VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Book Review: Deviation (2018) by Luce D'Eramo


Book Review:
Deviation (2018)
by Luce D'Eramo

  Deviation, the bat-shit insane World War II memoir by Italian fascist-teen Luce D'Eramo, was published in the original Italian in 1979, but last year it finally got an English translation and made quite the splash in an area (World War II occurring literary fiction) at a time when many critics are professing exhaustion with the genre.

The splash has everything to do with the author Luce D'Eramo.  During World War II she was the teenage daughter of a pair of highly ranked Italian Fascists.   After the Italian Fascist state succumbed to the allies, she fled north where she volunteered (!) to work in a German labor camp, alongside prisoner and internees.  She left her first labor camp after an abortive suicide attempt, was repatriated back to Italy and then fled Italy again(!) winding up as a fugitive hiding inside Dachau (!)   One the eve of Allied victory, she escaped, only to be paralyzed from the waist down in what can only be called a misguided attempt to save civilians in the aftermath of an Allied bombing.

    Misguided is a good word to describe D'Eramo and her behavior. D'Eramo adds a layer of interest to her otherwise unsympathetic behavior by using the book as an opportunity to talk about her own emotions, and what she suppressed in the aftermath of her war time trauma.  As she herself acknowledges, the level of "I told you so" that must inevitably taint any of her relationships that span the war was almost unbearable.  What does it mean to tell your loving parents to f*** off, only to return several years later as a needy, wheelchair-bound invalid.

  Surely, it is enough to drive one insane, and her later years were indeed marred by swaths of institutionalization, even as she tried to raise her son.  Deviation is a deeply disturbing book, and not quite a must read, but certainly of interest to anyone looking for yet another take on the events of World War II from yet a different perspective.

  I listened to the Audiobook version, narrated by Justine Eyre, who is also narrating another Audiobook I'm listening to, Insurrecto by Gina Apostol- after several years of narrating nothing but romance novels.  She was good- performing the many different accents.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another's Misfortune (2018) by Tiffany Watt Smith


Book Review
Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another's Misfortune (2018)
 by Tiffany Watt Smith


  German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer famously said of schadenfreude, the emotion one experience when you experience pleasure at the misfortune of another, as "diabolical."  The idea that schadenfreude is a shameful emotion has persisted, even as the internet, and particularly the phenomenon of "fail videos," have inundated us with opportunities to experience it.   Smith, a researcher in neuroscience and emotions, has written her book in defense of schadenfreude, and she make it clear from the beginning that in her view, experiencing schadenfreude is nothing to be ashamed of, and indeed, that it helps us in both every day life and in a long-term, survival of the human species/evolution sense.

  Watt-Smith is an English writer, but the Audiobook edition I heard had a narrator with an American accent- which made me wonder if there is another, English version of the Audiobook where the narrator has an English accent.  Schadenfreude, though grounded in the latest scientific findings on the brain and human emotions, is clearly written for a general audience, and Watt-Smith spends the beginning of each chapter giving day-to-day examples of various types of schadenfreude we all experience.

   Reading as someone who doesn't work in a conventional office environment (specifically, with a boss and co-workers) I was surprised on the amount of work-related schadenfreude that Watt-Smith catalogs.   Between bosses, co-workers and family members, it was the intimate forms of schadenfreude that struck me.  The more familiar, public kinds- laughing at fail videos and the public shaming of bad actors in day-to-day life, seem easier to explain.

  Schadenfreude is a good introduction to recent research on the subject, as well as an excellent survey of current knowledge about why we feel good about others misfortune, but Watt-Smith is less succesful at proving her thesis that schadenfruede is an important emotion, and good for you.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

The Holder of the World (1993) by Bharati Mukherjee


Book Review
The Holder of the World (1993)
 by Bharati Mukherjee


Replaces: Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson


    Why would the editors of the 1001 Books project insist that readers take in the thousand page plus Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, only to drop it two years later in favor of The Holder of the World by Indian-American writer Bharati Mukherjee.  It makes sense to not include Cryptonomicon in the first place, because it is over a thousand pages, and because Stephenson doesn't surpass Pynchon in his conspiracy-minded re-telling of World War II history, and also because he doesn't surpass other canonical science fiction writers in terms of his world building, but if you are going to put it on your list, keep it there.

   I guess this would be Bharati Mukherjee's hit, about a woman from Puritan Massachusets who relocates to India with her piratical husband and falls into the long running conflict between the English, the Mughal Empire and various Hindu led polities.  This was India in the time before it became the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire.   Here, the English are just one among many groups vying for power.  The Holder of the World is a quick read- maybe just over 300 pages long.  If you understand the temporal back drop of the events, all the other events fall into place with a minimum of complications.  A conventional narrative outside of the exotic setting, as it were. 

Monday, March 18, 2019

Zuckerman Unbound (1981) by Philip Roth


Book Review
Zuckerman Unbound (1981)
 by Philip Roth

  Zuckerman Unbound was the second of three books in the initial Nathan Zuckerman trilogy.  Roth has been an ideal target for Audiobook listening, since it appears that his entire oeuvre was given the belated Audiobook treatment in 2008.  The library has plenty of copies and Roth is not in favor, so the copies are always freely available.  That is very, very, unusual for a library Audiobook- waiting times of a month or longer are standard, even for catalog titles.

 Many of the Zuckerman books prominently feature a third party telling his or her life story  and some reflections by Zuckerman himself on the impact of his chosen career (succesful author) and his relationships with friends and loved ones.   Like The Ghost Writer, the major personal concerns are the ways in which his writing, and the success from his writing, have negatively impacted personal relationships, here it's his ex wife and his father.   The non self reflective part of Zuckernman Unbound is about his chance encounter with a man named Alivn Pepler- one of the main people in the Quiz Show scandal that rocked America in the 1950's.

   Pepler is based on Herb Stempel- the Jewish contestant who was supplanted by waspy Charles Van Doren (played by Ralph Fiennes in Quiz Show, the movie.)  Much of Zuckerman Unbound concerns the impact of sudden fame on the life of a serious author, so if you go in for that sort of thing, as I do, Zuckerman Unbound is fun- but probably less so for readers less inclined to read about the perils of success.

Meek Heritage (1938)by Frans Eemil Sillanpää

FransEemilSillanpää.jpg
Frans Eemil Sillanpää: Finland's obscure Nobel Prize in Literature winner


Book Review
Meek Heritage (1938)
by Frans Eemil Sillanpää


   Frans Eemil Sillanpää ranks among the more obscure Nobel Prize in Literature winners, a Finnish author, little known outside Scandinavia.  It is possible that Meek Heritage is the only book translated from Finnish into English, and the copy I checked out from the Los Angeles Public Library was the original print of the 1948 English translation.   

  Those looking to support a hypothesis that the Nobel Prize in Literature committee favors dour, humorless prose (me, for one) will find great support in Meek Heritage, which is just about as dour as dour gets- the life story of a Finnish peasant, he goes by many names, but we can call him Jussi.  Jussi is a sad loner, orphaned by the early death of his older, alcoholic father and the later death of his servant-girl mother.

  He becomes crofter- this in late 19th century Finland- which should be familiar to Nobel Prize completists and tourists to Iceland who have read Halldor Laxness- he made a career out of writing about crofter culture- basically sharecroppers in the American context, men who work for a wealthier landlord by donating their time doing work for the landlord in exchange for land to farm.  Jussi has a miserable domestic existence, burdened with a wife best described as "slack," and a child who becomes disabled after he is attacked by his older brother.

   The action picks up after Jussi loses his wife and his children have left the house:


And so it goes on for years. Until the sleepless night comes when he discovers that not even this burden is left to him. Death has been liberal with its mercies But now ease becomes a burden. Around him is emptiness, a drear emptiness left after his deliverance from his burden, a vacuum attracting thoughts over which he has no control; and for an untrained mind that is misery.
  Jussi falls in with the local "temocracts" and gets involved in the Finnish Civil War- a little known post World War I fight between Russian supported Finnish leftists and German/Swedish supported rightists- the German/Swedish side won.

 The action, such as it is, reaches a brief crescendo as Jussi becomes a fighter on the side of the Reds.  He is filled, for the first time, with a sense of self importance, brief as it may be.  Here, the revolution stands in for Jussi:

And the Revolution goes on, swelling with a sense of its own importance. Every morning the mail brings newspapers which tell of the growth of the movement throughout the country, from Helsinki upward. The fairest summer of the Finnish proletariat is dawning Weeks come when not a Hutter is to be seen anywhere of the capitalist newspapers which always lie and distort the facts in their attempts to combat the truth of the workers' movement. On the harvest-field nobody takes any notice when the master tries to set an example and in a fury erects the shocks on three whole plots unaided. It is almost a pleasure to watch his helpless rage while the men sit around for hours whetting and testing their sickles. The former competitions between man and man to see who reached the end of a plot first are forgotten. The summer of the proletariat in Finland 1917. Free, head proudly erect, the young laborer sauntered along the summery lanes; the crofter felt a new affection for his fields, from which breathed an inspiring promise.

  Alas, it all ends in sorrow, with Jussi captured by the victorious Swedish led army, Jussi executed for treason and shot inside his grave, presumably to cut down on the work load.

   

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Before Night Falls (1992) by Reinaldo Arenas


Image result for javier bardem before night falls
Jacvier Bardem played auhtor Reinaldo Arenas in the well received movie version of Before Night Falls.

Book Review
Before Night Falls (1992)
by Reinaldo Arenas

Replaces: Sputnick Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami


  Reinaldo Arenas is yet another poet-writer who makes it into the canon based on prose, with his corresponding poetry nowhere to be found.  Before Night Falls was the beneficiary of an extremely well received movie version, directed and produced by Julian Schnabel, released in 2000, that introduced a fair segment of the cultured American public to both Before Night Falls and the existence of Arenas, who died, in New York, in 1990, from complications related to HIV.

  Often referred to as his auto-biography, but more akin to autobiographical fiction in terms of theme, arrangement and presentation, Before Night Falls tells Arenas' own story as a gay intellectual in Cuba, one who first worked for the regime, but later fell into the hazy Cuban persecution complex, including harrowing stints in medieval prisons, and a formal blackballing of him from obtaining any gainful employment.

  Castro was an active persecutor of homosexuals, but it was as a peculiar kind of persecution owing to the distinction between "active" homosexuals- who were ok, and "passive" homosexuals- who were the persecuted group.  Thus, one could escape punishment for being a homosexual per se by simply insisting on playing the active role. 

   Arenas was also a critic of the Castro regime, and his imprisonment was tied to that status, and it was his contact with the outside world via his published writing that proved to be his eventual salvation, leading to his eventual emigration as part of the Muriel Boat Lift in 1980.   Arenas saves much of his bile, not for the Cuban regime itself, to which he occupies a position similar to that of the "old bolsheviks" of the USSR, who were integral to the early stages of the revolution, only to fall into pre and post Stalin persecution, but for American and western European intellectuals who saw Castro as a hero figure for his resistance to the west.

  For those like me who have only displayed a passing interest in recent Cuban history, Before Night Falls is a must, and I am interested in seeing the film soon.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Man Booker International Longlist for 2019 Announced



    Congrats to all the 2019 Man Booker International Prize (for best translated fiction).  The award is now yearly and for a a specific work (before last year it was awarded to an author for a body of work, every two years.)

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi (Oman), translated from Arabic by Marilyn Booth (Sandstone Press)

Love in the New Millennium by Can Xue (China), translated by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen (Yale University Press)

The Years by Annie Ernaux (France), translated by Alison Strayer (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong (South Korea), translated by Sora Kim-Russell (Scribe)

Jokes for the Gunmen by Mazen Maarouf (Iceland and Palestine), translated from Arabic by Jonathan Wright (Granta)

Four Soldiers by Hubert Mingarelli (France), translated from French by Sam Taylor (Granta)

The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann (Germany), translated by Jen Calleja (Serpent’s Tail)

Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina and Italy), translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell (Oneworld)

The Faculty of Dreams by Sara Stridsberg (Sweden), translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner (Quercus)

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland), translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vásquez (Colombia), translated from Spanish by Anne McLean (MacLehose Press)

The Death of Murat Idrissi by Tommy Wieringa (Netherlands), translated by Sam Garrett (Scribe)

The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán (Chile and Italy), translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes (And Other Stories)

  The only book on the list I've read is The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vasquez- it was good, but not amazing.  Olga Tokarczuk was last years winner, she has to be a shortlist favorite.  Small presses are well and truly represented- I recognize Granta, of course, and Yale University Press, but the other publishing houses are unknown to me.  I look forward to tracking down as many as possible. 

A Dry White Season (1979) by Andre Brink

Image result for marlon brando a dry white season
Marlon Brando played sympathetic lawyer McKenzie in the 1989 movie version of A Dry White Season.

Book Review
A Dry White Season (1979)
by Andre Brink

Replaces:  The Child in Time by Ian McEwan

  Andre Brink was the biggest name in South African fiction in the 1970's, getting two Booker Shortlist nominations in a row for his second and third novels, An Instant in the Wind and Rumours of Rain (1975, 1978).   He then followed up with A Dry White Season in 1979, which became a genuine international hit, even spawning a well received film version in 1989 (with Donald Sutherland and Marlon Brando(!) above.   Although he has consistently published since then (15 novels since then, most recently in 2012 he was almost totally eclipsed by the emergence of fellow South African J.M. Coetzee, who actually won the Booker in 1989, and in 1989 and then, of course, the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003.   The first 1001 Books list is filled with Coetzee- I think he is the most represented author in the first book, but Brink was excluded, so it makes sense that they would add him in for the first revision.

   By the standards of apartheid era South Africa, A Dry White Season, about a wealthy white Afrikaner who intervenes on behalf of a black father and son who are judicially murdered by the police, was racy stuff- banned in South Africa of course- but the entire plot is highly vulnerable to the "White Savior" critique of this sort of book.  Ultimately, South Africa collapsed, not because of the activity of individual Afrikaners but from a combination of international pressure and effective political organization by the black majority population.   In this way, Brink is an evolutionary dead end, representing the extremely limited liberal Afrikaner population who failed to effectuate the needed change. 

Monday, March 11, 2019

The Grifters (1963) by Jim Thompson

Image result for annette bening the grifters
Annette Bening played the girlfriend part of the mother/son/girlfriend triangle in the movie version of The Grifters.
Book Review
The Grifters (1963)
by Jim Thompson

  The ability to stream Audiobooks in my car via the Los Angeles Public Library app has been so revolutionary that I've been forced to create new categories on the fly.  Nobel Prize for Literature winners is one category,  current non-fiction is another category, a third category would be Audiobooks of books I've already read by canonical authors.  A fourth category is non-canonical titles by canonical writers- the lesser works, as it were.  The Grifters fits into this last category-- his The Killer Inside Me (1963) is a 1001 Books pick from the original edition. 

  Many of Thompson's books are readily available as Audiobooks, and they also seem like they make for great Audiobook selections, since they are short, to the point and filled with tough talk style dialogue that sounds better read aloud then read to oneself.   Today, the movie version of The Grifters has maintained the book in print.  I've seen the movie several times, but not recently, and I had forgotten the plot to the point where hearing the book didn't ring any bells.

  The story, about a mother-son-girlfriend triangle of grifters operating in Southern California is a classic- including a memorable trip to San Diego taken on the same train I take back and forth every month.  They even describe the since abandoned cocktail lounge car that I've only seen a couple times in the years I've been taking the train. 

Annie John (1985)by Jamaica Kincaid


Book Review
Annie John  (1985)
by Jamaica Kincaid

Replaces: A Heart So White by Javier Marias

  Everyone would have to agree that the Caribbean is a prime location of post-colonial fiction.  Led by V.S. Naipaul (Trindad) the Caribbean has produced a generation of authors- almost all of whom write in English- who have depicted the issues central to Caribbean identity, both on the island and in emigrant communities in the UK, US and Canada.   Jamaica Kindkaid (Antigua) is one of those cross-geographical writers, raised on a small Caribbean island and later educated and resident in the United States (New Hampshire for school, teaches in Vermont).

  The distinction between writers with that split in experience is crucial in all post-colonial fiction, I think.  It is much more difficult/impossible for authors who actually RESIDE in post-colonial locations like the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa and India to find an international audience for their literary fiction, and the domestic market is sometimes non-existent.   Here, Kincaid entirely omits her personal life experience in the United States, and Annie John is entirely about the eponymous protagonist and narrator, who lives on a small island on the Caribbean with her difficult (but loving?) mother and her much older carpenter father.

  This isn't a "hard" third world bildungsroman- it is clear that Annie's family is not well off, but they are relatively well educated for their societal position- in a memorable scene near the end Annie John recalls her mother telling her about Louis Pasteur being the reason for keeping her hands clean.  Annie John is in many ways the epitome of the too-smart-for-her-surroundings child narrator but is unique in her troubled relationship with her mother.

  This troubled relationship and her depiction of it is the reason- more than any geographical or racial/gender considerations, which mark Annie John as a canonical work.    Kincaid was famously embraced by arch-canonist Harold Bloom in his Bloom's Modern Critical Edition volume dedicated to Kincaid.  I haven't read that edition, but I think it is likely accurate to observe that there is much  more to Annie John and Kincaid then might at first be apparent.   Because of the hidden complexity, I have some regrets about choosing the (2016) Audiobook edition- I would have liked to see the printed pages of this book.

  On the other, hand, like many other books written by Caribbean writers, the Audiobook version is a treat for the accents.  Surely it is an under-appreciated merit of the Audiobook that you get to listen to someone who actually speaks the same dialect as the characters.  If I was reading the printed book, in my head, the characters would probably just sound like regular Americans.


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