Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Book Review: The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980) by Bruce Chatwin

Cobra Verde poster.jpg
The Viceroy of Ouidah was made into a film called Cobra Verde by German auteur Werner Herzog

Book Review:
The Viceroy of Ouidah (1980)
by Bruce Chatwin

   I believe that the genre of colonial fiction that Joseph Conrad invented was an important influence on the development of dystopian literature.  Right from the beginning, Conrad was an important influence on George Orwell, and he was certainly know to Aldous Huxley.   But more than that, the tone of the "white man in Africa" resembles the typical narrator in a dystopian novel, a sane man or woman (or robot for that matter) in an insane world.   Personally, I'm interested in depictions of the insane dystopias of colonialism.   And if you get right down to it, there are few darker than the odd European controlled areas of Africa, outside those controlled by major powers of England and France.
   Let's see, you've got the Herrero massacres of German Southwest Africa, as discussed by Thomas Pynchon both in V and Gravity's Rainbow.  There is the famous Conradian Heart of Darkness in the  Belgian Congo.  I understand why a critic might ask why read another narrative along those lines, this one covering the Portugese/Brazillian slave coast off the Kingdom of Dahomey in the 18th and 19th century, but I would say that this is a separate literary genre, alongside narrative written by Africans themselves.

  Colonial literature isn't simply about the historic circumstances depicted in a particular narrative, it is also a metaphor for the relationship that we have with the forces of consumer capitalism and the entertainment industrial complex in our own lives- they attempt to colonize our consciousness.   Thus, the narrative of colonialism also included the narrative of resistance to colonialism.

  I understand that The Viceroy of Ouidah has an episodic and feverish quality, and it switches narrative viewpoints between generations of characters

Book Review: California (2014) by Edan Lepucki

Will Edan Lepucki's California survive the Colbert bump? Probably.
Book Review
California (2014)
 by Edan Lepucki

  It was always my intent that I would be laying the groundwork for a straight forward "book blog" by using the 1001 Books project as a foundation for opining on contemporary literature, with a more prosaic goal of having a relevant opinion about whether should buy one new work of fiction over another.  Since new fiction typically costs upwards of 30 bucks in hardback, and usually being a tad under 300 pages... it's not a light recommendation.  If a reader wants to read three new works of high-quality, "literary" fiction a month, that is going to set them back a hundred bucks.  In my mind, the question is always is this (new work of fiction) potentially a canonical book.

  If you are dealing with a book that might be a canonical work, the thirty bucks can be justified on a number of levels, ranging from the cultural capital of being familiar with the resulting big budge film or tv version before it comes out, to potentially owning a small press first edition of a work later deemed to be classic, to cocktail banter and water cooler talk.

   Edan Lupicki was the surprise beneficiary of a campaign by Steven Colbert against Amazon.com, where he promoted the sale of Lupicki's debut post-apocalyptic relationship drama, California, through non Amazon channels, the prove the point that author's didn't need Amazon to have a best seller.   These are the kind of promotional fluke that often lead to books that take on an out-size amount of publicity in the "first novel" category,  As the New York Times observed in their (subsequent to Colbert) review of the book, Lepucki won the "literary lotto."

   And to be fair, she did, but she also wrote a dystopian relationship drama that seems like it anticipated the elevation of dystopian fiction from genre to literary fiction, a process that is very much in full bloom even as I write this, with film versions of Colson Whitehead's Underground Railroad and American War by Omar El Akkad coming out this week.  At the genre level, dystopia is dominant everywhere from comics, to films, to genre fiction.

   Lepucki delivers a carefully drawn, if not wholly transporting "low key" version of the upcoming breakdown in society as observed by two unusual millennials. The story is so simply drawn that giving away any element risks spoilation of the narrative, but I do believe there is depth under the surface, along the lines of what one might expect from a European style philosophical novel from the mid 20th century.   I know California inspired a virulent Colbert inspired "back lash" of people who claimed California was weak as a literary effort  but perhaps those readers weren't as attuned to Lepucki's well drawn details of life "before" including one memorable conversation which took place around a drained Silver Lake reservoir, the bottom covered in garbage- not too different from present reality.

  Because of the fluky nature of her rise to prominence, Lepucki is going to need to prove herself with a second hit.   Can she do it? California doesn't seem to particularly hard fought as a work of art.  Part of that is Lepucki's laconic, southern California inflected dialogue and prose.  It's clear that she is setting up the prospect of a "further adventures of" if not directly anticipating a sequel in her ending.  I'm sure her publisher will publish a sequel if that is what she wants to do.  What does Edan Lepucki do next, that is my question.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Drowned and the Saved (1986) by Primo Levi


Book Review
The Drowned and the Saved  (1986)
 by Primo Levi

  I'm not trying to diss Primo Levi, the poet lauerate of the Holocaust, but it is unclear to me why The Drowned and the Saved is the single book of philosophical essays included in the 1001 Books list. It is no doubt due to the literary quality of Levi's writing, as well as the importance of the subject matter, but doesn't that open up the 1001 Books list to whole realms of non-fiction and philosophy that are otherwise wholly excluded?

  Certainly, Levi's elaboration of the world view of the Concentration camp, the weltanschauung expands in this, his final work, to include the world of the Soviet gulag, and he really draws a universal, global perspective on the totalitarian death camp.   He also thinks deeply about the groups who survived the experience, focusing on the helpers, including fellow Jews who were in charge of operating the gas chambers themselves.  Think about that for a minute.  That was something the Nazi's did, they made Jews operate the death chamber,  Levi also points out that very, very few of these individuals actually survived, being witness to horrific crimes that were kept secret from the general population.

  Levi explores the Nazi end game.  In his opinion, the crazy machinations at the end of the war were a conscious effort by the Nazi regime to destroy the evidence, and in that way he both exonerates and condemns the German people as a whole.  The whole end of the book is devoted to his correspondence with German readers, and he also devotes a chapter to the process of translating the book into German.  Levi, of course, was from Italy, and he saw the German language translation of his works as a kind of reckoning for Germans who claimed they didn't know what was going on.

   And you know, I'm not a hysteric about our current political situation.  I don't think that it rises to the kind of crisis some people make it out to be.  It helps ifyou actually know about the Nazi's were and what they actually did.  

Foe (1986) by J.M. Coeteze


Book Review
Foe (1986)
 by J.M. Coeteze

   Color me not surprised that Foe, Coeteze's mid 1980's riff on Robinson Crusoe and father-of-the-novel Daniel DeFoe did not survive the cull between the first and second(2008) edition of the 1001 Books list.  First of all, Coeteze, Nobel Prize for Literature winning author or not, is hugely over-represented on the first edition of the list, with ten qualifying titles.  That is too many for any single author, let alone a writer who didn't start writing till the late 20th century.  His over-representation is the most egregious example of "present-ism," the tendency to favor the recent past to the far past, that permeates any canon making exercise.

   Still, as a lover of literature and a particular fan of the birth of the novel in the 18th century, I can't personally help but love Foe, with it's in depth exploration into the meaning of Robinson Crusoe, all in the guise of a sympathetic female narrator, who is said to have been cast away with Crusoe and the real source for the early novel that DeFoe wrote.   Meta fictional technique is everywhere, strewn about like the boulders on the rocky island Crusoe finds himself inhabiting.

  The idea of rewriting a classic work of literature from the perspective of a minor (or invented) character was not original to Coeteze.  Specifically, Jean Rhys published Wide Sargasso Sea, famously written from the perspective of the "crazy wife in the attic" who haunts Jane Eyre.   That book is typically called a prequel, whereas Foe is a kind of imaginative retelling.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

reasons to live (1985) by Amy Hempel


Book Review
reasons to live (1985)
 by Amy Hempel

  Amy Hempel is a literary minimalist, or you might say a miniaturist, her books of short "stories" has several episodes that are under a page in length, and I don't think any of them have more than a dozen pages tops.   Her "stories" chronicle the dissipated Los Angeles area coastal lifestyle in the late 1970's and early 1980's.   She is often compared to Raymond Carver (who I always confuse with Raymond Chandler ha ha), in terms of the quietness of the lives she depicts.
 
   Once again, I found myself in total ignorance of an author who chronicles the very area I call home.  Where has Amy Hempel been hiding my entire life? Why have I never seen or heard of anyone else reading her books?  Why have I never seen an article in a newspaper or online about her?  

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