Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, June 01, 2019

The House of Doctor Dee (1993) by Peter Ackroyd


Book Review
The House of Doctor Dee (1993)
 by Peter Ackroyd

  I read a copy of The House of Doctor Dee a few years back, but I now realize that I never created entry for it on this blog.   I'm down to the last 46 titles on the original 1001 Books,  a few books I've read for this blog and not written about, most are books I've read before and then there are about a half dozen books which are essentially impossible to obtain in the United States.   Peter Ackroyd is well known for his non-fiction, particularly biographies of English historical figures, and non fiction books about England.

  Lee well know are his works of fiction, and I feel like The House of Doctor Dee represents a make-up for the fact that most of Ackroyd's bibliography falls outside the scope of the 1001 Books project.  John Dee was an alchemist and proto-scientist/magician who worked for Elizabeth I- he was instrumental for the map making that preceded the age of exploration. The book alternates between chapters set in the time of Doctor Dee and the present, where Matthew Palmer has recently inherited the house.

  Aside from containing more information about the practice of Alchemy in the Elizabethan era and well crafted descriptions of the house itself and the surrounding city of London, there isn't much to say about The House of Doctor Dee.   Palmer is selfish and self-obsessed character, and Dee is revealed to be obsessed with the illusive prospect of turning lead into gold through alchemy.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Satan in Goray (1933) by Isaac Bashevis Singer


Book Review
Satan in Goray (1933)
by Isaac Bashevis Singer

  Isaac Bashevis Singer was an astonishing omission from the original version of the 1001 Books list.  The editors rectified their error in the 2008 revision, adding two books.   They did not add Satan in Goray- Singer's first novel- not translated into English until 1955.   Set in an Eastern European shtetl (a small Jewish community in Eastern Europe, typically existing as a protected group under the aegis of the local noble, and as a result in near constant conflict with the surrounding villages of non-Jewish peasants.

   Set in 1648 after Jewish communities were decimated by a roving army of Cossacks- including starting the book with the incredible detail that the Cossacks cut babies out of the wombs of pregnant Jewish women and sewed cats inside their wombs.   Satan in Goray refers to the emissaries Shabbati Zvi- a real life false messiah of the middle ages who whipped thousands of Eastern European Jews into a religious frenzy before converting to Islam at the behest of the Ottoman Emperor.

   Satan in Goray is a dark, heavy, deeply weird book and I'm saying that as someone who has ancestors who lived in this environment.  The world of Eastern European shtetl was 100% eradicated between the combination of Nazi Germany's extremely violent, pre-holocaust liquidation policy in Eastern Europe and the policies of Soviet Russia.  Once again, I found myself surprised that I'd made it this far- a Jewish guy interested in classic literature, and had never even talked to anyone about Singer in casual conversation until I specifically brought him up to my Rabbi friend.  I mean, this is a guy who won the Nobel Prize in Literature and lived in New York for most of his adult life.

The Great Indian Novel (1989) by Shashi Tharoor


Book Review
The Great Indian Novel  (1989)
by Shashi Tharoor

Replaces:  The Untouchable by John Banville


  I have procrastinated in the writing of this entry, about The Great Indian Novel by Shashi Tharoor- well known within India, where he is a Member of Parliament for the Congress Party.   The title of The Great Indian Novel is both a play on the Indian literary tradition- based on The Great Indian Novel being a rough translation of the Mahabharata, a foundational poem-myth, thousands of stanzas in length, which occupies a position in the culture of South Asia to that occupied by the Odyssey in the West;  it is also- more obviously for Western readers- a play on the phrase, "The Great American Novel;" typically used in the breach these days, to denote the tradition of the American bildungsroman.
 
  Within India, Tharoor is both a democratically elected politician and a respected public intellectual, with decades of weekly columns in all of the leading English language Indian papers.  Before getting involved in domestic politics, he worked at the United Nations for a decade.  In other words, he occupies a very different space in the world then an author like Salman Rushdie, who is the only comparison that comes to mind for the blend of myth and sharp eyed rewriting of the foundation myth of India from the top down that defines The Great Indian Novel.

  The Great Indian Novel is a welcome addition to the shelf of post-colonial Indian literature, a distinctively Indian voice, writing from India, not a writer who achieved international literary fame with limited domestic recognition.   I would have loved an Audiobook edition- I don't believe one exists. 

  Tharoor replaces The Untouchable- John Banville's take on the World War II era Cambridge ring spying scandal.  It's good- not as dense as some of Banville's work- but it isn't his Booker Prize winner.  

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