Dedicated to classics and hits.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Lost City of the Monkey God (2017) by Douglas Preston

Book Review
The Lost City of the Monkey God (2017)
by Douglas Preston

  The Lost City of the Monkey God is a strange combination of true-life archaeology and true-life thriller written by Douglas Preston, who has hit the best seller list a number of times both for non fiction and Dan Brown style adventure fiction.  Anecdotally located in the mountainous south of Honduras, the Lost City was traditionally known as the "lost city" by a generation of American funded non-academic explorers and adventurers. 

  The impetus for this particular expedition to find this legendary lost city was the success of LIDAR- a plane based radar device that can penetrate ground cover to see human made objects hidden in dense jungle, it had already scored notably successes in the Arabian peninsula and Cambodia.   Much of the first hundred pages is devoted to a summary of past attempts to discovery the city, a survey of the literature surrounding the site and many pages on the logistics required to get a team into the most likely site, not to mention the process of flying the LIDAR plane to find the ruin in the first place.

  Spoiler alert, they find the Lost City, located in the prosaically named valley T1. As it turns out, it is a lost civilization- not Mayan but with heavy Mayan influence, with a hey day of 1000-1400. The third act plot twist involves almost the entire expedition contracting a horrific jungle disease called "white leprosy" and their attempts to seek medical treatment.

  There is also some amusing material about Preston talking to academics angered by the publicity generated by the (admittedly publicity hungry) expedition.  So it's interesting, fun to read, not that deep.  There was a lost civilization down there- not Mayan- but Mayan influenced.

American Pastoral (1997) by Philip Roth

Book Review
American Pastoral (1997)
by Philip Roth

  Man, the hits keep coming for late career Philip Roth. American Pastoral won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 and even though he inevitably seems to write about weird old guys from New Jersey, he never writes the same book twice, dabbling in meta fiction, speculative fiction and the roman a clef despite having established his initial literary reputation on the back of realistic portraits of urban life in the northeast.   American Pastoral is also one of Roth's Zuckerman novels, about Nathan Zuckerman, successful novelist generally assumed to be the alter ego of Roth.

  Despite American Pastoral being narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, the book is about Seymour "Swede" Levov, a Jewish-American student athlete of vast renown, grown old and successful, but tormented by the 1960's radical inspired bombing of the local postal office by his 16 year old daughter.  Although Zuckerman narrates from the present, most of American Pastoral takes the form of Zuckerman imagining Levov's life, culminating in the bombing, but moving back and forth within different periods in the past.

  I thought it was a little strange that this was the book that won Roth a Pultizer.  By 1997 he had been a prospective Nobel Prize for Literature winner for a decade, and he still had not won a Pultizer Prize for fiction.  Ultimately, American Pastoral derives its strength from the well observed horror of a parent at the choices made by a child.  That is under developed literary territory.

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Life of Insects (1998) by Victor Pelevin

Book Review
The Life of Insects (1998)
\by Victor Pelevin

  19th century Russian literature is truly "classic" in the sense that it is universally appreciated by all who take an interest in world literature. It is not uncommon for one of several 19th century Russian classics to be the "favorite" of anyone who cares about world literature, or for one of a few Russian authors to be named as one's favorite author, whether you grew up speaking English, Japanese, Arabic or Russian.  This 19th century work has earned translated Russian literature a kind of life time hall pass in English and the other languages of the west.  Pity then, that the USSR turned out to be such a bust, artistically speaking.  The general Russian artistic perspective post-Communism can be summed up as "negative," and this is very much in evidence in The Life of Insects, by Russian author Victor Pelevin, about modern Russians who are also literally bugs.

  Of course, any intersection of humans, bugs and English translations will evoke Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka about a man who famously wakes up as a bug, or beetle, or cockroach, depending on the translator. Pelevin is hard to pin down, and at times I was left wondering if a confusing passage was a product of the author's intent, the difficulty of the translation or a combination of both.   The impact was to make The Life of Insects hard to follow, in the same way that the post-Naked L:unch output of William S. Burroughs is difficult to follow. 

People are bugs. It's an allegory of life in Russia after the fall of Communism!  That's about all I got out of it.

Jack Maggs (1997) by Peter Carey

Jack Maggs (1997)
 by Peter Carey

  One of the principles of canon formation I've noticed is that if you are trying to canonize the recent past, there is a marked bias in favor of books that either won a big yearly award or by authors who have won said big yearly award in the past.   For "new" authors, i.e. previously non-canonical authors the main routes are 1) a break out debut novel 2)retrospective elevation of earlier works after a canon making event occurs for a specific author 3) retrospective elevation of books with a current audience ("Best Seller list") via critical acceptance.

  You can see these principles at play in the construction of the 1001 Books list from the first, 2006 edition.  Books selected from the 1950's through 1980's, a period when most of the major yearly book prizes were "ramping up," shows only a vague correspondence between the list of winners and the selected titles.  However, once you get to the 1990's, almost every book seems to a prize winner or a new book by a recent winner.  Australian author Peter Carey fits into this schematic.  He is a two time Booker Prize winner, alongside canon-staples J.M. Coeteze and Hilary Mantel.  Jack Maggs, while not a prize winner, is a clever example of historical metafiction often categorized as a "parallel novel," where an author takes the actual plot of another novel and rewrites it, usually from a different perspective that that of the original author.

 Here, Jack Maggs is a parallel novel of Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, except that it takes the form of a tale that inspires the Dickens-substitute author to write his version of Great Expectations.  The main character, Jack Maggs, is the returned convict from Great Expectations, and Henry Phibbs, the son in Jack Maggs is the equivalent of Pipn from Great Expectations.  The major leap here is to make Dickens himself a character in the retelling of one of his novels.

  This allows Carey to bring to bear the biographical details raised in the non-fiction corpus of Dickens studies into his retelling.  This elevates Jack Maggs over Dickens himself, and it also captures the lesser understood dark side of Dickens interest in character interaction.  Being familiar with the standard Dickens biography, I recognized several clever integrations of fact via fiction.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Untouchable (1997) by John Banville

Book Review
The Untouchable (1997)
 by John Banville

   Not to be confused with the 1987 American film about famous prohibition era FBI agent Elliot Ness, The Untouchable is about Victor Maskell, an Anglo-Irish double agent for Great Britain and the USSR during World War II and the early stages of the Cold War before becoming inactive in the mid 1950's.  Maskell is largely based on real life member of the Cambridge 4/5 Spy Ring Anthony Blunt, with whom Maskell shares multiple key characteristics.  The Cambridge Spy Ring is a fertile source for spy fiction materials as well as being a top seller in the world of non-fiction, but, mostly in the UK, I think.   In the United States, the Cambridge Spy Ring is little known and essentially never discussed.

  They were a group of intellectuals who were recruited by the Soviet Union prior to the Second World War, simultaneously feeding the USSR information while operating at the very highest levels of British government and military.  I was under the impression- and it's an impression reinforced by the Maskell/Blunt character in The Untouchable that they were all gay- almost more dangerous than being a spy for the USSR in mid century England.

  The form of The Untouchable is that of a roman a clef, the life and times of an extremely interesting and almost certainly wholly unsympathetic narrator.  This format reflects the sensibility of Maskell, who, as he repeatedly urges the reader to consider, is a creature of the period between wars in the United Kingdom, with all the excess that would entail (like an English counterpart of New York jazz age frolics).  The question of motivation lurks around the fringes of The Untouchable, never fully resolved, often belittled by Maskell.

  Banville carries off the sexual identity of Maskell with aplomb.  I think, in a sense, that conveying repression is easier than conveying expression, because so much is not said or even, for that matter, thought.  Although the reader assumes that Maskell is gay from jump street, he doesn't actually have a gay experience until after he is married with children.  Blunt was famously revealed as the fourth member of the Burgess-Maclean-Philby spy ring- all of whom appear in fictional guise in The Untouchable

  Banville's prose is ice cold.  It's very crisp, and state of the art.  There is little to no literary excess, no florid turns of phrase.  Banville possesses insight into the human condition, a prime reason why he is a perennial Nobel Prize for Literature long-shot.  Also he is the preeminent Irish novelist of his generation, so the extent that Ireland is going to get another Nobel Prize for Literature, he would be the guy. 

Saturday, December 09, 2017

The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution (2017) by Yuri Slezkine

Cover of The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution by Yuri Slezkine

Book Review
The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution (2017)
 by Yuri Slezkine
Princeton University Press/Oxford University Press
Published August 27th, 2017
1126 pgs.

  I went back and looked at all the books I read this year to see if there was anything I liked more than The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution.  Finishing the first volume of Rembrance of Things Past by Proust was a real milestone, and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, Shame and The Satanic Verses were all top 10 type titles.  I liked Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing, which won the National Book Award and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Sunders, which one the Booker Prize.  I also read four titles by Nobel Prize for Literature winner Kazuo Ishiguo, and I felt like his most recent book,  The Buried Giant was sorely misunderstood by critics and audiences.

   But it was The House of Government, which is a history book- not even a novel- which is my favorite book of the year.  The House of Government is nothing short of a revelation, one of those history books that only comes along once or twice in a generation.  I would compare it to Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fischer in terms of the impact on our understanding of the subject matter.  Slezkine deserves recognition on every level: For his research, his construction of the book, his writing style and technique and the persuasiveness of his thesis, which is that Bolshevism was a millenarian religion like many others, and it's followers were like all millenarian followers.

   The House of Government was a literal place, a bespoke apartment building for the elite of the revolutionary government.  Slezkine traces the lives of the apartment dwellers: early days of prison, exile and revolution;  a "heroic" period where the residents were deeply involved in cementing the success of the Russian revolution, the post revolution hangover and finally the extermination of the entire "old" Bolshevik elite during the Red Terror.   Each period gets full attention.  The House of Government clocks in at over a thousand pages with another 200 pages of addendum's and notes.  It's researched like an academic history book but reads like a novel.  Ultimately, it is a must for anyone interested in the subject, or advances in the discipline of history.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Hallucinating Foucault (1996) by Patricia Dunker

Book Review
Hallucinating Foucault (1996)
by Patricia Dunker

   French intellectual Michel Foucault is one of those 20th century figures, like Freud or Einstein, who continues to inspire new generations, both with his actual ideas and also with his image.  In his case, that image is that of the sex-positive transgressive male homosexual, as aggressive about asserting his particular sexuality as any heterosexual man, with a fondness for vagrants and criminals, the rougher, the better.  It's this combination of intellect and danger that gives him such enduring appeal.

  In the recently reviewed The Seventh Function of Language by Binet, Foucault appears as an actual character in his 1980's who-done-it.  In Hallucinating Foucault, he does not appear in person, but he haunts the proceedings, which detail the activities of the unnamed narrator, a graduate student in literature at Cambridge University.   The narrator's subject is French novelist Paul Michel (fictional), who appears as a kind of literary doppelganger, or maybe spiritual manifestation, of Foucault.  At the beginning of Hallucinating Foucault, which is set in the "present," the narrator learns, through his girlfriend, known in the book only as "the Germanist," that Michel went stark raving mad and has spent the last decade of his life in an asylum near Paris.

  Off he goes then, to meet and befriend the subject of his research.  The description makes Hallucinating Foucault sound more off putting and pretentious than it actually is. It's one of those novels that will appeal to people who fondly remember the height of "post-modern" academic culture, and leave those on the outside incurious to investigate further.

The Story of a Brief Marriage (2016) by Anuk Arudpragasm

Book Review
The Story of a Brief Marriage (2016)
 by Anuk Arudpragasm

  It is easy to forget, or never learn, what, exactly was wrong with colonialism.  Aside from the obvious outrages such as discrimination and slavery, there were the more subtle but just as pernicious techniques of governance, many of which continue to vex these places decades later.  One of these techniques was to "divide and conquer" native populations by favoring one ethnic/religious/cultural group at the expense of another.   Decisions about which groups to favor were themselves the product of racism, and the result is that the removal of the colonial administration would inevitably unleash anger between the group which had been favored and the group (or groups) which were disfavored.

  The most "classic" example of this government technique of control in recent history is the Rwanda genocide, where the colonially favored Tutsi's became enmeshed in genocide with the Hutus, the disfavored group under colonial rule.  Sri Lanka was another location where this dynamic was much in evidence.  There, the British favored the minority Tamil population, ancient immigrants to Sri Lanka from the sub continent at the expense of the majority Sinhalese/Buddhist group.  In the aftermath of the British withdrawal, the Sinhalese took control of their government, and the Tamil's "fought back" through the formation of a nationalist liberation group, known as the Tamil Tigers, who immediately launched a bloody civil war, one that included the invention of the suicide bomber and wide spread civilian atrocities by both sides (but mostly by the Tamil's).

  Eventually, with major help from both China and Israel, the Sinhalese government trapped a mixed group of Tamil civilians and rebels on a single strip of beach in the north of the island and exterminated them down to the last man.  This happened in the spring of 2009, and The Story of a Brief Marriage, written by a Sri Lankan Tamil now studying Philosophy at Columbia University, is the story of a young civilian Tamil man trapped in that last redoubt, weeks before the end.

  I'm unaware of any other narratives- fictional or non- that take on the perspective of one of these civilians who was trapped- apparently the Sri Lankan army indiscriminately shelled the civilians along with the guerrillas, and The Story of a Brief Marriage is deserving of attention precisely becausethe viewpoint of the narrator is so unique.

  To recount the horrors of The Story of a Brief Marriage is to lessen the impact, but in a decade with plenty of explicit narratives about wars present and future, this one stands out.  There are no larger political issues, just the horror of being trapped in a war zone and targeted for annihilation by a very modern army.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Fugitive Pieces (1996) by Anne Michaels

Book Review
Fugitive Pieces (1996)
 by Anne Michaels

  Canada's second most famous poetess-novelist is Anne Michaels.  With only two novels to her name she didn't quite go all in on the novel like Margaret Atwood (Canada's most famous poetess-novelist).  Fugitive Pieces is the story of Polish-Greek Holocaust survivor Jakob Beer, a young Polish Jew rescued by a Greek geologist, and raised in Greece (during the war) and Canada (after.)  A second part of the book is narrated by Ben, the son of Holocaust survivors, who knows Beer as the successful poet he becomes in Toronto.

 When I know the author of a novel is also a poet, I expect certain experiences from the text.  A quality of elusiveness, abstracted imagery, the absence of common narrative sign posts that tell the reader what to expect.  Fugitive Pieces has all that and more- themes of trauma, grief, loss and memory (swiped that from the Wikipedia page for this book.)

 I read most of Fugitive Pieces sitting in the holiday-heavy hellscape of the Brand Americana mall in Glendale, CA., waiting for my car to get serviced down the street.  Holocaust and contemporary American mall Christmas decorations make for some awkward thoughts, particularly when many of the shoppers- heavy on Armenians, Persians and other near Eastern minorities, have experienced their own 20th century Holocaust experiences.  Perhaps the Brand Americana mall is heaven, and we all died.  Or maybe it's purgatory.


SIlk (1996) by Alessandro Baricco

Image result for silk film
The movie version of Silk starred Michael Pitt and Keira Knightley
Book Review
Silk (1996)
 by Alessandro Baricco

  Another example of the 1990's era "International Best Seller: Now a Major Motion Picture" genre, translated from the Italian, about a French "silkworm merchant-turned-smuggler" who travels to 19th century Japan to secure supplies of silk worms for a consortium of silk manufacturers in southern France.  While there, he meets a girl-woman with "European eyes" who becomes his obsession.

  There really isn't a whole lot to it besides that description.  Baricco has a poetic/elliptical prose style that obviously attracted readers.  Also, Silk clocks in at 130 pages with wide margins and triple spacing between lines, so it's a fast read for anyone with a junior high school education or up.  I wasn't moved.  Inexplicably, this is a core book of the 1001 Books list, having survived all revisions. Baffling. 

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Cocaine Nights (1996) by J.G. Ballard

Book Review
Cocaine Nights  (1996)
 by J.G. Ballard

 A book written in 1996 means that there are only ten more years left in the first edition of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.  It also means that the editors are basically guessing at this point, since there were plenty of authors writing books in 1996 who didn't make the canon until after 1001 Books was put together.  The period between 1996-2006 reflects what people thought canonical in the present- that is a contradiction in terms, time being the one factor required before a true argument for canonical or non-canonical status is advanced.

  Whether Cocaine Nights is or is not canon makes little difference to me; I just like to read J.G. Ballard novels, and the weirder the better.  Cocaine Nights is weird in that it is a work of crime/detective fiction, with a travel writer older brother heading down to the Costa del Spain to examine the circumstances surrounding the arrest (and confession) of his brother over the deaths of five expats in a highly suspicious fire.   Charles Prentice, the older brother and narrator, is gradually drawn into a world of petty crime, recreational drugs and be-spoke pornography, seemingly abandoning his mission and allowing himself to become corrupted.

  In the end, it turns into classic Ballard, with characters espousing their theories of the coming "leisure society" and what it means.  Considering that Ballard was writing before the internet, his hypothesis sound prescient- the idea of wealthy westerners living in antiseptic condos devoid of community or human interaction sounds very much like the world of today.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Moor's Last Sigh (1995) by Salman Rushdie

Book Review
The Moor's Last Sigh (1995)
by Salman Rushdie

 The Moor's Last Sigh was Salman Rushdie's next book after his fatwa-inducing The Satanic Verses.  If the fatwa impacted any aspect of The Moor's Last Sigh, it escaped me.  I was struck between similarities between this book and his recently published The Golden House- both books, ultimately, deal with the crimes of fathers and the way those crimes impact their families.  The setting her is the familiar Bombay and the less familiar Cochin, an ancient entrepot for the East-West spice trade, a seat for the Portuguese colonists and destination for several waves of Jewish immigrants- both those from Spain and Iraq.  The characters in The Moor's Last Sigh cover the gamut of familiar Indian ethnicity- but the major families are Portuguese-Catholic and Sephardic Jewish.  Like many of his Hindu and Muslim characters, there isn't anything specifically religious about these, other than the occasional use of a scenic religious spot for a locale or intervention of a religious authority figure in some minor way. 

 Morares Zogoiby narrates The Moor's Last Sigh- the only son of Jewish Abraham and Catholic Aurora.  Abraham, the factory clerk for Aurora's families spice warehouse. Zogoiby is an extraordinary character- with one club hand and the peculiar quality that he ages twice as fast as a normal person.   The characteristics are evidence that Rushdie has entered a baroque period in his fiction, where the details proliferate to the point where they almost obscure the larger design of his fiction.

  The Moor's Last Sigh is sprawling and panoramic, and I'm at a loss to consider a book written by Rushdie about India anything but.   At the same time, there are similarities between Midnight's Children, Shame and this book.  After his jaunt into heavy historical fiction resulted in a decade long death sentence, you can't blame a guy for making a strategic thematic retreat to less controversial areas, but two decades later it reads as less vital than his other books written before this one.

Morvern Callar (1995) by Alan Warner

Book Review
Morvern Callar (1995)]
 by Alan Warner

   Scottish fiction is over-represented in the 1990's portion of the first edition of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.   Morvern Callar is the name of the book and the narrator.  Warner set this and all his books in a place called "The Port" based on the town of Oban, on the west coast of Scotland.  Thus, Warner represented a sub-region of an already established regional literature. Like, I believe, all the other representative of Scottish fiction from this period on this list, Morvern Callar is a member of the Scottish underclassed, an orphan, raised by a railroad worker, who, at the beginning of the book, is working a dead end job at the local super-store, and living with her boyfriend, an independently wealthy aspiring novelist.

  Warner famously opens with Callar discovering the body of her boyfriend, who has killed himself as she slept. As one might expect of a young female character in a work of Scottish fiction, she deals with it a resourceful fashion, and the book goes on to tell a kind of hybrid bildungsroman/crime caper.  Morvern is an appealing character, and Warner doesn't overdo it on the Scottish slang/language.  At the same time it's hard to make a really principled distinction between Morvern Callar and better known books like Trainspotting, except to note that Morvern Callar is narrated by a woman and set outside of the major Scottish cities.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Ghost Road (1995) by Pat Barker

Book Review
The Ghost Road (1995)
by Pat Barker

  The Ghost Road is the final title in her Regeneration Trilogy, set during World War I and focusing on the treatment of shell-shocked/ptsd British soldiers during the war.   Barker won the 1995 Booker Prize for The Ghost Road and the Regeneration Trilogy is well equipped to find long-term canonical status as a representative of state-of-the-art historical fiction.

  It was quite a turn for Barker, who, in her own words was seen as a, "female, northern, working class" writer before she turned her hand to male characters and historical fiction.  Ironically, none of her earlier work made the 1001 Books list.  Calling the three books a "trilogy" stretches the term- there are some overlapping characters(pioneering psycho-analyst William Rivers), and certainly overlapping themes, but the trilogy tells three difference stories.  The Ghost Road switches between the present of closing stages of World War I, biographical reminisces of  private Billy Prior about his various sexual exploits, gay and straight, and lengthy flashbacks exploring the time William Rivers spent in Melanesia among a tribe of (former?) head hunters.

  I found the portions set in Melanesia to be particularly compelling.  The heavy gay theme was unexpected and wasn't part of Regeneration, the other book of the three that I've read.  Being gay in early 20th century England was a hanging offense, and many English found sexual liberation in the otherwise horrific circumstances of the trench warfare of World War I.

The Rings of Saturn (1995) by W.G. Sebald

Book Review
The Rings of Saturn (1995)
by W.G. Sebald

  Wikipedia describes The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald, as "a hybrid of a book...combining fiction, travel, biography, myth and memoir."   The framework is a walking tour that "W.G. Sebald" is taking in south eastern England.  The Rings of Saturn consists of both text and pictures, some of the pictures are locales from the walking tour, photos illustrating some of the stories within the story and even a photo of the author himself.  I might also add that "history" is an additional element, the relationship between the West and it's colonies recurs as a theme throughout.

  I'm not sure what kind of audience Sebald has in the the U.S. it must be a cruel irony for German language authors that truly world-wide notoriety can only come after their books are translated into English, but the two languages are extremely close linguistically speaking, so perhaps that's a consolation. What can the reader even say about The Rings of Saturn.  One, it's weird and that weirdness is the very reason people find it so interesting.  Two, despite the weirdness, it's not hard to follow or understand like other works of experimental literature.  Three, the setting of this German language novel in the English south-east is very much on purpose and links to the larger theme of the exploitation of the world by "the west."

The Vegetarian (2016) by Han Sung

Book Review
The Vegetarian (2016)
 by Han Sung

  The Vegetarian was published in the original Korean in 2007.  In 2016, a translation by Deborah Smith appeared in English, and later that year it won the newly refocused Booker International Prize, for books translated into English.   There have been a couple older Korean titles in the 1001 Books project that I've skipped because they weren't readily available from the library, and I believe this is the first novel by a Korean author that I've read.  The obvious reference point for The Vegetarian, is Japanese literature, likely to be the only East Asian literary fiction an English speaker that evokes familiarity. Small apartments, intense family situations, women and men afraid to say what they mean, emotional constriction.   Perhaps I'm just contributing to a stereotype, and considering the fraught 20th century history between Japan and Korea a Korean author might consider the comparison an insult, but there are many cultural similarities between the two places.

  The focus of The Vegetarian is Seoulian house wife Yeong-Hye and her abrupt, dream-inspired decision to forego eating meat.  The novel switches between the perspectives of several people, Yeong-Hye's husband, her brother in law, her sister, none of them Yeong-Hye herself.  It is the consequences- horrific consequences- that provide the material for The Vegetarian.  Now, this same exact thing actually happened to me- my ex woke up one day and decided to become vegetarian more, or less, based on anxiety, so I could relate to the male characters and their uncomprehending reactions.  Korea, as you may or may not know, is a very meat focused cuisine, with bar-b-que being the the major event. The reaction to Yeong-Hye's decision range from abandonment, to extreme anger, to exasperation, but no one understands or empathizes with her decision.

  The Vegetarian is heavy with ideas but light in terms of the weight of the prose, it's an afternoon of reading or maybe a few broken up sessions.  For me, the appropriate reference point is A Hunger Artist, the short story by Franz Kafka

Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Information (1995) by Martin Amis

Book Review
The Information (1995)
 by Martin Amis

   Martin Amis famously received a half million pound advance for The Information, one that was given to him because he dumped his old agent (and friend) for someone new, someone who got him a half million dollars. At the time it was reported to be the most money ever paid for a work of literary fiction. It cemented his status as a literary bad boy- the advance- and made him a figure of controversy in the more rarefied circles of literary fiction, the people who hand out the major prizes, the people who write book reviews.  I'm not sure the controversy has ever been resolved- Amis has never won a major literary award, which seems suspicious for a guy who has commanded a popular and critical audience for decades on both sides of the Atlantic.

  The Information is his "mid-life crisis" book about two authors, friends since childhood, who are both forty.  Richard Tull is the main protagonist and narrator- he's the failure. His friend, Gywn Barry has achieved pop culture icon status on the back of his best seller, a work of vaguely spiritual post-apocalyptic fiction that has resonated with a wide segment of the book buying public, despite being crap. Coming so soon after Sabbath's Theater, another book about a failed getting-older artist wreaking his pathetic vengeance on everyone around him, it's hard not to wonder whether the hey-day of this sort of fiction has finally begun to recede.   I believe The Information, like other books with this sort of protagonist is going to have a hard time aging.   Scholars and canonists looking back on the 1990's are going to be looking to include more diverse voices, and sad white guys like Richard Tull will find themsleves on the cutting room floor.

The Unconsoled (1995) by Kazuo Ishiguro

Book Review
The Unconsoled (1995)
by Kazuo Ishiguro

  2017 Nobel Prize for Literature winner Kazuo Ishiguro is not prolific when it comes to his output.  The Unconsoled was published in 1995, more than six years after The Remains of the Day signaled his real arrival on the international literary stage (The Remains of the Day was his third novel, after A Pale View of the Hills (1982) and An Artist of the Floating World (1986).   Upon publication, The Unconsoled was reviewed with bafflement.  View positive reviews were forthcoming, many critics called The Unconsoled incomprehensible.  A decade later, the tide shifted, and The Unconsoled was making it onto many "best of the century" type lists.  Now of course, we have The Nobel Prize for Literature as well as the many stylistic and thematic similarities between The Unconsoled and The Buried Giant, the last novel Ishiguro wrote before he on the Nobel Prize.

  Set in an unnamed Central European city that mostly resembles Vienna, The Unconsoled follows world-renowned pianist Ryder as he arrives into town to give an important performance.  That one sentence is just about the only fact that can be written about the plot of The Unconsoled without discussing Ishiguro's extraordinary use of memory in this book.  Ryder isn't exactly an amnesiac, but he can't remember many, many important facts which confront him as he tries to "Make it the Greek," so to speak.   All of The Unconsoled is shrouded in the same kind of (metaphorical) fog that drapes filmic representations of Vienna in films like The Third Man.   The most amazing aspect of The Unconsoled is that the narrator and reader learn less as the book moves along.  Confusion and disorientation seems to be the avowed goal of Ishiguro, and in that regard he certainly succeeds.

  Connecting it to his other books, a reader can see that Ishiguro is concerned with the unreliability of memory. What are the consequences to our personality when we either specific memories, or even the ability to know that we have lost memories. And whether the reader enjoys the experience or not, it is impossible to argue that The Unconsoled isn't another worthy take on this theme.  Fun reading though, it is not.

Friday, November 24, 2017

When the English Fall (2017)by David Williams

Book Review
When the English Fall  (2017)
by David Williams
Published July 11th, 2017

  I am automatic for any new novel that marries literary fiction with post-apocalyptic themes.  The New York Times review of When the English Fall carried the headline, "The Amish Guide to the Apocalypse."  The title refers to the name that the Amish use for normal Americans.   Every author who seeks to marry post-apocalyptic genre themes with the requirements of literary fiction confronts the problem of a narrator who won't weigh the text down with unnecessary exposition.  For example, if wrote a book about the apocalypse, and your narrator was the President, or a military general, you'd get a lot of talk about the mechanics and details of how it all went down, simply because they would be in a position to know.   Narrators in these sorts of novels are almost inevitably either children or moderately sophisticated urbanites who never carry any insight.  The "why" of the apocalypse, in every post-apocalyptic novel is essentially besides the point.

  Every literary apocalypse has the same impact, lowering the number of people that the narrator comes into contact with during the course of the book.  Either the book is set during/in the immediate aftermath, and the characters are hiding, fighting or fleeing, limiting their chances for dinner parties and going to the mall, or its in the far aftermath, and there are just fewer people around \to talk to..

  Thus, in my mind, the extent to which a work that attempts to combine post-apocalyptic themes with literary fiction is successful depends on the ability of the author to either escape these parameters (and I haven't even found a one of those up to no) or to simply execute them at the highest level.  When the English Fall, with its unexpectedly unsophisticated Amish narrator who isn't a child, but rather a highly respected head of household, scores a point there because it relieves the author from writing from the perspective of a child (who really just aren't that interesting as narrators, let's be honest.)  The other elevating aspect of When the English Fall is that the Amish were survivalists before survivalism was invented, totally ready to operate outside modern society because they do that shit every day.

    Thus, When the English Fall is a kind of "bunker" novel, except the bunker is a community of well run farms.  And although things get tight, nothing gets scarier than hanging a bunch of outside looters.  The horrors of cannibalism and mass suicide don't play a part here.   Like many novels of the post-apocalypse, a strong ending is nowhere in sight.  In literary fiction finding some place that has escaped destruction is not an option, and ending it with the death of the protagonist is obviously cliche.  To Williams' credit, he does come up with AN ending, not a great one, but something.

Sabbath's Theater (1995) by Philip Roth

Book Revie
Sabbath's Theater (1995)
 by Philip Roth

  In 1960, Philip Roth's debut novel, Goodbye Columbus, won the National Book Award. In 1995, 35 years after that win, he won for Sabbath's Theater.  It demonstrates amazing longevity, and a continued popular and critical audience over the course of his entire professional career.   I think it is far and in no way disrespectful to call Roth "the last of the (20th century) dinosaurs," in the sense that all of his books- and Sabbath's Theater is a particularly acerbic example, feature privileged white men abusing and harassing everyone around them.  He was able to smoothly adapt the arrival of post-modernism without missing a beat, but he didn't start writing books about oppressed third world natives fighting faceless corporations, or underprivileged groups in the United States, he simply incorporated the technique to make his reoccurring themes more powerful.

  Mickey Sabbath is the protagonist and narrator of Sabbath's Theater, he's a falstaffian figure who achieved brief notoriety in the 1960's when he was arrested in New York City for an "obscene puppet show,"  failed to live up to his early promise, then devoted the rest of his life to womanizing and making the women in his life miserable with his behavior.  Whooo de doo, am I right?  Reading Sabbath's Theater in the aftermath of the recent dialogue over sexual harassment/abuse by men of power carries with it some uncomfortable moments.  Even after finishing the book it was unclear to me whether Roth meant us to hate Sabbath or empathize with him.  He seemed pretty despicable to me.   The ability to carry the book on the back of such a jerk is one of the characteristics of Roth's fiction which sets him apart.  

A Fine Balance (1995) by Rohinton Mistry

Book Review
A Fine Balance (1995)
by Rohinton Mistry

   I'm sure that when Salman Rushdie burst onto the international literary scene with his second novel, Midnight's Children, there were readers who were disappointed with the type of book that brought South Asia to the prominent attention of the Western literary world.   Midnight's Children, was, by all accounts, event to detractors, an amazing book, but it was also very Western, what with the post modernism and magical realism, a book about South Asia written by an Author who understood Western literary culture very well.   For these people, A Fine Balance, by Canadian-Indian author Rohinto Mistry, is probably closer to what they had in mind a sprawling (can there be any other book about South Asia) saga that evoked Dickens and Emile Zola.

  A Fine Balance also squarely address the caste system, and the place of untouchables in Indian society, something that, to my knowledge Rushdie has never addressed directly in any of his fiction.  A Fine Balance made a huge splash- only the second Canadian book to be a selection for Oprah's Book Club, and it got a Booker Prize nomination.   I think simply the fact that it is the first book in the 1001 Books project to feature characters from the untouchable/dalit social class in India justifies it's canonical status.   At close to 600 pages, the reader needs to treat A Fine Balance as one would a Dickens novel- you aren't just going to sit down and read it in a couple of sittings.

  Personally though, I don't believe you can understand India without understanding untouchables, and their history and experience, and this is the only book I've found in my life that does it in the context of literary fiction, so there you go.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles (2016) by John Mack Faragher

Book Review
Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles (2016)
by John Mack Faragher
WW Norton & Company

John Mack Faragher is one of America's foremost popular-academic historians, serving as a history Professor at Yale University, and also writing top shelf narrative history on subjects ranging from the explosion of the Arcadians (today's Cajuns) from Canada and a biography of Daniel Boone.  Faragher is more than a synthesizer of academic history journals, if Eternity Street is any indication (and I'm sure it is) he (and his research assistants) are also doing original research based on primary records.  Here, Faragher draws heavily on the written court records of 19th century Los Angeles.  In doing so he has written an extraordinary work of popular history and illuminated a little known but important time in California, and by extension American, history.

  Even if you know California history, Los Angeles in the 19th century is a bit of a blur.  You could be well conversant in the subject and forgiven for knowing, essentially, nothing about the 19th century history of Los Angeles, let alone even the broad outlines of the development of Spanish/Mexican Southern California.   Faragher's narrative, which extends back fully into the mid 19th century, is a rich depiction of a violent border community, with a combustible mix of domesticated and wild Native Americans, a land owning class of "gentes con razon" (people of reason) and an underclass of "gentes sin razon" (people without reason) that contained Spanish/Mexicans, both types of Native peoples, African-Americans (free), mixed race Mexican/Indians and increasing numbers of Anglos, most of whom came from the South, but who also contained an important minority of Boston based traders, some of whom became Mexican citizens and married into the existing land owning class, others of whom maintained their American citizenship and resisted integration.

  Although the path that the history takes is of course familiar to anyone on the planet, the details of that path are what concerns Faragher, particularly the difficulty of establishing the rule of law as we understand it in the United States, a process that was not fully complete for decades after California became a state.  The meat of Faragher's narrative concerns issues with lynch mobs and vigilante violence, and the difficulty that the state had establishing control of that behavior.

  In this way Faragher is plugged in to larger trends in American history outside the history of the West- books that point out the incredible comparative lawlessness of post-Civil War America.  Faragher makes it clear that yes, mid 19th century Los Angeles was an incredibly lawless place, with a per capita murder rate that ranks it among the most violent societies of all time.  He documents examples with court records, from testimony and coverage of the press.  Frequently the stories end with the perpetrators being dragged out of their cells and lynched just outside of downtown.

  I could go on for pages about it- and the other subjects.  Faragher is from Southern California- he went to UC Riverside for undergraduate, and Eternity Street is a rich and valuable contribution to the history of this area.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Love's Work: A Reckoning with Life (1995) by Gillian Rose

Book Review
Love's Work: A Reckoning with Life (1995)
by Gillian Rose

  Gilliam Rose was a serious philosopher- English- of Jewish heritage.  She played an important role in English language discussion of Continental philosophical figures like Theodor Adorno, Marcuse and Derrida. The was also diagnosed, at a young age, with ovarian cancer, and she died from it.  Love's Work is a slim book about her experience.  It is, of course, philosophical but also incredibly sad and moving, and clearly a work of literature with canonical value even though it is nothing like a novel or really any other book that the editors chose to include in the 1001 Books list.   While I enjoyed it- particularly her matter-of-fact description of having a "stoma" after a cancer related colon surgery.  I'll spare the uninterested the details of what, exactly, a "stoma" is, but if you know, you also know that it is probably one of the most disturbing things that can happen to a human.

  Death is not something most people chose to think about- thoughts about death that last for long periods or that become overwhelming are a frequent sign of mental illness in the healthy, and as Rose points out in calm detail, there are many, many, many ways that a human diagnosed with cancer faces a frightening ordeal when seeking treatment.


The Reader (1995) by Berhnard Schlink

Image result for kate winslet the reader
Kate Winslet received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Hanna Schmitz in his movie version of The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
The Reader (1995)
by Berhnard Schlink

  The front of Bernhard Schlink's 1995 novel The Reader has "Oprah's Book Club" written above the title and "#1 National Bestseller."  It sold half a million copies inside Germany, made the New York Times Best Seller list in the United States(the first German language book to top the New York Times best seller list, says the wikipedia page), and spawned a  moderately well-received Stephen Daldry directed, Kate Winslet starring film version that received five Oscar nominations.  The Reader is a clear member of the "international best seller" genre of literature from the 1980's onward.

  The Reader covers the familiar (to anyone who stays apace of German language fiction that gets translated into English and released in the US and UK) psychological territory of German struggling to cope with the aftermath of World War II, and their roles before, during and after that conflict.  It would, frankly, be a little shocking to read a German language book from this period that doesn't- especially one that has been translated into English for an English language audience.

  The crux of The Reader is the relationship between 15 year old narrator Michael Berg and Hanna Schmitz, a 36 year old woman who, when Berg meets her, is working as a conductor on the public transit system in a moderately sized West German city.   Hanna has no husband, no children, no friends. The first portion of The Reader, dealing with Berg and Schmitz's technically illicit love affair is handled explicitly but delicately. 

  Next it is revealed that Schmitz has been accused of being a guard at Auschwitz and a smaller satellite camp- or rather, was- Berg narrates the trial portion from the present, as he remembers past events.  The title refers to the fact that an important part of Berg and Schmitz' relationship was that she would have him read to her.  Later, witnesses testify that as a Nazi guard, Schmitz would pick out weak inmate on the verge of being weeded out and sent to the death chambers and have them read to her, in the same way that Berg read to her as a boy.

  Schlink provides a satisfying resolution that was obviously a huge part of the success of The Reader in it's translated form.  I would say that the very commercial success it enjoyed taints in terms of long term canonical status.  BUT if you are actually into Holocaust literature The Reader is a five star must, that definitely earns a place on the Holocaust lit shelf of your collection.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017 by Jesmyn Ward

Book Review
Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017)
 by Jesmyn Ward

    The 2017 National Book Award ceremony is next week, November 15th (Watch it live on Facebook!)  Sing, Unburied, Sing is the last of the five nominees, and the only one of the five books I actually bought. Jesmyn Ward is the only one of the five nominees with a prior win, in 2011, for her novel Salvage the Bones.  The National Book Award isn't big on repeat winners- unless I'm missing something it looks like Saul Bellow (3 times) is the only repeat winner.

  To recap, the other four nominees are Dark at the Crossing by Eliot Ackerman, The Leavers by Lisa Ko, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and Her Body and Other Stories by Carmen Machado.  Only Her Body and Other Stories (short story collection) isn't a novel.  The National Book Award has given out multiple awards for short story collections, so this isn't a disqualification for actually winning, but it is for me.   Both Pachinko and Dark at the Crossing are written by American authors, but neither book has much to do with America itself.  Pachinko has nothing to do with the United States at all, except for the nationality of the author.  Dark at the Crossing features an Iraqi-American protagonist, but the book takes place on the border of Turkey and Syria.

  Looking back at the list of recent winners, only Europe Central, by William T. Vollmann stands out as a book whose only connection to the USA is via the nationality of the author.  I would say that lack of sufficient connection to the United States via the setting or characters is a reason not to give the prize to those nominees.  That leaves Her Body, The Leavers and Sing, Unburied, Sing.  It's pretty hard to fathom- considering the lack of repeat winners in the past history of the National Book Award- to imagine that Ward will break that trend.  The Leavers is what remains.  Before I wrote this post, I would have said my two favorites were The Leaver and Sing, Unburied, Sing.

  Sing, Unburied, Sing is wild: Set in the under-class of rural Mississippi in the present day.  There are a collection of narrators- a young interracial boy with a black Mom and a white Dad.  The child is the primary narrator, but he is joined by the voice of the Mom, the voice of the black/Native American Grandfather and, this being 2017, a ghost or two.  In fact, ghost narrators seem to be very in vogue in the upper echelons of literary culture at the moment- see Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, which just won the 2017 Booker Prize in the UK.

  Ward ranks high both in terms of her descriptive realism and her inventive technique.  It's not exactly magical realism, but the spirit world is omnipresent.  The Leavers, on the other hand, is a conventional bildungsroman about an ethnically Chinese boy who is adopted by white American parents.   That is a most conventional set up- only the novelty of the viewpoint, particularly the chapters written from the perspective of the Mom elevate The Leavers into the orbit of a potential prize winner.  So The Leavers- that would be my pick/guess.

The Master of Petersburg (1994) by J.M. Coetzee

Book Review
The Master of Petersburg (1994)
 by J.M. Coetzee

  So very many J.M. Coetzee novels in the 1001 Books project.  It's like they ran out of ideas in 1988 and just decided to pitch a dozen Coetzee titles into the mix.  I mean, sure, the Booker winners, OK, I get it.  And throw in another books a decade- what is that- five titles?  The 1001 Books project has like, a dozen Coetzee books in the first edition.

  The Master of Petersburg uses Dostoyevsky as his narrator and main character, returning to Russia during his German exile to investigate the circumstances behind the untimely death of his estranged step son.   As it turns out, his son has fallen in with a rag tag bunch of (real life, historically based) Nihilists and he bounces between them and the Czarist investigators, who suspect his son of being involved with said nihilists.   The version I read was an American paperback edition released after his 2003 Booker Win- in line with the idea that The Master of Petersburg is a second-tier Coetzee novel, which still makes it good enough to be in the 1001 Books project.

The End of the Story (1995) by Lydia Davis

Book Review
The End of the Story (1995)
 by Lydia Davis

  Lydia Davis is mostly known as the creator and master of "flash fiction;" stories that are one or two sentences in length.  Here is an example:

The Outing
An outburst of anger near the road, a refusal to speak on the path, a silence in the pine woods, a silence across the old railroad bridge, an attempt to be friendly in the water, a refusal to end the argument on the flat stones, a cry of anger on the steep bank of dirt, a weeping among the bushes.

    Davis was also married very briefly to Paul Auster, and is also a well known translator of French fiction, including Proust.  She's been a finalist for the National Book Award (2007) and she won the Man Booker International Prize in 2013- kind of a lifetime achievement award for otherwise non-qualifying (American) authors.  All that said, The End of the Story was a drag- a middle class white woman tale of woe- about an academic who is trying to recall an affair with a much younger man.  Literally everything about The End of the Story is sad, presumably on purpose, but I think the melding of the European style philosophical novel with the anomie of educated white women in the late 20th century is a disastrous formula for literature. 

    At this point, I could go half a decade without reading another European style philosophical novel/post modern novel written by a white, educated American.  There simply isn't a lot of interest there, from a literary viewpoint, that hasn't been done a million times before.  Add into the mix the emergence of a mulitiplicty of non white/educated/American voices within the space of the novel, and it just makes book like The End of the Story feel like a waste of time.  Sad educated white woman, maybe read a Toni Morrison novel and tell me about sad then.

  Also, flash fiction sounds dumb to me.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Her Body and Other Parties (2017) by Carmen Maria Machado

Book Review
Her Body and Other Parties (2017)
by Carmen Maria Machado

  Her Body and Other Parties was a surprise nominee for the National Book Award this year.  The debut short-story collection by Carmen Maria Machado was published by a small, regional press in Minneapolis with support from the Minnesota state government and Target Corporation.   Beyond that, Her Body and Other Parties is edgy and dark, many of the individual stories containing elements like unreliable narrators, post-apocalyptic back drops, participation by super natural forces in every day life- you know, spooky shit.

 So in that regard, the commercial angle seems pretty clear cut- there is potential interest from genres like speculative fiction, LGBT fiction (Machado is a lesbian, as are almost all of her narrators) and then there is also the literary pedigree of Donald Barthelme and the post-modern short story- or George Saunders, to use a more recent example.

  Does Her Body and Other Parties read like a National Book Award winner? No.   But just the nomination has to be a career maker for Machado, and I'm sure she'll get a deal with more books.  It's just, for me, a collection of shot stories will always lose out to a novel, that the only reason I don't see it as a potential winner.  But the National Book Award does give out the fiction award to short story collections frequently, so that bias doesn't apply to them. 

The Folding Star (1994) by Alan Hollinghurst

Book Review
The Folding Star (1994)
 by Alan Hollinghurst

  It bears repeating that when it comes to embraces LGBT culture, the United Kingdom has lagged behind other English language countries like the United States.  The "normalization" of gay male life in the British isles had to wait until well into the 20th century.  Alan Hollinghurst is the premiere contemporary novelist representing the viewpoint of a "normal" gay man from England living in the late 20th century.  His career has been representative of a serious literary author who hasn't had a break out cross-over hit.  He's not well known in the United States.  He did win a Booker in 2004, for The Line of Beauty, which is thematically similar to The Folding Star, in that it covers the experiences of a young gay man with a middle class background who grew up in England.  A major difference between the two is that prize-winning The Line of Beauty takes place inside England and The Folding Star takes place in Flanders.

  In Flanders, he falls for a variety of guys, a Moroccan street hustler type, his young tutee (he is making a living tutoring students in English.),  a Dutch hustler who makes his living with dirty videos and phone sex.  There is a healthy portion of unflinchingly depicted gay sex, perfectly normal, with no moral overtones.  The sex though is just an aspect of the author's realism, refreshing, coming as it does during the great hey-day of post-modern lit. No narrative tricks, difficult to follow plot or multiplicity of voices.  Hollinghurst does a good job of integrating his fictional present with accurate historical details about the role of the local community in World War II. 

  Flanders is the capital of the northern part of Belgium, which is Dutch speaking and has historical ties to the very idea of "greater Germany" that Hitler was so insightful to exploit.  It's an area where questions of 20th century ethnic identity are very much at issue, and perhaps Hollinghurst is trying to draw a comparison to contingent ideas about gay rights evolving over time.  

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Whatever (1994) by Michel Houellebecq

Book Review
Whatever (1994)
by Michel Houellebecq

  A major difference between literary culture in the United Kingdom vs. the United States: the two biggest English language audiences, is the relationship with French literature.  In the United States, French literature is essentially only known in translation, because the audience for French originals is limited to native French speakers and academics.  In the United Kingdom, the roots of English/French bilingualism go back a thousand years.  Many of the aristocratic families of England had roots and branches inside France, and England had a more direct relationship with French culture in the 17th and 18th centuries, when it was preferred to English in the halls of power throughout Europe.

  Thus in England there is a small but important audience for French originals.  Translations are just as important for reaching a wider audience, but it is the difference between a small and no audience for French originals.  So in a project like 1001 Books- squarely based in London, there is a higher awareness of French authors, and this leads to a bigger audience for French fiction than in the United States, even though the US market is much larger.

  Michel Houellebecq who is barely known in the United States, but a quasi-celebrity in the United Kingdom.  He's known for courting controversy with his fiction- his most recent book, Submission, is a work of speculative fiction where France has become a Muslim majority and falls under Islamic "Shariah" law.

  Whatever was Houellebecq's first novel- one can read it as an updating of The Stranger, or a French version of The Catcher in the Rye.  The protagonist and narrator is a young software engineer, dispatched to the provinces in a multi-week training assignment.  He is filled with ennui.  Given the time period, you can see Whatever as a French version of Douglas Coupland/Generation X era young adult angst.

  To his credit, Whatever is the first book inside the 1001 Books project to really convincingly portray the nascent "computer" culture of the 1990's (and forever after.)  

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994) by Haruki Murakami

Book Review
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994)
by Haruki Murakami

  Haruki Murakami was 15 years into his career as a novelist, including translation into English, when The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle cemented his status as a purveyor of international best-seller literature.  The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was a hit both domestically, where it served the purpose of answering his (then) numerous critics that his fiction wasn't authentic; and internationally, where the 1997 one-volume translation became an "instant" best-seller and beloved companion to a generation of casual readers of literary fiction.    In fact, Haruki Murakami is arguably a household name in houses where people read literary fiction.

  And amazingly I've never picked up a Haruki Murakami book, despite the fact that I could "tell you" that he is a fan of jazz, cats and magical realism, all of which figure prominently in this and other books. But one incorrect assumption I made is that his fiction was "soft" or, perhaps "genteel," when in fact   b has some of the most horrific depictions of 20th century war-time atrocities I've ever read, in addition to the jazz and cats.

  The prose isn't dense, but the ideas are. The speculative fiction/magical realism elements are so tightly described that it seems more appropriate to emphasis the realism of the "magical realism" formula in the context of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.  The translation allows for ambiguities, and as you make your way through this book, which was originally a set of three, shorter books in Japan, you realize that part of Murakami's genius is the way he lets ambiguity grow within the context of his story.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Leavers (2017) by Lisa Ko

Book Review
The Leavers (2017)
 by Lisa Ko

   This strikes me as a worthy winner of the 2017 National Book Award, the third of the finalist I've read after Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and Dark at the Crossing by Eliot Ackerman.  The Leavers is a bildungsroman about a young Chinese-American named Deming/Daniel, and his Mom, an illegal immigrant and pregnant teen, who is surprised when she can't get an abortion for her 7 month fetus. Fine, she says, I'll have him.  Despite The Leavers being a fairly conventional coming of age tale about the son, it is the chapters written from the Mother's perspective that stay with you.

  When Mom disappears without explanation, Deming is adopted by a well-meaning pair of childless college professors in New York City, renamed Daniel Wilkinson, and expected to "do well" by going to college, etc.  He screws this up and finds himself in China.  The denouement of The Leavers concerns the circumstances surrounding Mom's mysterious departure, although anyone with even a passing familiarity with how things work for illegal immigrants in the United States could probably guess on the first try.

  The Leavers is a firmly realistic novel- no touches of magical realism or speculative fiction here.  Ko and her editors have wielded a heavy hand- The Leavers barely covers 300 pages, and the prose is not tense- as close to the popular authors of "chick lit" as it is to "serious" literary fiction.  But I found The Leavers to be very serious, and while perhaps it isn't the most well-written book of the year, it was the most effective in terms of it's ability to create empathy for its subjects. 

  This leaves only two more books from the list of 2017 nominess for the National Book Award- Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward and Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Machado.    Thus far, I'm for The Leavers to win.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Mr. Vertigo (1994) by Paul Auster

Book Review
Mr. Vertigo (1994)
by Paul Auster

  Man, Paul Auster just never stops churning out books combining existentialism, whimsy and memorable characters.  Mr. Vertigo is the first Auster joint I've seen that is set in the past- his current book 4 3 2 1 has portions that are set in the past, and this book has a narrator "looking back" from the present, but most of it takes place in the late 20's and early 30's. Walter Rawley is a motherless street urchin living in St. Louis.  He randomly meets Master Yehudi, the son of a Hungarian Rabbi, who promises Rawley that he can teach him to fly.  Yehudi and Rawley decamp to an isolated farm in Kansas, and a coming of age story ensues.

 Again, as you might expect from a Paul Auster novel, Mr. Vertigo is the least whimsical book to revolve around magic that one could possibly imagine.  Like all of his books before 4 3 2 1, Mr. Vertigo is short- under 300 pages.  It makes for a comically compressed third act, basically all of Rawley's life between the late 1930's and the present, covered in the course of 50 pages.   It practically invites the reader to skim, knowing that not much can happen in what remains of the book.

 Like other books from this portion of the 1001 Books list, Mr. Vertigo is, at best, a marginal selection. Sure, it's fun- a fun read for an afternoon sitting in an airport departure lobby, but the whole enterprise seems truncated.  I think I've made this observation before, but it often feels like Auster isn't trying particularly hard. I don't have a problem with it, but it seems like a consideration that would impact his canonical status, and the extent to which is represented within said canon.  I mean one Auster novel a decade, that makes sense to me. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

How Late It Was, How Late (1994) by James Kelman

Book Review
How Late It Was, How Late (1994)
 by James Kelman

   No Scottish author has ever won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but James Kelman is the Scottish writer most likely to be mentioned in connection with the potential to win that award.  He famously, and controversially, won the Booker Prize for How Late It Was, How Late- the awards ceremony was marked by one of the judges cursing, calling the book crap and storming off the stage.

  In a way, it's hard to believe that a book written in Scots working class (Glaswegian) dialect could even be controversial in 1994, but the controversy is a reminder of the differences between English/British literary culture and that culture in other places like the US, France, Germany and Japan.  In other words, in 1994, the Brits were still a bit prudish.  Still, it's hard to argue with the implied criticism of a Booker Judge storming out of the Award ceremony:  Beauty is not much in evidence in How Late It Was, How Late, about Sammy, a petty criminal from Glasgow who wakes up blind after picking a drunken fight with a gang of policemen.

  How Late It Was, How Late is written in a modified stream-of-consciousness style, modified in that the action is broken up over seven days and by the character sleeping or being unconscious.  The Scottish tradition of literature involving an unreliable narrator goes clear back to the 19th century:  See, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), by James Hogg.  The obvious genius of How Late It Was, How Late is in his melding of the stream-of-consciousness style- certainly not one in favor in the mid 1990's, with his prior interest in working class/under class consciousness and then introducing the sensory deprivation of blindness and it's concomitant impact on the stream of consciousness style and working class consciousness of the protagonist.

 Which again is not to say that How Late It Was, How Late, tries for beauty.  I mean it is beautiful as a work of art, but the subject matter- Sammy's blindness and semi-successful efforts to cope.  Honestly, it's not hard- given the combination of viewpoint, skill and social concern, to imagine a world where Kelman does win a Nobel Prize for Literature.  Except perhaps that he is from an unfashionable part of the world and for the very controversy that attended him winning the Booker Prize- he's resolutely anti-bourgeois and the Nobel Prize for Literature is nothing but bourgeois in their sensibility. 

Dark at the Crossing (2017) by Eliot Ackerman

Book Review
Dark at the Crossing (2017)
by Eliot Ackerman

  Dark at the Crossing is the second shortlist selection for the 2017 National Book Award.  Author Eliot Ackerman is an ex... Marine? Dark at the Crossing is a straight forward take on identity and the viciousness of war in the early 21st century.   I can't get over the fact at Ackerman, who presumably is not an Iraqi-American who obtained his American citizenship by serving as an interpreter to US Special Forces operating in Iraq, wrote a book whose protagonist is that.  In other words, Ackerman, the white, military(!) author has written a book about a character: The Iraqi American (or Afghani) national who has, in some sense, turned his back on his homeland, and, in a certain sense, collaborate with the enemy (of his own people.)

  This is a fascinating situation for someone to face- the figure of the Iraqi-American interpreter/collaborator is not unfamiliar in fiction and non-fiction, and it seems to me that this character- of whose Ackerman's protagonist is an example, has the potential for canonical greatness.  But certainly that tale won't be written by an American Marine.   It's possible that we won't get any novels from direct participants, but it's also possible that great art requires distance from the fog of current events, and that the events of the past decade(s) will inspire a generation of "post-war" novelists in the same manner the aftermath of World War II inspired a generation of French writers. In 2017, we are still in it, and so spectator-participants like Ackerman may be all that's on offer.

  Dark at the Crossing is the first book to deal directly with the events of the Syrian Civil War, but it's the third book (American War by Omar El Akkad and Exit West by Mohsin Hamed.)  Both American War and Exit West are firmly in the realm of speculative fiction- American War is a post-apocalyptic scenario, and Exit West is built around the idea that doors between poor and rich regions of Earth start popping up overnight.  Haris Abadi- Ackerman's protagonist arguably qualifies as an anti-hero.  I've seen capsule summaries state that Abadi travels to the Turkish-Syrian border to "fight for the Islamist against the Syrian regime;" but that mis-states and simplifies the motives of Abadi, who travels based on wanting to join the Free Syrian Army, a US backed, secular (or at least not crazy Islamist) and only later changes his mind.

  Aside from whether Dark at the Crossing should win the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction (I would say not) there is the separate consideration of whether Ackerman has such a win- or a Booker Win, or a Pulitzer Prize, in his make-up.  There, surely the answer is yes.  The idea of a military veteran writing credible literary fiction is a mouth-watering prospect.  For example, the market for "military history" is almost equal to the demand for all other forms of history put together- The Civil War, World War II, Vietnam- these are subjects with a built in audience in places like airports.   You see flashes of this potential in his American characters.

  An intuitive reader can sense, simply from the length of the book (barely 200 pages). and the pace of the narrative (Chapter One: Abadi is robbed of all of his money), that things are not going to end well, ultimately you are just hoping for an ambiguous ending.  You would think that Ackerman has been told that his ticket to the best seller list is a military bildungsroman, and you can see by Dark at the Crossing that he is resisting that fate.   He deserves credit for forgoing the easy money of the best-seller list. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

Pereira Maintains (1993) by Antonio Tabucchi

Book Review
Pereira Maintains (1993)
 by Antonio Tabucchi

   If I was to make a list of Italian language writers of fiction with a significant English language audience, it would be Umberto Eco and end of list.  Tabucchi is, at least, another Italian language author who made it into the 1001 Books list, but I wasn't entirely sold on Pereira Maintains, set in Portugal during the Salazar dictatorship era.  Pereira Maintains is squarely within the tradition of the European philosophical novel, where the protagonist quietly struggles with one or several issues of conscience.  Here it is the involvement by older, single, newspaper editor Pereira with a younger writer, a radical, who has become enmeshed with the anti-Salazar opposition inside Portugal and the ongoing Spanish civil war outside it.

  The title refers to the major stylistic feature of Tabucchi's writing- almost every thought by the protagonist Pereira appears after the introduction, "Pereira maintains..." as if it was appearing in a newspaper article and the narrator was interviewing Pereira after the events of the novel.  At barely 200 pages, you don't get a long time to like or dislike the book, blink and it is over.  FWIW there is a resolution, often lacking in other European philosophical novels of this sort.

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.

Blog Archive