Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Birdsong (1993) by Sebastian Faulk

Book Review
Birdsong (1993)
by Sebastian Faulk

  Birdsong is another 1001 List entry that falls squarely within the 1990's era "international best-seller" lit.  It has all the elements:  An English protagonist, a foreign location (France), at an exciting time in the past (World War I).   The narrative moves back and forth in time, between the past and present, using characters in multiple countries, revolving around questions of time, love and fate.

  Any enduring interest in Birdsong outside fans of this particular genre of literature is in his more-graphic-than-expected depictions of sex (between the Englishman and his first love, a Madame Bovary type living in provincial France) and even more graphic-than-expected depictions of death and madness in the trenches of World War I.

Specifically, a large portion of Birdsong (the title refers to the "miners canaries' used to detect poison gas in the trenches of World War I), takes place in the units that were devoted to tunneling under ground- recruited from coal mining areas and workers who had been laboring on the London Tube.  This underground aspect of World War I is under...I wouldn't say "appreciated" is the right word, but not well understood.  I wasn't much taken by the rest of it, love across the decades, the power of fate, etc.  Spare me.

  Birdsong would be a clear and obvious cut from a revised version of 1001 Books if I was the editor.

Felicia's Journey (1994) by William Trevor

Book Review
Felicia's Journey (1994)
by William Trevor

   Irish author William Trevor died last year, after ascending to "grand old man of Irish literature" status.  His career was just short of the pinnacle of literary recognition- five Booker nominations but no win, a Whitbread Award (for this book), tons of formal recognition inside Ireland, occasional mention as a candidate for Nobel Prize for Literature (only for the living.)

  Trevor, like many serious authors of the late 20th century, made a living writing about figures on the outskirts of society- here it is pregnant teen Felicia, a poor Irish girl from the provinces, who journeys to the Midlands of England to find the boy who knocked her up.  There she encounters what might be called "an assortment of characters," but mainly consists of Mr. Hilditch, who, somewhat improbably appears to be a serial killer of young women.

  You might call it another example of 90's vintage "Creepy Lit" although his Wikipedia page refers to "Gothic elements."   Using criminals and criminal characters became very much in vogue during the 1990's, in my mind it is all traceable to the popularity of serial killers movies starting with Silence of the Lambs (1991), the international success of which must have inspired a generation of would-be novelists to really go for it when it came to creepy material.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Golden House (2017) by Salman Rushdie

Book Review
The Golden House (2017)
by Salman Rushdie

In attempting to anticipate future canonical works of literature, it helps to start with recent works from authors who have already achieved canonical status. The best predictor of future inclusion in any particular canon is past inclusion for the same artist/creator.  The inclusion of a new work by an already canonical author is the "front door" to canonical status, as supposed to various back doors like a career capping Nobel Prize for Literature or other artistic prize, or inclusion via the development of a post publication "cult" of admirers for either the author or work.

   Thus, every new work by Salman Rushdie- who has done everything BUT win the Nobel Prize for Literature and who is still churning out new works of fiction every couple years, is worth a read, even if it is to say, "Not his best stuff."   Coincidentally, that is what I would say about The Golden House, Rushdie's Bombay by way of New York riff on The Great Gatsby, bubble culture and our new President.  I'm not saying I regret the reading experience, even if this mid-period representation of Salman Rushdie echoes the frenetic prose of Spy magazine editor turned novelist Kurt Andersen.  Rushdie's hyper-kinetic reference also resemble a de-footnoted David Foster Wallace.  Which is not to say that Rushdie is copying anyone else- Rushdie is Rushdie; but I question whether New York City and American culture is really in his authorial skill set.  

   Certainly his awkward satire of the Trump/Clinton in the guise of the Joker vs. Batwoman, while...creative...doesn't really land.  So to his well meaning but awkward excursion into the world of contemporary trans politics.  I'm not saying he doesn't get it, I'm just saying The Golden House is not one of those works that transforms your understanding of the subject, nor is it one of those works that creates great empathy for any of its characters.  Rushdie's Golden family- a father and three grown sons, all have their moments, but the overwhelming touchstone of all three sons:  Artist, Autist & Trans and the father is self-obsession.  What is autism but an inability to relate to others?  And what is trans identity but an overriding fixation on one's own sexual identity.  As for artists, we already know about them.

  The most compelling moments in The Golden House are so intimately tied to the denouement that discussion risks spoliation, but I found the portions set in Bombay, or discussing Indian culture and society to be far more convincing then his American scenes.  So, The Golden House isn't going to displace The Satanic Verses or Midnight's Children, but it's worth a read.

Monday, October 09, 2017

An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe (2016) by Benjamin Madley

Book Review
An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe
 (2016) by Benjamin Madley
Yale University

  I went to law school at UC Hastings in San Francisco.  While I was there, I worked for Professor Jo Carrillo.   Among other subjects, Professor Carrillo teaches American Indian law, or as it is now called, Laws Concerning Indigenous and Native Peoples in the United States.  I also clerked at California Indian Legal Services, a Legal Services Provider for the Native Californian community.   I
never had the opportunity to practice in the field- it is a tough, tough gig to get, but I've maintained my interest.

   Benjamin Madley isn't the first to make out a case against the United States for genocide- his own ample bibliography makes that clear.  But I think it's the first academically serious attempt to make a legal case that 1) California Indians were a victim of a genocide  2) The United States bears responsibility for abetting that genocide.   It is a case that is fraught with issues ranging from the documentation of the potential facts of genocidal acts (many happened far away from white civilization, Native practice was to cremate dead bodies,  to the identity of the perpetrators of those genocidal acts (some United States army troops, but also many informal volunteer vigilantes), to more typical legal questions like whether one can consider the California Indians a single "people" for the purpose of the analysis.

  In many ways, Madley's attempt to make a legal case for genocide, which, in my opinion, he fails to do, helps to obscure what is simply the best available history of the conflict between White settlers and Native Californians in far North California.  Genocide or not, surely a fuller reckoning of the crimes committed against the Native peoples in California is due.

     The major crimes delineated by Madley are simple: Wholesale extinction level murder, supported by state and non-state actors at all levels of white society between California independence/accession  to the United States, through the end of the Civil War.  For the white people trying to settle in the Gold Rush areas and throughout Northern California, the continuing presence of the Native Peoples in "their" territory was like a personal affront, which could only end in the extinction of those Natives.

  Madley does a great job of extracting genocidal rhetoric from the newspapers of that time.  Although these newspapers weren't state actors, they do an excellent job of conveying the "inevitable extinction" discourse that dominated this time period.  Tied to this rhetoric, the actual acts that Madley described, which typically involved a largish group of non-combatant Natives being massacred by whites with guns- seem logical.

   My opinion, both before and after reading this book, is that the Native people's in California were the victim of war crimes, or crimes against humanity but that it didn't rise to genocide unless one is inclined to define a "people" as an individual tribe or band of Native people's.  Crimes against humanity were very much par for the course.  Take the Modoc tribe of Oklahoma, originally from far Northern California.  After a brief rebellion, an entire group of Modoc's was relocated to Oklahoma, where they remain.  If that ain't ethnic cleansing, I don't know what is.

  To me, the most incredible part of this story is that as of 2017, the whole area where these atrocities occurred- California north of Sacramento- is hardly desirable property.  Most of it is held by the Federal Government in the form of National Parks and Forests.   Why not give some more land back to those tribes directly affected by the crimes against humanity discussed in this book?


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