Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Great Apes (1997) by Will Self

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English author Will Self poses with a bronze monkey statue.
Book Review
Great Apes (1997)
by Will Self

  I bought a hard back copy of Great Apes when it came out in 1997.  At the time, I considered myself a fan of English author Will Self.  My Idea of Fun, written in 1993 made a deep impression on young me- the character of the Fat Controller is still something I think about from time to time.  How the Dead Live was a 1001 Book project selection- a marginal selection in my mind, and the exclusion of My Idea of Fun is a mistake.  Self has written a  half dozen novels, including three high modernist books about one of the characters from this book, psychiatrist Zachary Busner.   Busner appears in Self's fiction most often as a human- here- like all the characters, Busner is a chimpanzee, living in a world where evolution took a different turn and chimpanzees run the show, and humans are relegated to the zoo and increasingly small patches of sub-equatorial Africa.

  Simon Dykes, a human painter known for large format, highly detailed works of apocalyptica, wakes up from a typical night of sex and drugs debauchery to discover that he, as well as everyone else, is a chimp.   Dykes is quickly whisked off to a mental institution, where he becomes the object of attention for Busner, who views Dykes as his last great case.  Almost 20 years later, Great Apes has aged extremely well, and it might be time for a new edition to remind everyone just how bold and inventive Great Apes was.

  Self is fearless in his imagining his world of sentient chimpanzees.  A crucial difference is in sexual relations, sex in the chimpanzee world is extremely casual, and, as they say, endogamous (between family members).  Child abuse is NOT having sex with your children.  And while the imaging of Chimpunity is truly spectacular, the narrative itself is conventional, and Self eschews the kind of narrative shenanigans that make his later books so tough to digest.

Oroonoko (1688) by Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn by Peter Lely ca. 1670.jpg
Aphra Behn, the first professional woman writer in England (17th century)

Book Review
Oroonoko (1688)
by Aphra Behn

  If it had been written in the era of the novel, Oroonoko would be too short to qualify.  It's more like a novella in terms of length.  Since it was written before the era of the novel, it is a short work of prose fiction.  Most important for the purpose of the 1001 Books project, Aphra Behn is the first woman writer to be included, in terms of chronology.   Behn is a patron saint of all women writers in England and "one of" the first women to earn a living from her writing, which she did, as a playwright and poet, in the 17th century, in and around London.

  Behn's reputation has skyrocketed in recent years- her presence in the original 1001 Books list as the sole woman writer prior to the 18th century.  Since it was published in 1688, there is an argument that Oroonoko is the first novel, but including Oroonoko extends the time line back all the way to Greece and Rome.  Aside from the gender of the author, Oroonoko is interesting because it tells the story of an African prince, kidnapped and brought to Surinam as a slave, where he rebels and is captured, and executed.

  The Elizabethan prose does the reader no favors, but at least Oroonoko is short- the American edition I checked out from the library had it as the first chapter in a collection of writing by Aphra Behn. 

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Callirhoe (AD 200) by Chariton

Book Review
Callirhoe (AD 200)
by Chariton

   The question of "What is a novel?" typically excludes Greek literature, which is usually classified in terms of "epic" and "drama" and "tragedy,"  which reflects both form (theater, spoken word poem) and content different then what would become the novel in the 18th century.  Recent scholarship has pushed back upon the late 19th to mid 20th century idea of the novel being created in the 18th century, and sought to include a more diverse selection of materials from ancient Greece and Rome.

   The obvious limitation to this argument is a lack of source material, antique novels having not been high on the list of texts to preserve during centuries of disruption and chaos after the collapse of the western Roman Empire.   Callirhoe is basically the only such novel from its time period that we have (most of) maintained.  It does, indeed, push back against the idea that the novel didn't exist in antiquity.  It does appear much more likely that novels were read by the small literature audience of elites and educated peoples, and not maintained, and the gap of time between ancient Rome and the inventing of the printing press was more than sufficient to ensure the destruction of most texts from that time period.

    Callihroe is surprising readable, especially when compared to the oft stilted translations of Greek and Latin poetry.  It is unmistakably from a pre-Christian time and the characters seem clearly influenced by The Odyssey and The Iliad.  Large portions of Callirhoe take place in Babylon, and they give the reader a better idea of the extent to which the ancient West and Near East co-existed over the centuries.  Callirhoe is a historical novel- a Greek author writing during the Roman Empire about an earlier period of Greek history, before the Roman empire.   The story, about a young woman thought murdered by her young lover, then kidnapped by pirates who are trying to rob her grace-goods and is then sold into slavery, married to a Satrap of the Persian empire and then pursued by the Persian Emperor herself before being "rescued" by her original husband at the head of a rebelling Egyptian army, contains enough incident to satisfy any 20th century critic.


There There (2018) by Tommy Orange

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Tommy Orange, author of There There an auspicious debut set in the urban native community of Oakland, CA.

Book Review
There There (2018)
by Tommy Orange
Published June 2018 by Penguin Randomhouse

   When I was attending law school in San Francisco (Hastings College of Law AKA UC Hastings) I clerked at California Indian Legal Services in Oakland, California.   CILS as it's known has a proud tradition of litigating on behalf of California native tribes and individuals, though a flood of gaming money has dramatically changed the landscape for native legal services in the past decades.  My job was typically intake, fielding calls from different people all over the state- mostly northern california, with a galaxy of problems, many involving their own Indian tribal government.

  During the two summers I clerked there, I made trips into the hinterland of California to visit different Native homelands.  California is a hugely diverse location for native peoples, and northern California especially so.  However, I also learned about a different population, of what were called "Urban Indians"- these were legit tribally enrolled peoples who had migrated to Oakland and formed their own pan-tribal community.  They had a community center just east of downtown that I recall visiting on multiple occasions.   This urban native community in Oakland California is also where Tommy Orange calls home.  One of the characteristics of the urban native community in Oakland is that it isn't necessarily composed of Native Californians, rather the population broadly reflects the relative size of tribes in the USA as a whole.

   Tommy Orange is an exciting new literary voice, and There There is an exciting book with a very distinct voice- of the urban native community of Oakland CA BUT ALSO an accomplished prose stylists- cool, but not alienating, creative but comprehensible.  The plot of There There, which deploys about a half dozen narrators, focuses loosely on a plot to rob a Pow-Wow being held at the Oakland Coliseum.  The characters are tied by family and proximity, and Orange moves them backwards and forwards in time, using the flashbacks to establish a longer narrative of the urban native community, inevitably spending time on the occupation of Alcatraz and moving forward from there.

  Orange hints at two of the deepest complexities that surround the urban native communities: The use of so-called "blood quantum" to determine tribal membership and the outsize role that remaining "on the reservation" plays in reevaluations of priorly determined tribal membership.  In other words, you can leave the reservation, but don't expect to maintain your tribal membership forever into the future.   At least one of the characters muses on the irony of the blood quantum standard, and the exclusionary impact it might have on native people who have parents from different tribes and may not be enrollable in any.

  The world picture that Orange paints is grim, though not without hope.  Urban natives have the fortune or misfortune to be able to exist almost invisibly among the larger urban underclass and the contrast between that and the often claustrophobic existence of life on tribal land has a liberating effect.  And of course, urban natives, like the author himself, have access to resources that are sadly absent in rural places where tribal homelands tend to be located.  Surely, There There is an auspicious literary debut, and perhaps a contender for a National Book Award nomination?  Is a Pulitzer our of the question?

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

The Unfortunate Traveller (1594) by Thomas Nashe

Book Review
The Unfortunate Traveller (1594)
by Thomas Nashe

  The Unfortunate Traveller belongs to the "pre-history" of the novel, and although scholars have recently attacked the idea of the novel being "invented" in the 18th century, the majority view is that the novel, as supposed to different kinds of narrative prose that pre-date the novel, was directly tied to the rise of the audience for a novel, and that this audience first began to exist in England in the early 18th century, part of a larger tide of print matter generated for a general audience.

  According to this argument, narrative published before the 18th century can't be a novel because there was no audience for a novel.  In other words, books like The Unfortunate Traveller, novel-like books published before the 18th century, were read by a small segment of the elite of Elizabethan England, and not widely disseminated to a general reading audience. 

  BUT- the 18th century writers who "created" the novel we know today had all read The Unfortunate Traveller and in this way you could argue that the novel was created by the 18th century equivalent of a critical audience, and then the books we actually still keep track of today were the books that invented the popular audience.

Monday, August 06, 2018

A void (1969)by George Perec

Book Review
A void (1969)
by George Perec

   How do you translate a book, written in French without the letter "E" into English?  Seems like it would be impossible, but in 1995 an English translation was published, and it managed to adhere to the same rule- omitting the letter e.  I left A Void to the end of the 1001 Books project because it seems like reading a book with no e's in it would be tedious and confusing.  A Void is, indeed, both tedious and incredibly confusing.  I also found it impossible to put aside the fact that no e's were used in the book- although I noted that the number twenty was written out 20, and thus the e avoided by a technicality. 

1919 (1932) by Jon Dos Passos

Book Review
1919 (1932)
 by Jon Dos Passos

    The USA Trilogy is 1300 pages in length, 1919, book two in said trilogy, picks up more or less where The 42nd Parallel cut off, in terms of time, but shifts the action to Europe, where the characters are peripherally involved in World War I and then stick around for the aftermath.  Unlike the more unfamiliar locales of The 42nd Parallel, which were mostly little described small towns, railroad depots and lumber camps, 1919 spends much time in Paris.   Thus, Dos Passos is firmly in the mainstream of "Lost Generation" fiction, and 1919 shares many similarities with Hemingway's World War I books: volunteering for the foreign ambulance service, complaining about America from the point of view of a well educated college graduate, drinking.

 Unlike Hemingway  or Fitzgerald, who wrote dialogue which has stood the test of time, Dos Passos' characters come from the "gosh golly gee" school of American speech circa early 20th century.   The dialogue hasn't aged well, and that, coupled with the 1300+ page length of the trilogy is probably why no one reads this lost classic of American literature in 2018.  I mean not lost, exactly.  Forgotten.   1919 is a good choice for an Audiobook, since so much of what goes down is either dialogue or one of the interstitial stream of consciousness chapters- there isn't much to miss from the printed page. 

The Case Against Sugar (2017) by Gary Taubes

Book Review
The Case Against Sugar (2017)
by Gary Taubes

  The problem with arguments based on science is that they require evidence, so if the conclusion you support is resistant to the creation of such evidence, it becomes impossible to establish scientifically. What, then is a writer like Gary Taubes, who has made a best-selling career out of attacking "big sugar" and the substance itself, to do.  In The Case Against Sugar he makes a "prosecutor's case," which allows him to supply both direct (not much) and circumstantial (alot) evidence that sugar is in fact a poison and responsible for a variety of ills ranging from the familiar, diabetes, obesity to less so, cancer, for one.

  In America, feelings about sugar cluster around two poles: those obsessed with it and not in a good way and those who don't care to think about it. People who "don't care" about sugar tend to be obese, people who do care tend to be incredibly annoying.   Either way, it's hard to have a conversation about sugar without using arguments that were developed by "big sugar" to combat the decades long attempt to refashion processed sugar into a type of poison along the lines of cigarettes.

  Whether Taubes is right or not about his scientific suppositions, his chapters about the role that big sugar has had in supporting pro-sugar research and public relations are based on solid evidence, and I found the most enlightening portions of The Case Against Sugar to be those pages where Taubes recounts how various pro-sugar arguments have filtered into the mainstream and are often used- even by people who think sugar is a poison.

  Taubes also is careful to refine his target, not all sweeteners, but specifically refined sugar, and more specifically the use of refined sugar in processed foods and soft drinks.  To use the example of soft drinks, which are probably the biggest single target of the case against sugar, Taubes starts from the point that you can put an incredible amount of processed sugar into a soft drink.

  The amount of sugar in ONE "full strength" soda is equivalent to eating yourself sick on fresh fruit and is worth a thirty five minute run to burn off the calories.  Big sugar has successfully introduced a variety of arguments to mitigate the grotesque amount of sugar added to soft drinks: that sugar calories are the same as other calories and perhaps most nefariously- that diet soda is itself a threat to public health.  For me, the idea that the sugar industry itself was behind attempts to discredit diet soda was a real mind fuck.  Basically, that is the sugar industry targeting it's own biggest client.

    After soda, the next most substantial target is the introduction of sugar into processed foods, which are themselves a huge problem.  It is here that Taubes makes his most difficult arguments, equating the rise of "western diseases" with the rise of processed food, and pointing to sugar as the reason that the rise of processed food has caused the rise in diseases.

   Taubes most substantial argument not tied specifically to a use of sugar is the role that big sugar has played in pinning the rise in "western diseases" on fat, and specifically saturated fat.  This appears to be an argument that has largely been won- with the low fat diets on the decline, and oodles of counter research showing that there is nothing wrong with a diet high in saturated fat, so long as one remains active and not sedentary, etc.

  It's a compelling case in mind, particularly if you actually travel to parts of the "west" where people consume sugared soda.  People there are just fat. Super, duper fat.  You can notice the difference between Los Angeles and Nashville, let alone San Francisco and Iowa. People in one place are fat, people in the other are not.  People in one place drink two liters of coke with their children, people in the other do not.  Maybe that isn't a scientific argument, but it's all the evidence my eyes need to know that it is best not to drink sugared soda, and best to look at the labels of the foods you buy at the grocery store.

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