VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Lord of the Flies (1954) by William Golding


Book Review
Lord of the Flies (1954)
 by William Golding

   For an English language Nobel Prize in Literature (1980), William Golding isn't particularly well read.  He does, however, have Lord of the Flies which I believe is read by every junior high school student or high school student in the English speaking world.  You could argue that Lord of the Flies is the first book in the genre of YA dystopian literature- certainly for several generations of students up until The Hunger Games generation, Lord of the Flies was 100% likely to the first work a student would encounter that could plausibly fit the description of a literary dystopia.

  Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, 1984- those are the three books that birthed dystopian fiction as a category of literature and a subject for popular fiction.  I still own my high school copy of Lord of the Flies.  I think. I can picture the cover art and my name written inside in pencil.  This time, I listened to the audiobook, read by Golding himself(!)  It also features an insightful introduction, also by the author himself, who defies those who would saddle Lord of the Flies with one, single meaning.  Golding makes clear that Lord of the Flies can mean whatever the reader thinks it means, and that readers should not allow themselves to be bullied by teachers or parents who tell them what to think about this book.

   I could barely remember the plot outline of Lord of the Flies, other then, "kids, island, Piggy, murder, rescue." The Audiobook was a rollicking adventure- there was little time to consider deeper meaning in the way the book is typically taught in American schools.  Hearing it in the voice of Golding himself was fantastic.  Paul Auster read one of his books in the Audiobook format, but Golding, a Nobel Prize winner is special.

The Sky is Yours(2018) by Chandler Klang Smith


Image result for the sky is yours
Detail of cover art from The Sky is Yours (2018) by Chandler Kland Smith, features two dragons in a modified Ouroboros
Book Review
The Sky is Yours (2018) 
by Chandler Klang Smith

  I'm generally interested in literary dystopia- as supposed to the strictly genre YA dystopian fiction market- less obvious, not always featuring a YA protagonist, grappling with contemporary societal issues ETC.  It's an interest that ties in with a larger interest in the border between popular and critically acclaimed, and particularly, what are artists and works that are both at the same time.  I enjoy reading science fiction, or did, as a youth, and it's really only the merest pretext of literary aspiration in a review that's required to trigger my interest.

  So it is with The Sky is Yours- a Penguin Random House release from January of this year, by a first time author Chandler Klang Smith (a woman, just because you wouldn't know from the name.)  Reviewers have dropped comparisons to  David Foster Wallace in terms of her depiction of a realist-fantasy of American dystopia.  The twist, as it were, are dragons, a pair of them, endlessly circling a stand in the New York City, which has been burned to a crisp, and a hollowed out, leaving only the very rich and condemned criminals.

 In a cast of dozens, the major players are the Ripple clan- father, scion of one of the last remaining land owning clans in not-New York;  Son- Duncan- is a past-his-prime  his intended bride- Baroness Swan Lenore Dahlberg- the real star of The Sky is Yours, and her aged, gun toting bad-ass mom.  On the eve of his impending (arranged) marriage, Duncan is blasted by on of the dragons, and lands on a garbage island where he meets, beds, and falls in love with Abby, a feral girl-child with a secret past.  That is basically chapters one and two- and The Sky is Yours keeps on for about 500 pages.

  The Sky is Yours is NOT a YA title- there is sex and violence aplenty to merit an R rating.  At the same time Smith writes with such a vigor that it isn't hard to imagine a world where high school read it.  I would observe that Smith's prose really pops, and that The Sky is Yours is evidence of an author who can be popular and critically acclaimed at the same time. 

  I'm not sure that The Sky is Yours is, actually, a hit.   If it isn't, that's a drag, but you should still give it a spin on the off the chance that either catches fire or is picked up a for a prestige tv or movie version.  Not that a tv version or movie version is likely to be good.  I could well imagine it being terrible, since it is really Smith's deft touch and talent for layered references that would be hardest to convey in another medium.     

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Middlesex (2002) by Jeffrey Eugenides


Book Review
Middlesex (2002)
 by Jeffrey Eugenides

  I bought a hard back copy of Middlesex when it was published in 2002.  I promptly left it sitting on a shelf for the next 15 years.  I just couldn't face the multi-generational story of an American immigrant family, narrated by an intersex hermaphrodite, and written by a white male.  Now I don't know where my hard copy is, so I listened to the Audiobook.  Clocking in at 20 hours plus, Middlesex isn't exactly a fun listen, but at least it's not a forty hour book written in the 19th century.   Eugenides is, by all accounts, a clever writer, and Middlesex was an enormous hit- selling over four million copies world wide according to the well-maintained Wikipedia page.

  Even allowing for the novelty of an intersex narrator, the form of Middlesex seems as dated as a serial written by Charles Dickens in 1858.  Perhaps it's the introduction of the novel intersex narrator, paired with the traditional multi-generational narrative, that explains the wide popular audience for the written book.  Eugenides also makes use of the clever narrative trick, first used by Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy, wherein the narrator narrates his own birth- in this case-starting the action with the narrator's grandparents/siblings in Greek populated Asia minor.   This allows him to expand the action beyond the inner city and suburbs of Detroit, to encompass some actual 20th century action.   Alas, after an encounter between the narrators grandmother and a Nascent Nation of Islam, the rest of Middlesex settles down into a more or less conventional LGBT coming-of-age tale.   It's nice for the intersex to have a voice, but I'd prefer an actual intersex author.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Notes from Underground (1864) by Fyodor Dostoevsky


Book Review
Notes from Underground (1864)
 by Fyodor Dostoevsky

    I got through the existentialists in high school. Adolescence is a good time to read Russian authors like Dostoevsky and the French existentialist philosopher-novelists of the 20th century:  Like a typical adolescent, existentialists see the world as both a) meaningless and b) very serious.  My only observations about existentialism as a 40 year old is that if life is meaningless then one might as well have fun.  Dostoevsky was not fun.  He is the opposite of fun.   None of this books, whatever their other merits can be called fun, or even funny. At all. Ever.

  The one advantage that Notes from Underground holds compared to Dostoevsky's other major works:  Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamozov and Demons; is length.  Specifically, Notes from Underground is short, and almost everything else by Dostoevsky is long. Super long. Super long, and super serious.   Having read all of his books in used book store paperback the first time around- and all of them outside a school setting- I've been working my way through them for the 1001 Books project in Audiobook format.  Audiobook is the hot thing in fiction rn, make no mistake about it.  Spotify for Audiobooks- someone will figure that out, and when they do I've got my 10 bucks a month or whatever. 

  The major advance in comprehension that I derive from the Audiobook version when it comes to Dostoevsky is the near constant hysteria of the narrator.   Notes from Underground I mostly listened to while running, alongside the Los Angeles River.   Dostoevsky's unnamed narrator, the Underground Man, so to speak, addresses an imaginary audience for the entire book- literally a man sitting in his below street level garret, talking to an invisible audience as if they were in the room with him.

  Conceptually speaking, it's a mind fuck if you stop and think about it. The reader is, after all, part of a real audience.  That the narrator spends so much of the book decrying alack of an audience is ironical- irony not being a particular strong suit in 19th century literature, this narrative stance begins to flush out what it means to be an "existentialist novel."


  It's also worth noting how unlike a novel Notes from Underground is- it's closer to a 18th century style philosophical diatribe coupled with an early example of the short-story.   To call Notes from Underground an "existentialist novel" is misleading on both counts, while still grasping the essence of the enduring appeal to an international audience of modern readers.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928)by D.H. Lawrence


Book Review
Lady Chatterley's Lover  (1928)
by D.H. Lawrence

  Lady Chatterley's Lover, famously not published in England until 1960 on the grounds of obscenity, has disappointed generations of readers looking for a "dirty book" experience to rival the reputation.  Truth be told, Lady Chatterley's Love is about as prurient as an R-rated movie and can be considered obscene or pornographic only in the very strictest (not to mention obsolete) meaning of those words, since the erotic content basically boils down to a frank description of the physical and emotional content of sex between a man and woman.  Lady Chatterley is presented as a progressive girl- not a virgin at the time of her marriage- who is saddled with a husband who is sent home disabled (from the waist down) after World War I.

  As one might well expect, she is not thrilled about her situation, and she engages in two affairs: One with a young writer who sounds like a straight Oscar Wilde and the affair central to the book, with her husband's groundskeeper. It tells you all you need to know about English culture in the 1920s and 1930s to say that most of the characters- Chatterley's older sister, her father, are more concerned about the class implications of L.C. leaving her aristocrat husband for a groundskeeper, even one who was an officer in the British Armed Forces.

  For all it's specificity to English culture at that time and place, Lawrence showed great presience anticipating some of the major themes of literature that were enabled by the sexual revolution.  While it might stretch good faith to call Lawrence a feminist, or Lady Chatterley a feminist character, he at least demonstrates an interest in women and their perspective on sex.  

Friday, June 08, 2018

Another World (1998) by Pat Barker


Book Review
Another World (1998)
by Pat Barker

  Pat Barker was fresh off her Booker Prize win (1995 for The Ghost Road, the last book in her Regeneration trilogy about the impact of World War I on soldiers and those who cared for them.)  Any thorough evaluation of Barker's career will have to wait years, decades perhaps, since she is still publishing, at a pacer of one new novel every three years.  Unlike the historical fiction of the Regeneration trilogy, Another World is a work of domestic fiction, about a "blended family" of middle class English living in the suburbs in the late 20th century.

  Another World closely resembles decades of literary fiction on both sides of the Atlantic.  English, Canadian, American and African analogues comes to mind, when it comes to depicting the dissatisfactions of modern life as experience by relatively well off white people living in the present or former United Kingdom.   The major theme in this particular book is that of the "bad child," a child whose unexplained bad behavior effectively ruins the lives of the parents.   There is never any reasons for it, certainly not something the parent protagonists did.

 For my money, it is pretty tedious stuff. I know being a parent is hard, even though I'm not one.  I know it from listening to my own parents, my friends, etc.  Popular culture, the media, social media, newspapers, yes, I get it, it is hard to be a parent, hard to be a mom, hard to be a dad.  Show me a book where that isn't the case, that would be interesting to me.

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Nowhere Man (2002) by Aleksandar Hemon


Book Review
Nowhere Man (2002)
by Aleksandar Hemon

  I believe Aleksandar Hemon is the type of writer you would call a "writer's writer." I.E.: critically beloved, but lacking the kind of break-out popular hit that often separates canon members from also rans in the 20th and 21st century.  A Bosnian immigrant who learned English as an adult, Hemon is frequently compared to Conrad (mmm,,maybe.) and Nabokov (closer).  The constants in his oeuvre are immigrant characters from the ex-Yugoslavia, an obsession with the impact of those wars on said characters, and a clever way with the English language- setting him apart from many native born writers.

  In Nowhere Man, apparently named after the Beatles tune, Josef Pronek- a character from his earlier short story, Blind Josef Pronek and Dead Souls, gets his own novel.  The three segments of Nowhere Man deal with three separate periods in Pronek's life: The first is his childhood in pre-war Sarajevo, the second, his student days in the Ukraine and the third, his present as a low paid solicitor for Greenpeace.   Nowhere Man ends with a digression into the life of  Russian army officer and his life in Shanghai.

  Hemon's personal back story fairly cries out for something more Conradian- an exploration of the darkness of southeast Europe, perhaps.   Two books into his catalog, my only observation is that he is largely engaged with the minutiae of day-to-day existence, and the struggles of characters on the periphery of society.  Call it the immigrant experience.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Like Water For Chocolate (1989) by Laura Esquivel


Book Review
Like Water For Chocolate (1989)
 by Laura Esquivel

   Like Water For Chocolate is another fine example of the "international best seller": Not written in English, but appealing to a broad, English speaking audience, Like Water For Chocolate, was, for my money a pretty pedestrian paint-by-numbers example of magical realism set on the border of Mexico and San Antonio.  Tita, the main character, is told by her hateful mother, Maria Elena, that her destiny is never to marry, to take care of her, Maria Elena until her death. If you've read any books in the area of magical realism, you have a good idea of what happens next.

  The book here is that each chapter has a recipe, and much of the action of the book involves cooking the recipe listed at the beginning of each chapter, interspersed with love, hate, rebels, rape, love making and lots and lots of passionate arguing.  Seems to me that the ideal audience would be someone who was totally unfamiliar with the classics of magical realism, because for that reader, Like Water For Chocolate would be pretty fresh and original.

A Kestrel for a Knave (1968) by Barry Hines


Book Review
A Kestrel for a Knave (1968)
 by Barry Hines

  A Kestrel for a Knave, about a young, working-class boy living in a coal mining area of England, is regularly taught to students in the UK, where it was also the basis for a very well regarded film by director Ken Loach.  In the US, the blend of English working class concerns circa the early 1960's and falconry is less accessible, but certainly the story of a boy and his bird carries enough universality to appeal to the interested USA residing reader.

   Billy, the protagonist, lives in a shanty with his slatternly mother and vile older brother, Jud.  He attends the local grammar school, where he has a bad reputation: half slacker, half criminal, and is regularly bullied both by teachers and other students.  Billy is the kind of kid, who, when asked to write a work of fiction, chooses to write about what others would call an ideal family live, with hot meals and a present father.  That sort of world is Billy's fiction, and his reality is a go nowhere existence, where going into the mines is presented as an excellent career.

  Hines writes squarely within the "angry young man/kitchen sink" genre of British prose.  All the characters speak in dialect.  Economic circumstances are dire. The kestrel becomes a force for good in Billy's dim, uneventful life and A Kestrel for a Knave largely boils down to waiting for someone to come along and ruin it.

Monday, June 04, 2018

The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886) by Leo Tolstoy


Book Review
The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886)
 by Leo Tolstoy

  If you want to limit canonical authors to a maximum of three titles using early/middle/late as the three categories, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, written after Tolstoy's religious conversion, would be the "late" representative from canon mainstay Count Leo Tolstoy.  In addition to being a good example of his post-conversion work, it is also a novella, and clocks in at several hundred pages less than Crime and Punishment or Anna Karenina.

  Almost unrelentingly grim, particularly when you listen to the Audiobook while you are running, The Death of Ivan Ilyich tells the story of the eponymous Ilyich, a provincial court judge in Russia, who spends the entire story dying in his bed, wracked by guilt and tormented by the meaninglessness of life.  His wife is unsympathetic, his Doctor isn't helping him, and for most of the story Ilyich is wracked by indescribable pain and torment.   As I said: it's grim.  Psychologically acute, but grim. Grim, grim, grim. 

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