Dedicated to classics and hits.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Pachinko (2017) by Min Jin Lee

Book Review
Pachinko (2017)
by Min Jin Lee
Grant Central Publishing (Hatchette)

  The 2017 National (US) Book Awards Ceremony is November 15th, so I'm a little late on tackling the short list for fiction.  I'm not a huge fan of the National Book Award.  First off, they give out the Fiction Prize to short story collections.  That is their prerogative, of course, but the short story is an inferior form of writing, compared to the novel.  Second, the National Book Award is super bougie.  The gave the prize to Thomas Pynchon for Gravity's Rainbow, he refused to accept it, and I think they've been scared of the avant garde since that point.  The National Book Award winners for fiction list is also studded with average books written by great authors- "OH, X wrote a book this year, let's give it to him."  I'm sure they aren't happy that the Booker Prize was extended to American authors, because I'm sure the National Book Award won't be taken Canadian, let alone English writers anytime in the near future.

  For me, the novel is the premier modern art form, bar none, because of the way new voices can introduce a wide audience to novel perspectives.  In the past half century, literature has seen the emergence of African, Latin American, Asian, Gay/Lesbian, Trans, Working Class and of course, female voices - although the novel has always had women authors- into the consciousness of the English reading public- a group that also embraces all those groups mentioned above.   If you are looking for a value on which to build an appreciation for art, and beauty isn't available, the ability to create empathy with persons different than yourself would be my choice.

  Inevitably, these voice initially emerge in one of two categories.  The first is the bildungsroman, or "coming of age" story, by far the most popular format for the novel going back centuries, it tells of the growing up of a specific narrator.  The second is the multi-generation "family" novel, charting the course of a single family over the course of (at least) three generations.  Neither format receives much respect from people on the cutting edge of literature, though both are obviously staples of the teaching of literature at all levels.  You can justify reading a contemporary bildungsroman or multi-generation family novel on the basis that it introduces you, the reader, to a previously unfamiliar perspective, but beyond that, it's mostly just a function of the craft skill of the author.

  I'm bringing this up in the context of the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction short-list because it has both a family novel- this book- and a bildungsroman- The Leavers by Lisa Ko, written by Asian-American women.   And, coincidentally, if I were to identify the groups that are still seeking their public recognition as a perspective recognized by the general, wide audience for english language literature, Asian women, and Asian American women, would be at the very top of the list.  Certainly, Amy Tan made some waves with The Joy Luck Club- published in the early 1990's, but canonical status, and big time prizes, have eluded her.

  Min Jin Lee is Korean-American, and Pachinko is the family saga of a group of Koreans who move to Japan in the early 20th century and then find themselves stuck there, for better or worse.  It is an immigrant story, and immediately recognizable as a member of that group of novels- typically the story of white-ethnic groups immigrating to the East Coast of North America in the 19th century.
Hyperbolic book jacket comparisons to Dickens and Tolstoy aside,  Pachinko most closely resembles early career Saul Bellow.    Since the situation of Korean immigrants in Japan is so unusual and unique, almost every page contains some insight into their existence that gives a thoughtful reader food for thought.  At the same time, there is nothing much beyond that narrative contained in Pachinko.   There isn't a single post-modernist trick in Pachinko, in terms of the style, it could have been written in the early 20th century.

   It stuck me as I plowed through its 500 pages in a single afternoon, that Packinko was certainly engaging- a real page turner, as they say.  It also struck me that Pachinko is EXACTLY the sort of book that wins a National Book Award for Fiction:  It's great, but not challenging, it has a novel, interesting perspective but the style of "classic" literature.  The last book by the same author was a best-seller.
  Next up is Dark Crossing by Eliot Ackerman.  I've got The Leavers (11)and Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing (152)in my Los Angeles Public Library queue but I don't know if it will clear before the award is handed out.  The Los Angeles Public Library doesn't even have a copy of Her Body and Other Parties: Stories by Carmen Maria Machado.  I'll probably just buy Sing, Unburied, Sing because I've actually seen it in stores, hope that The Leavers gets here in time and skip Her Body and Other Parties.

A History of the Peoples of Siberia; Russia's North Asian Colony 1581-1990 (1992) by James Forsyth

Image result for siberia settlement
The path of settlement in the Russian Far East

Book Review
A History of the Peoples of Siberia;
 Russia's North Asian Colony 1581-1990 (1992)
 by James Forsyth
Cambridge University Press

  The Russian settlement of Siberia, still called the "conquest" of Siberia in places like, I don't know, Wikipedia, is on any top 10 list of poorly understood historical events.  It's obscured, first, by the lack of first hand accounts by the People's of Siberia, who were largely illiterate nomads (though not all of them). Second, by the fact that the Russian Empire was a pretty shitty place and it didn't produce many settlers who were interested in documenting their experience.  Third, by the Communists, who had a vested interest in obscuring the excesses of the Empire and their own failures to further their goal of discrediting the mistreatment of Native People's by the United States.  You could probably add a fourth level to the post-Communist regime in Russia, strident nationalists that they are, any criticism of the type contained in A History of the Peoples of Siberia by Scottish Professor James Forsyth, is likely to evoke disbelief and condemnation by modern Russians.

   So the Russian settlement of Siberia is a big blank space in historical consciousness, by Forsyth does much to redress this with his excellent history, one that focuses on the experience of the Native People's who were settled over.  Forsyth methodically works his way through the various regions and peoples.  You've got Western Siberia (main area of settlement), Eastern Siberia and the Russian North east. 

  Much of the initial push was driven by the desire of Western European markets for Russian furs.  The Czar sent Coassacks into Siberia, and they forced native tribes to pay a kind of protection fee (or tax, if you will) in fur, due and payable every year.  This dynamic of Russians collecting furs from the native is the dominant motif in Eastern Russian/Siberian history from the very beginning all the up until AFTER World War II, where the Russian Communist government finally began to exploit the ample mineral resources of the area.   A secondary motif is the often forced migration of Russian peasants into Siberia to "Russify" the area.   Forsyth, with his focus on the impact of Russian intrusion on the lives of Native Peoples, has little to say about  these Russian settler.
Image result for yakutia
The Russian Republic of Sakha
  If there is a discovery to be made among the Native Peoples of Siberia it's the Yakuts, a Turkic speaking people who control a vast area of territory shown above- today known as the Russian Republic of Sakha.  The Sakha Republic is the largest sub-national territory in the world- as big as the Indian subcontinent, and the Yakuts are the only ethnic group that both held their own and expanded their territory.  For centuries, the language of the Yakuts was the colonial language among the less organized nomadic tribes of the region.  Their isolation off the main path of Russian peasant settlement, along with their possession of a written language and a native ruling class and intelligentsia meant that they were able to stay on top of the Russians all the way up to and past the Russian revolution.  Unfortunately their heroic Russian revolution generation of leaders, like many others, were liquidated during Stalin's purges during the 1930's.   In this, the Yakuts did no better or worse than any of the other groups who suffered under Stalin.

  Ultimately, there are many direct comparisons to be made between the Russian settlement of the Far East and the American settlement of the West, at least in terms of their treatment of Native Peoples.  Both events are shocking to the modern conscience, and even without Forsyth often observing that a direct comparison exists, you can see the similarity of the cultures in the pictures of the Peoples that are part of the book.  If anyone tells you the Russians did a better job with their Native population, they are incorrect.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

City Sister Silver (1994) by Jáchym Topol

Book Review
City Sister Silver (1994)
 by  Jáchym Topol

   500 pages, and written in a "new" form of informal Czech that mirrors Anglo-American novels written in the "language of the street,"  City Sister Silver presents a challenge for ANY reader, and, if like, basically everyone in the Western world, you are wholly unfamiliar with Czech culture outside of Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel, that challenge is all the greater.

  You have to admire the editors of the 1001 Books giving the Czech language five books on their first version of this list, where Chinese has ZERO and all of the languages of the Indian subcontinent have ZERO.  That is five books for a country with 10 million people, and zero books for China, with close to a billion.  What you are telling me is that the editors in charge of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die, putting together their list in 2005, 2006, couldn't think of a SINGLE Chinese language book to put on this list, but giving the Czech's give, including three by Milan Kundera, seemed perfectly appropriate.

  On top of the difficulties of translation and cultural specificity,   the narrative style of City Sister Silver is close to being stream-of-consciousness, with little or no set-up to tell the reader who is talking, what they are talking about and how it relates to other episodes in the novel.   At various points, Topol's translated prose evokes William Burroughs, the "cyber punk" of William Gibson, and early 20th century modernists like Joyce and Gertrude Stein.

  The plot, I couldn't even begin to describe, except to posit that the main character is a man named Potok, that he has a girlfriend named Cerna and that both live in a post-Communist Prague where Potok is involved in "bysnys" that ranges from arms trafficking in the third world to the manufacture of snuff films. It seems, based on the tone, that drugs must be involved, but I couldn't point to a passage which says that.   Some episodes: The recollection of the struggles of medieval Czech's, and the graphic description of the aforementioned Czech snuff film, stand out in the memory for their raw power, but I don't even know what to say after that, and I really question why this book was included.

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Buried Giant (2015) by Kazuo Ishiguro

Book Review
The Buried Giant (2015)
 by Kazuo Ishiguro

  The Buried Giant was Kazuo Ishiguro's first novel in a decade and I think that it is fair to observe that it was practically a flop in terms of the initial critical reception.  I'm not sure how it sold, but I'd imagine it didn't do that well.  Then he goes and wins the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature.  Boom. Instant revision.  The Nobel Prize for Literature is only given to active authors, and I would surmise that they like to give it to writers who are still at the top of their powers- if you follow the "inside baseball" type Nobel Prize for Literature information, you will learn that authors often have a Nobel Prize "window" that they age out of- basically, if you don't win it when you are on top, you will not win it as a "career achievement" award.

  I think it is perfectly acceptable to look at the last work published before the Nobe Prize for Literature is awarded and see it as the work that put a given author "over the top.'  So for Kazuo Ishiguro, that work is The Buried Giant, the same book that was, essentially, deemed a failure by critics not two years ago.  I remember being disappointed when I read those same reviews- at the time I still hadn't read any Ishiguro (and I still haven't read The Remains of the Day.)  I have read A Pale View of the Hills (1982) and An Artist of the Floating World (1986.)   

  The awarding of a Nobel Prize for Literature is unmistakably a canon making experience.  First, it secures canonical status for anyone who wins and already has a sale track record in the English language publishing industry.  Second, any author who exists outside that universe gets a fair shot, classic works translated into English for the first time, new works get immediate translation and a decent marketing budget.   Ishiguro is firmly in the former category- an English writer (of Japanese ancestry) writing in English, with multiple hits and hit movie versions of the hit books.

  For an author like Ishiguro the questions is whether one has to go back, revisit his non-canonical works and perhaps add additional books.  It also puts all future and present books in the "must read" category, as far as potential canon status goes.   Clearly a short-term reevaluation of The Buried Giant is in order. It's a work of fantasy, squarely set in the literary Arthurian world/universe that it shares with books like The Once and Future King by T.H. White and The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley.  Despite abandoning the contemporary/historical realism of his other books and embracing the fantasy milieu, everything about The Buried Giant is unmistakably the work of Kazuo Ishiguro.   Characters drift around in a (literal in this book) fog of amnesia, living in the aftermath of the Arthurian wars where King Arthur (Briton) defeated his Saxon rivals.

  I don't believe I'm spoiling anything by revealing that The Buried Giant is an allegory for the very 20th century problem of ethnic cleansing and internecine civil war.  Telling a potential reader that fact does nothing to defeat the magic of the story, which revolves around Axl and Beatrice, an older couple living in a Britonic community.  They want to visit their son, who lives several days away by foot (only mode of travel in that period).  On the way they get pulled into various adventures, featuring several recognizable legendary Arthurian characters.  And, you know, based on him winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, you'd have to say that critics were wrong about it being a boring waste of time.  I was quite engrossed by the story.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Trainspotting (1993) by Irvine Welsh

Image result for kelly macdonald trainspotting

Book Review
Trainspotting (1993)
 by Irvine Welsh

   Trainspotting is one book where the reader never need feel ashamed that he only read it after seeing the film.  IN FACT, Trainspotting the book wasn't even published in the United States until the movie version came out in 1996.  The book, like the movie, is known for it's affectionate, comedic look at a decidedly unaffectionate, uncomedic milieu, that of Scottish junkies and casuals during the AIDS era.

  I was a fan of the film- saw it three, four, five times?  Twice in the theater in the United States, once in the theater in London (the Prince Charles in SOHO), maybe twice on DVD.  The affection I felt for those lovable Scottish junkies in college has diminished over the years.  The book did not particularly impress me, specifically I've also been reading some James Kelman novels, and he does basically the same thing with much more swagger.

  The book is unsurprisingly rougher than the hit film.  In particular there is an omitted plot about the revenge one of the characters seeks against another street punk who infected his girlfriend with AIDS.  Much of the dialogue in the film is drawn directly from the book.  To me, there was little difference between the two.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The 7th Function of Language (2017) by Laurent Binet

Book Review
The 7th Function of Language (2017)
by Laurent Binet

  Whether or not you are a good candidate to read Laurent Binet's detective novel about the death of Roland Barthes in 1980 likely depends on 1) You knowing who Roland Barthes is 2) You being interested in him, and other similar figures like Foucault, Derrida, J.L. Austin and other real life figures from French and American Academia in the 1970's and 80's.  One needs a passing familiarity with this world to derive any pleasure from The 7th Function of Language and actually getting all the "jokes" requires more than that.

  I think it is possible to read The 7th Function of Language as a kind of history of this time period- this "time period" being the period in the 1970's and 1980's when French semiologists were in direct and sometimes bloody conflict with Anglo-American analytic philosophers.  It was a war fought in the halls of American Academia and the stake were control of the so called "linguistic turn" which more or less sought to place a detailed and dense discussion of language at the center of the humanities.  All sides agreed that language was crucial to understanding the larger questions of philosophy.  On one side, Anglo-American analytic philosophy said that it WAS possible to derive some kind of ultimate meaning from the usage of language by humans, with the French taking the opposite side- more or less.

  Binet tucks this real historical debate into his work of fiction- into the title, even, The 7th Function of Language, which refers to a 'magical' or 'performative' function of language that allows "words to do things."   In the book, Barthes is supposedly murdered after a meeting between him and would-be French President Francois Mitterand to discuss the usage of this function in the upcoming French election.  Investigator Bayard quickly picks up a French graduate student/professor as his guide, and together they delve deeply into the world of Foucault (smoking cigars, getting his dick sucked, and lecturing the reader at the same time), Althusser, Derrida as well as their American counter parts, during a third act trip to Cornell University.

  In addition to knowing, generally, who all these people are, it also helps to know some of the underlying controversies- to which Binet frequently refers.  For example, much of the French cultural theory from this period, typically known as semiotics, was based on  detailed analysis of 17th and 18th century French literature which is completely absent from the English canon.   Another example, almost all of French cultural theory is based on the ancient tradition of rhetoric.  In fact, you can't understand any of the mentioned authors if you don't have a basic grasp of what rhetoric was, and the very mechanics of the plot- involving a group of ferocious debaters called the Logos Club, requires an appreciation of the centrality of rhetoric to the European philosophical discussion.

  So if you've made it to the end of this review, and understand what I said, you will probably enjoy The 7th Function of Language, and if you don't, just forget it.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

History of Wolves (2017) by Emily Fridlund

Book Review
History of Wolves (2017)
 by Emily Fridlund

  The 2017 Man Booker Prize gets handed out on Tuesday.  History of Wolves is the longest of long shots- a first time novel by an American author, written about far northern Minnesota.  History of Wolves is squarely in the genre of 'creepy lit'- in it's North American guise History of Wolves closely resembles Annie Proulx and The Shipping News in the way the "exotic" landscape and story share space in the narrative.    The plot elements of History of Wolves are both alien and familiar:  A failed commune, Christian Scientist belief.   The narrator is a woman, looking back on a formative child hood experience.  Fridlund doesn't play hide the ball- there's a dead child at the center of it all, and this information is revealed on the second page.

   This is the only entry on the 2017 Booker Prize shortlist that surprised me via its inclusion.  I mean it's good no doubt- and I was actually in this area- well- as far North as Duluth, anyway, this year- so I get the appeal, but the book itself didn't stand out and my personal feeling is that the creepy lit genre is a tad on the dowdy side.

  Fridlund also weaves in what can only be described as a "sub plot" about a teacher/student sex scandal, and I found that bit frankly to be not compelling.  Also, I was left wondering what the two plots had to do with one another.  A good piece of regional fiction to be sure, but not a prize winner.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Birdsong (1993) by Sebastian Faulk

Book Review
Birdsong (1993)
by Sebastian Faulk

  Birdsong is another 1001 List entry that falls squarely within the 1990's era "international best-seller" lit.  It has all the elements:  An English protagonist, a foreign location (France), at an exciting time in the past (World War I).   The narrative moves back and forth in time, between the past and present, using characters in multiple countries, revolving around questions of time, love and fate.

  Any enduring interest in Birdsong outside fans of this particular genre of literature is in his more-graphic-than-expected depictions of sex (between the Englishman and his first love, a Madame Bovary type living in provincial France) and even more graphic-than-expected depictions of death and madness in the trenches of World War I.

Specifically, a large portion of Birdsong (the title refers to the "miners canaries' used to detect poison gas in the trenches of World War I), takes place in the units that were devoted to tunneling under ground- recruited from coal mining areas and workers who had been laboring on the London Tube.  This underground aspect of World War I is under...I wouldn't say "appreciated" is the right word, but not well understood.  I wasn't much taken by the rest of it, love across the decades, the power of fate, etc.  Spare me.

  Birdsong would be a clear and obvious cut from a revised version of 1001 Books if I was the editor.

Felicia's Journey (1994) by William Trevor

Book Review
Felicia's Journey (1994)
by William Trevor

   Irish author William Trevor died last year, after ascending to "grand old man of Irish literature" status.  His career was just short of the pinnacle of literary recognition- five Booker nominations but no win, a Whitbread Award (for this book), tons of formal recognition inside Ireland, occasional mention as a candidate for Nobel Prize for Literature (only for the living.)

  Trevor, like many serious authors of the late 20th century, made a living writing about figures on the outskirts of society- here it is pregnant teen Felicia, a poor Irish girl from the provinces, who journeys to the Midlands of England to find the boy who knocked her up.  There she encounters what might be called "an assortment of characters," but mainly consists of Mr. Hilditch, who, somewhat improbably appears to be a serial killer of young women.

  You might call it another example of 90's vintage "Creepy Lit" although his Wikipedia page refers to "Gothic elements."   Using criminals and criminal characters became very much in vogue during the 1990's, in my mind it is all traceable to the popularity of serial killers movies starting with Silence of the Lambs (1991), the international success of which must have inspired a generation of would-be novelists to really go for it when it came to creepy material.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Golden House (2017) by Salman Rushdie

Book Review
The Golden House (2017)
by Salman Rushdie

In attempting to anticipate future canonical works of literature, it helps to start with recent works from authors who have already achieved canonical status. The best predictor of future inclusion in any particular canon is past inclusion for the same artist/creator.  The inclusion of a new work by an already canonical author is the "front door" to canonical status, as supposed to various back doors like a career capping Nobel Prize for Literature or other artistic prize, or inclusion via the development of a post publication "cult" of admirers for either the author or work.

   Thus, every new work by Salman Rushdie- who has done everything BUT win the Nobel Prize for Literature and who is still churning out new works of fiction every couple years, is worth a read, even if it is to say, "Not his best stuff."   Coincidentally, that is what I would say about The Golden House, Rushdie's Bombay by way of New York riff on The Great Gatsby, bubble culture and our new President.  I'm not saying I regret the reading experience, even if this mid-period representation of Salman Rushdie echoes the frenetic prose of Spy magazine editor turned novelist Kurt Andersen.  Rushdie's hyper-kinetic reference also resemble a de-footnoted David Foster Wallace.  Which is not to say that Rushdie is copying anyone else- Rushdie is Rushdie; but I question whether New York City and American culture is really in his authorial skill set.  

   Certainly his awkward satire of the Trump/Clinton in the guise of the Joker vs. Batwoman, while...creative...doesn't really land.  So to his well meaning but awkward excursion into the world of contemporary trans politics.  I'm not saying he doesn't get it, I'm just saying The Golden House is not one of those works that transforms your understanding of the subject, nor is it one of those works that creates great empathy for any of its characters.  Rushdie's Golden family- a father and three grown sons, all have their moments, but the overwhelming touchstone of all three sons:  Artist, Autist & Trans and the father is self-obsession.  What is autism but an inability to relate to others?  And what is trans identity but an overriding fixation on one's own sexual identity.  As for artists, we already know about them.

  The most compelling moments in The Golden House are so intimately tied to the denouement that discussion risks spoliation, but I found the portions set in Bombay, or discussing Indian culture and society to be far more convincing then his American scenes.  So, The Golden House isn't going to displace The Satanic Verses or Midnight's Children, but it's worth a read.

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