Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Grass is Singing (1950 by Doris Lessing

Book Review
The Grass is Singing (1950)
 by Doris Lessing

  The story of European imperialism in Africa did not end after the post World War II independence movements. Most Americans are vaguely familiar with what happened in South Africa: the apartheid regime and the actions by the African National Congress, leading to relatively peaceful handing over of power following negotiations in 1990.   The story in the area north of South Africa, called Rhodesia, then Northern Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia and then, after independence Zambia and Zimbabwe.   Zimbabwe became quasi-independent in the 1960s when a whites-only government was denied permission to form an avowedly racist post colonial state.  A two decade civil war followed, with the present regime taking power in 1980.  Most whites in Zimbabwe left at that point, and those that remained have faced sometimes violent attempts at land repatriation at the hands of the ruling party.

  Doris Lessing is FROM Zimbabwe and her experience was that of the poor white farmers of that place. There is nothing particularly problematic about her attitude, and it's impressive that a novel written by a white Rhodesian in the early 1950s has stood up so well over time.  I think the sexual undertones to the conflict between Mary Turner and her African murderer/house boy make this title less favored as a class room book (compared to Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.)   All three books represent a half-way point between a truly native African literature and the tourist colonialism of Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and lesser literary lights.

 I was quite taken with her descriptions of the lonelness of the southern African savannah or "Veldt" as it is know by the Dutch settlers.  Midway through the book, she becomes obsessed with the incessant heat, almost to the point where you could argue the heat and stillness drive her mad. Lessing is aware of the physical environment of her novel in a way that is unusual for a book published in 1950.

Self-Condemned (1954) by Wyndham Lewis

Book Review
Self-Condemned (1954)
 by Wyndham Lewis

  You can make a strong case that Wyndham Lewis is a canonical artist of the 20th century.  He invented artistic movements(Vorticism, the only "avant garde" art movement to emerge in England in the early 20th century), wrote roman a clef type novels which continue to maintain audience and critical attention and had a strong reputation as a painter.  On the other hand, he is generally a hateful human being and flirted with Nazism prior to the outset of World War II, which he, essentially, fled.

 Self-Condemned is a thinly veiled autobiographical novel about a Lewis type figure who gives up his kushy job as a University Professor in England to move to a mid-size town in Canada, where he knows no one and has no prospects.  The first portion of the novel is set in England, where Rene announces his decision, much to the shock and disappointment of almost everyone in his immediate and extended family.

  Most significantly his wife, Hester(called Essie) who is that sort of 20th century woman who is hooked up with a male "intellectual" without herself being one. Upon arrival in North America, they are literally confined to a hotel room, where the interactions between husband and wife assume the proportions of a Samuel Beckett play- claustrophobic and hateful.

  All of Lewis' major novels concern the interactions between hateful intellectuals and wealthy English, but none maintains the kind of focus on a pair of characters like Self-Condemned.  By the end of the book I really hated Rene, and I really kind of hate Wyndham Lewis, and I say that after reading Tarr and Apes of Wrath- his books about pre-World War I Paris and post World War I London respectively. Maybe though it's Lewis' success at evoking this strong passion that marks him as a great novelist.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Seize the Day (1956) by Saul Bellow

Book Review
Seize the Day (1956)
by Saul Bellow

  In the foreward to the edition I read, critic Cynthia Ozick notes that Seize the Day, a slight novella spanning a single day in the life of failed actor (and human being) Tommy Adler nee Wilhelm, is dwarfed by coming after The Adventures of Augie March, also written by Bellow and published the year before.  Augie March was Bellow's big hit with the reading public, and its success set him up for a lifetime of critical and popular attention.   Bellow dominates American literary fiction in the 1950s and to a certain extent his vision of the 1950s masculinity is one the public has come to accept as "true."

   Tommy Adler, the protagonist in Seize the Day, is a pure Bellow male loser- a would-be Alpha heading down towards the bottom of Beta.  Although Seize the Day takes place in a single day, much of the text is devoted to various musings by Adler about his past mistakes and his present predicaments.  Even though I don't consider myself either a typical 50s style American male or an abject failure, I am old enough and wise enough to relate to  Adler/Wilhelm and his problems with a wife who won't divorce him (or fuck him) and a father who sees him as a loss to be cut off the balance sheet.  That isn't my reality, but it very well could be.

  Once again, I'm confronted with the fact that I very much relate to the most out-of-fashion, "white-male" centered titles in the 1001 Books project.  When I brought Bellow up to a gathering of high school classmates- all university educated white men on the cusp of their 40s, I found myself advocating for Bellow, "No, I know he has a dowdy reputation, but if you are a white guy dealing with mid life issues like family, jobs and kids, you really should check him out."

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945) by Carlo Levi

Christ Stopped at Eboli is a memoir of the author who was exiled in this remote region of Italy in the period before World War II

Book Review
Christ Stopped at Eboli (1945)
by Carlo Levi

  I bought Christ Stopped at Eboli on my Kindle months ago and there it has sat, waiting for the inspiration of a vacation to give the impetus to finish.  Christ Stopped is a memoir about the author's time in internal exile in this remote region in Southern Italy.   Compared to the horrors that would engulf Italy and the rest of Europe during World War II, Levi's bucolic existence in Eboli seems less like a prison sentence and more like a rural idyll.

  Modern readers will be most interested in Levi's description of southern Italian rural life prior to World War II.  He describes a mixed bag of characters: peasants, rural land owners, other exiled intellectuals/dissenters.   As a medical doctor, Levi has ample opportunity to get deeply involved in the lives of those around him and this experience produces a quiet, enjoyable read.

  There isn't much in the way of "action" in Christ Stopped at Eboli.  The terms of Levi's exile prohibit him from leaving the immediate environs of the small village he has been sent to, so almost of all of what happens happens inside the small village.  There is no romantic involvement, and Levi remains a spectator from beginning to end.

A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014) by Marlon James

The attempted assassination of Bob Marley by CIA bankrolled gangsters is the central plot point in A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James.

Book Review
A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014)
 by Marlon James

  Bringing A Brief History of Seven Killings on vacation with me in Jamaica was like wearing a band t-shirt to the same band's concert.   Recent winner of the Man Booker prize,  A Brief History of Seven Killings is a blood-soaked retelling of an alleged CIA sponsored plot to assassinate Bob Marley and the subsequent move of Jamaican organized crime syndicates into the crack trade in New York City. The attempted murder of Bob Marley is a matter of historical record, and the alleged CIA involvement is an old story- after finishing the book I googled the subject and found the exact plot of the book laid out in a news story from 2010.

  The story is told through a multiplicity of different voices. The afterward by the author cites William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying as a direct inspiration, but given the rock and roll milieu it reminded me more of a Spin magazine oral history.   The lack of a central narrator or introduction to the back story of Jamaican politics makes the first hundred pages or so difficult to understand.  Basically, Jamaica has two political parties, the People's National Party and the Jamaican Labor Party.  The People's National Party was the part of independence, and at the time of the book (1979) they were firmly socialist and heading farther to the left.  The Jamaican Labor Party was the conservative opposition and supported on the down low by the United States government.

  Both parties used Kingston street gangs to control the vote in elections, and the 1980 election was the bloodiest of all time, with over 700 people losing their lives during the campaign.  None of this information is given directly in the narrative.  Instead you have the voices of the gang leaders, the American operatives and ordinary Jamaicans with various levels of involvement in the shenanigans.   Eventually these shenanigans lead to the attempted assassination of Bob Marley (only called "the singer" in the book) by gang members affiliated with the Jamaican Labor Party and bankrolled by United States operatives, most notably a Colombian explosives expert called "Dr. Love."

  Love is also the bridge between the Jamaican Posse-gangs and the Cali Cartel, and after the failed assassination attempt, the Jamaican Shower Posse (called the "Storm Posse" ) in the book moves into the crack trade in New York City.   James does a remarkable job giving full life into the type of characters that typically only exist as crude stereotypes in American art and popular culture- his portrayal of gay/bisexual Posse members is particularly memorable.

  After finishing the book I quickly checked to see who had bought the tv/film rights and was excited to learn that HBO has purchased the rights, and that the author himself was working on the adaptation. Can't wait for that tv show!

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