VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World (2018) by Josh Freeman


Book Review
Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World
 by Josh Freeman
Published February 2018
W.W. Norton

  Any thorough understanding of day-to-day economic news requires a background in the industrial revolution, its causes and effects, the basic dates involved, places, some personalities.  Historians, Economists and (especially) economic historians have all contributed to the body of knowledge surrounding the industrial revolution, although cutting edge dialogue is often focused on the semantics of the terms involved (was there one Industrial Revolution or were there several interrelated phenomenons interacting over time?) and less on developing themes that might interest a more general audience.

  Enter the the writers and artists who are interested in the aesthetics of the industrial revolution.  Examples are varied and numerous, from Russian and Italian futurists of the early 20th century, to the large format factory and industrial site photography of Edward Burtynsky.  Less common are those who have sought to link the economic historic view to the aesthetic impact, which is why Behemoth: A History of the Factory and the Making of the Modern World is interesting, because Freeman is attempting to link the two.

  Freeman is clearly writing for a general interest audience.  Each chapter is like a summary of a different related subject, often an individual- Henry Ford, Margaret Bourke White and architect Louis Kahn each get their own mini-biography.  These chapters give way to two larger subjects near the end of the books: the industrial revolution in Communist Russia (which was hugely influenced by American industrialists, if you didn't know that already) and a concluding chapter on the modern factory system of China and South Asia.  Since I read this book, I read an article about how the largest factory in the world just opened in India.

  One of the major themes of Behemoth is that the size of factories gives rises to oppositional forces, particularly the organization of labor forces at large sites, that reduce the cost savings and favor dispersal, rather than concentration, of factory operations.  This observation is perhaps obvious to those who either have directly experienced the phenomenon in places like the American mid-west or those who have studied the subject in school, but for the general reader Behemoth is a welcome introduction to the subject.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

A Question of Power (1973) Bessie Head


Book Review
A Question of Power (1973)
 Bessie Head

   Bessie Head is the most well known novelist from the southern African country of Botswana.  Her back story is incredible, born in 1938, the result of what they then call a "union" between a wealthy white South African woman and a black African.  Head's mother was quickly and decisively sent to a mental institution and she may or maynot have been insane as well.  It's unclear what actually happened to Head's mother.  Head came of age in South Africa where she briefly married an African political activist and got on the bad side of the South African government.  She left, permanently, for Botswana and A Question of Power is a work of biographical fiction about a mixed-race woman living in super-African Botswana, while struggling with the burden of mental illness.

 The description of  Elizabeth, the protagonist/Head character's repeated descent into the throes of mental illness is astonishing.  It's hard to make an accurate diagnosis- Botswana, at the time of A Question of Power has one western trained psychiatrist, who sees the institutionalized Elizabeth early on in the book, once, and dismisses her as "difficult."  Elizabeth is outsider in multiple senses: She's half white, which is essentially unheard of in Botswana.  She is educated, though Botswana in the 1960's and 70's was not the place for rarified discourse, especially for women.  Head's Elizabeth is a woman without family, without anyone, living, essentially at the end of the Earth.  A Question of Power is an extraordinary achievmant in that regard- almost impossible to imagine it being written, let alone published, though I suppose simply receiving something by a Botswanan author writing in English would be enough to get a review for publication.

  The fact that Head wrote this book while she herself struggled with similar mental health issues is enough to make the most cynical reader just stop and consider.   I think the way the literature from the post-colonial global south has developed, the conflict between western-intellectual psychology and non-western cultures either already has taken or will take center stage.  A Question of Power, written in 1973 in a trail-blazer.

The 42nd parallel (Book One USA Trilogy)(1919) by Jon Dos Passos


Book Review
The 42nd parallel (Book One USA Trilogy)(1919)
 by Jon Dos Passos

   Jon Dos Passos wrote the USA Trilogy between 1930 and 1936, and all three were published in one volume in 1938.  Today, the books, perhaps because of their length, as treated more often as stand-alone titles, or at least published that way. I'm not a huge fan of Dos Passos, so I skipped the trilogy a few years back when I was reading through this portion of the 1001 Books list.  To fill in this particular blank I elected to check out the Audiobook edition, which, given the experimental portions of The 42nd Parallel, I worried would be a disastrous decision.  As it turned out, the audio-ness of it was the only thing that kept me going through a work that has otherwise aged poorly.

  Dos Passos is hardly alone in the gallery of early 20th century American authors who have aged poorly- Sinclair Lewis is another one for you.  Frank Norris. While it is clear that Dos Passos is either an outright socialist or sympathizer, it also become clear that Dos Passos is a member of the east coast elite who seems to believe he is doing everyone a favor by writing about "America."

  American as seen through the eyes of white-ethnic immigrants or their children- who comprise the different narrators of The 42nd Parallel.  Portions of straightforward narrative are interspersed with  stream-of-consciousness collections of headlines and popular songs as well as portions taking the point of view of a movie camera.   Towards the end of the book, some of the characters overlap, but as the introduction says, it is hard to say that The 42nd Parallel has a plot, per se. 

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Poisonwood Bible (1998) by Barbara Kingsolver



Book Review
The Poisonwood Bible (1998)
by Barbara Kingsolver

   I bought The Poisonwood Bible in an airport book shop, on the theory that it is one of a very few number of 1001 Books titles that one can buy in an airport book shop.  The fact that this book, of all books, is one of a small handful- alongside books like The Lord of the Rings and Catcher in the Rye, off the list that you can find in any English language airport in the entire world should tell you that The Poisonwood Bible has a huge audience- still, a full twenty years after the initial publication in 1998.   The Poisonwood Bible also had critical acclaim- finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and generally laudatory reviews.  Still there is no dressing up the fact that The Poisonwood Bible is about the adventures of a family of white, southern women who are transplanted to the Congo months before the chaotic onset of indepence by their preacher-man father.

 Kingsolver splits the narrative between all the female members of the family, all of them have a different perspective on an admittedly difficult situation.  The circumstances of The Poisonwood Bible famously mimc Kingsolver's actual biography.   When one imagines the horrors that were faced by the actual native populations of the Congo, The Poisonwood Bible is a decidedly PG affair.  At 550 page, the traumatic events surrounding Congolese independence function as a mid-point in the narrative.  Afterwards, the mom of the family retreats entirely from narrator duty and the daughters take over: One becomes a doctor specializing in infectious disease, one marries a Boer South African and then leave him for a French diplomat before settling down as the widowed owner of a hotel for foreign businessmen.  The third daughter marries a boy for the village, who becomes a teacher and later a political prisoner in Mobutu's Zaire.

  There's no denying the incredible audience that Kingsolver found for her life-based tale. She is also the rare American writer who writes about something other than America. Very rare in American literary fiction!
 

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Hunger (1890) by Knut Hamsun


Book Review
Hunger (1890)
by Knut Hamsun

  The creation  Nobel Prize in Literature  in 1901 was a stroke of genius on behalf of the non-English languages of world literature.  The Swedes managed to create the world's foremost literary prize independent of the English speaking world, and that decision has played no small part in attempts to avoid the utter domination of world literature by English speaking and writing authors.  It also means that there are dozens of Nobel Prize in Literature winners who are almost unknown at the time they win the award, with English language translations that may be under distributed or non-existent.

  Today, a Nobel Prize in Literature by a non-English language author is a sure signal that those books that either haven't been translated or well distributed in English will now be so, and that an Audience for those books will be waiting.   I'm bringing this up because Knut Hamsun is one of the non-English language early winners who have avoided neglect.  Although it was his epic, Growth of the Soil that was seen as the key event prior to him winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, modern English language audiences inevitably have only read Hunger, which is his most well known and book and one that places in squarely in the proto-Existentialist literary world alongside Dostoyevsky and J.K Huysmens.

  In fact, Hamsun's self-abusing protagonist bears many similarities to Raskolnikov, the anti-hero of Crime and PunishmentCrime and Punishment was published nearly thirty years prior to Hunger, and I found myself wondering whether Hamsun was familiar.  Hunger is a must for the would-be existentialists, short and to the point, it avoids many of the excesses of 19th century literature, and it isn't hard to imagine Hunger being published today, or at least in the 20th century.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter(Glasgow Trilogy Book 1) (2013) by Malcolm Mackay

A cocktail bar on a Glasgow side street
Scene from the Glasgow Underworld, location of The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter by Malcolm Mackay, book one of his Glasgow Trilogy
Book Review
The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter(Glasgow Trilogy Book 1) (2013)
by Malcolm Mackay

   Like science fiction/fantasy, crime fiction is another genre where I'm on the look out for books which cross the divide between genre and literature.   This escape from a genre pigeonhole into the wider and more prestigious world of literature is a cardinal development of the 20th century cultural-industrial complex, where interested professionals (critics, professors, graduate students of literature) comb non-literary territory to "elevate" and with it, their own prestige by virtue of "discovering" hitherto overlooked talent. 

  The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter was published in the UK in 2013, winning genre crime-fiction type awards.  In 2015 it crossed the sea to the United States, where a well designed US copy has joined its brethren in the Glasgow Trilogy has garnered similar positive attention.  Calum MacLean, the hit man-narrator who has been hired to kill Lewis Winter, behaves like a character in a Japanese samurai/ronin film:  He has a code of ethics, professional aspirations and a business-like attitude towards murder.   Mackay elevates the proceedings above typical genre territory with insightful writing about the victim, Lewis Winter, a small-time Glaswegian drug dealer with a pushy, younger girlfriend and aspirations towards intruding on the drug selling territory of MacLean's employer.

  Glasgow is, of course, a major character.  Anyone familiar with Scottish literature of the 1980's and 1990's will know about the lower classes of Glasgow, but the depiction of the Scottish underworld was novel.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

La Princesse de Clèves (1678) by Anonymous

Madame de La Fayette.jpg
Marie-Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne, comtesse de La Fayette, purported author of La Princesse de Cleves.

Book Review
La Princesse de Clèves (1678)
 by Anonymous

   There are a slew of books from before the 1800's left in the 1001 Books project because I didn't read ANY of them, I just thought it would be too much like school.  That was back in 2008, and now, in 2018, that decision has come home to roost, and I found myself slogging through an Ebook of La Pcincesse de Cleves, generally regarded as the first French novel and first psychological novel.  Tell the truth, I got little to nothing out of it.  It's all very hard to follow, I would advise taking notes if you go here. 

Against the Grain (2017) by James C. Scott


Image result for against the grain james c scott
Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, published August 2017 by Yale University Press
Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States
by James C. Scott
Published August 2017
Yale University Press

  I've been familiar with James C. Scott, currently a professor of political science at Yale University, since I majored in political science at The American University in the mid 1990's.  My thesis, about political participation among "straight edge" punks in the Washington DC area, was couched explicitly in terms he laid out in his earlier work, about the passive resistance of slaves and peasants to overwhelming authority.   Honestly don't remember how the two things tied together. College was a bit of a haze in that regard.  But the name stuck with me, but when I saw he had a new book out about the deep history of the earliest states, I leapt at the opportunity to read Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States.  Almost one year later, I got the copy I had placed on hold in the LA library system and yes, it was worth the wait mostly if you are interested in a) the history of the earliest states b) the theories of passive resistance to authority Scott has advocated in his career-making work. c) pop culture takes on these very same subjects by best-selling authors, who Scott clearly acknolwedges in his forthright preface, where he admits he is not an expert in these fields (ancient political science, you could say) and is relying on the work of others, probably leaning heavily on graduate students.

     Scott brings his distinct perspective to the relatively staid world of ancient political science.  Most specialists on ancient civilization are either linguists or archeologists, and both practices have deep roots in the days of European empire, colonialism, etc.  Scott, on the other hand, comes from the very cutting edge world of major American research universities with their own publishing houses and potential for celebrity generating publicity into fields like film and television.  It kind of looks like what Scott, in his own highly intellectual way, is doing here: Making a play for something more than the adulation within the political science community.  Considering how progressive and innovative his ideas are, about how ancient government is at heart an exercise in slavery, and how human kind has not benefited particularly from the rise of agriculture and it's role in allowing the growth of the first political states.

   His argument is intellectual ammunition for those who would role back the clock on human innovation and technology in many different respects, and it isn't hard to imagine a world where Against the Grain was embraced by a dangerous crowd for the wrong reasons.   At the same time, his arguments are just so interesting, and so well constructed, that is difficult not to get swept along- and is also a characteristic of his more specialist centered earlier work. 

Monday, July 09, 2018

Walden (19854) by Henry David Thoreau


Book Review
Walden (19854)
by Henry David Thoreau

   Everyone reads Walden in high school in the United States. I was no different. At least I think so- before I started the audiobook version this time through I couldn't remember anything except the things everyone knows, Thoreau, in the woods, talking about self-reliance and nature.  Listening to the Audiobook is a real experience- memorable- like listening to a Spaulding Grey monologue.  Or a Thoreau monologue.  If I had to make one dinner party point about Thoreau is that he is very detailed about the mechanics of his solitary existence, down to the cent, on multiple occasions.  There is also the more familiar transcendalism which is more or less an American rewriting of the Hindu-Buddhist-Greek wisdom that was not well diffused in Anglo-American culture in the mid 19th century, and indeed Thoreau was one of the first on this side of the Atlantic to popularize that bevy of ideas.

  Withdrawal and retreat are at the heart of any thorough understanding of Hinduism or Buddhism, and Thoreau plainly is attempting to make those same points his American context.  I finished listening while staying at the Bee Keepers cottage outside Freeport, Maine.  The Airbnb we stayed in had a hardback copy on their living room table, and Thoreau was very much on my mind as we sat on the ocean shore and tried to identify sea-birds and ocean life.  Thoreau is still relevant today, particularly for those unfamiliar with the underlying Eastern wisdom that informs his work.

The Clay Machine Gun (1996) by Victor Pelevin


Book Review
The Clay Machine Gun (1996)
 by Victor Pelevin

  Only after I bought The Clay Machine Gun online did I discover that in America, the same novel was published as Buddha's Little Finger in the United States.   Adding to the confusion, the Russian title translates as Chapayev and Void-so... three titles.   The Clay Machine Gun is firmly rooted in the free wheeling era between the collapse of Communism and the rise of Putin-ism.   You can see parallels to artists in Weimar Germany in the way Pelevin takes advantage of artistic license to fashion a dark and disturbing vision of the failings of that society.  Like many authors writing in a less-free society, Pelevin also makes use of surrealism and allegory to craft multiple layers of meaning.

  Here, the narrative bounces between time periods, sharing one narrator, a "Peter Void."  Half of the book takes place in the time of Revolutionary Russia, where Void becomes the aide-de-camp of a Tibetan mystic/Russian Army General who posses the Clay Machine Gun/Buddha's Little Finger of the title- an ultimately annihilating relic of the finger of the buddha that holds the ability to make the entire universe vanish.  If you consider that revelation a "spoiler," then more power to you.

 The more contemporary half of the plot involves a present day Peter Void- confined in a mental institution, where he is told that the other half of the plot- about the Russian general during the Russian revolution- is a hallucination caused by some kind of multiple personality syndrome.

 Pelevin also includes historical counterparts for Void's psychiatric ward companions- a Japanese hit man, a Viking warrior and a trans character who has a Strangelovian ride with Arnold Schwarzenegger.   It is all realistically surreal, if that makes sense. 

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