Dedicated to classics and hits.

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.

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