art and not sell it, but making something that people say is art AND want to buy is the sweet spot of the cultural industrial complex.

One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez


Book Review
One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)
by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

  Forget any list of 1000 top novels, One Hundred Years of Solitude would probably be on the top 10 list out of 95% of well-read people.  Essentially synonymous with the vital "magical realism" movement, One Hundred Years of Solitude is a rare book that is universally loved by academics, critics and a world wide audience of popular readers.    Of course, I'd read One Hundred Years of Solitude before- maybe on multiple occasions by this point, but when I saw a new paperback edition sitting in a well maintained independent book store in Santa Fe New Mexico on a recent trip, I couldn't resist making the purchase.

  As it turned out, I got to devote almost a week to reading it.  After I caught a stomach bug in Paris, I had a few days in small town New Hampshire to recuperate and really give Solitude my full and undivided attention.  Magical realism has become so successful that a high percentage of new books that qualify as "literature" contains at least one element traceable to the sui generis beginning found in One Hundred Years of Solitude, but the influences on One Hundred Years of Solitude are almost reducible to a formula, "Charismatic Colombian grandmother, Labyrinths by Borges and Kafka."

  Besides the success of the book itself on any level one would care to discuss, there is also the fact that before One Hundred Years of Solitude, "magical realism" didn't exist as a term, and after it was published, it did.  Marquez's multi-generational sage encapsulates the experience of a certain history of Latin America, without making anything specific enough to dispel the gauze that hangs over the famous fictional town of Macondo.

 The Author himself is not that far away from being a mythic figure, what with his fraught history of journalism, kinship with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and "Most Interesting Man in the World" look.  And the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the translated into all the languages and read in all the languages.  It's a Nobel Prize winning book you can buy in an airport, or an independent book store.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

The Wild Boys (1971) by William S. Burroughs

File:TheWildBoys.jpg
Cover of the first edition of The Wild Boys by William S. Burroughs.

The Wild Boys (1971)
by William S. Burroughs

  I purchased The Wild Boys while in Paris a couple weeks ago, at the excellent English language book store, Shakespeare and Company.  In between going to Euro knockout round soccer matches, I also got a chance to see the Beat Generation retrospective at the Centre Pompidou.   The exhibit is a good reminder of just how enduring Burroughs was within the context of that literary movement.  He is present in the beginning, via a Burroughs adding machine placed at the entrance, and he is present at the end, posed in front of a sign that says "Danger" as an established literary statesman.

  You can trace the general trend of his books with the Pompidou retrospective.  From the roman a clef/exploitation tales of Junky and Queer,  to his experimental/science fiction/drugs/gay sex obsessed mid period, defined most notably by Naked Lunch and this book, into his late period of wholly experimental "cut ups" whose works are now mostly unread.  So you can be an early Burroughs guy, a mid Burroughs guy but anyone who identifies a cut-up text as his favorite Burroughs books is a liar.  And even though Naked Lunch dominates the attention paid to mid-period Burroughs, The Wild Boys is a solid second text.  One which I read for the first time only in Paris.   Despite having a good idea of what lay inside, both from the exhibit and my own reading of his other books, I was taken aback at just how ahead of his time he was in terms of a post-industrial dystopian landscape.

  I actually paused mid book to look back at Phillip K. Dicks short story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep to confirm that it was published prior to the publication of The Wild Boys.  The striking techno-dystopian science fiction is almost entirely overwhelmed by Burroughs relentless depiction of gay sex.  It's not like that was a theme absent from his prior work, but man there sure is a lot of gay sex in a book under 200 pages.   The Wild Boys is also one of those books with a profound impact on the Anglo-American counter-culture as embodied by music and pop-culture.

  The Wild Boys is a step below works like Warhol's Soup Cans or the impact of Naked Lunch itself, in terms of impact on the popular culture but not by much; and that is especially clear if you read this book and then sit down and think about everything it anticipates.  Finally The Wild Boys is another good example of how many works one associates with the culture of "The Sixties" weren't actually published until the 1970's.

Rabbit Redux (1971) by John Updike

Author John Updike as a young man
Book Review
Rabbit Redux (1971)
 by John Updike

   If a first tier novelist is one who has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, then John Updike is at the very top of the second tier.  He won almost every literary prize except the Nobel Prize, including the Pulitzer (1982) and two National Book Awards (1964 and 1982.)  He also achieved best seller status and the kind of literary celebrity particular to authors writing in the second part of the 20th century.  But he wrote many novels, and forty years on, people really only read three-  the first three of the Rabbit series, of which Rabbit Redux is the second.

  The first Rabbit, written about Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, ex-high school athlete, current downwardly mobile father and husband, was a fairly self contained affair.  The running that Rabbit did in that book was from one suburb to the next suburb, with a return home to the first suburb at the end.  The philosophy was a very recognizable American brand existentialism, not the existentialism of the urban intellectuals represented by the Beats, but the working class existentialism of the era that immediately preceded the capital S "Sixties."

  Rabbit Redux, on the other hand, is the arrival of the Sixties in the universe of Rabbit Angstrom.  Or rather, Rabbit Redux is a kind of microcosm of the 60's as reflected in the life of Angstrom and his immediate family.  Rabbitt Redux culminates in a deeply disturbing take on the "summer of love" with Angstrom's wife absent, replaced by a winsome white teen runaway from Connecticut and a black Vietnam veteran.  Another major plot strand concerns Angstrom's flaky wife and her affair with a used car salesman, and Angstrom's lax reaction, meant to stand in for the issues surrounding women's sexual liberation.

  If Rabbit Redux hasn't aged well it's because Updike offers an unrepentantly privileged white male take on the issues of race, gender and class that defined the 1960's.  It's a classic take, but in 2016 people are looking for different perspectives, and Updike is your Dad's take.

    

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Bluest Eye (1970) by Toni Morrison


Book Review
The Bluest Eye (1970)
by Toni Morrison

 In 2016 it's hard to imagine a world where Toni Morrison didn't win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, where she isn't the beneficiary of an incredibly productive relationship with Oprah Winfrey, where she isn't synonymous with the elevation of questions surrounding race and gender to the forefront of societal concern.  Approaching The Bluest Eye in 2016 is the experience of reading the first published work of an universally acknowledged master of the form of the novel.   But if you get to the afterword she wrote in the Oprah Book Club version of The Bluest Eye that I read, you learn that The Bluest Eye was ignored when it was published initially.  That's surprising, although Morrison was not the first female African American author, she was just far ahead of the curve to benefit from it when the rest of the world started to catch up a decade later.

   Timing is everything, in life, in art.  Morrison was well situated to reap the benefits of the wider trends society.  The plot of The Bluest Eye deals with a neighborhood of African Americans living amongst a larger white population in Lorian, Ohio, an industrial suburb of Cleveland.  The narrator is Claudia,a young African American neighbor of the Breedlove family, Pauline, the Mom, Cholly, the Father and Pecola, the teen age daughter.  As Morrison reveals on the first page, Pecola is raped and impregnated by her Father.  The rest of The Bluest Eye discusses the personal history of the Breedlove family, showing the childhoods of Cholly and Pauline, in an attempt to give depth to the horrific rape of Pecola at the hands of her own Father.

   The title refers to Pecola's desire to be white, she asks a minor character, operating as a kind of faith healer in their neighborhood, for "the bluest eyes" so that she can be white.  Pecola is awkward, ugly, ignored, the victim of persecution at the hands of other African Americans, and literally ignored by whites.  The Bluest Eye is a startling work of art, and a good illustration of why novels are such an amazing art form.  The novel is flexible enough to accommodate any story- not just those of hyper intellectual English/Western European elites living in the wealthy parts of the great cities of the world.  And by reading these different perspective, the reader gains insight on the lives of people he or she may never encounter in real life. 

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