Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

A Sand Book (2019) by Ariana Reines

Image result for ariana reines
Poet and artist Ariana Reines
Book Review
A Sand Book  (2019)
by Ariana Reines

  I haven't read a book of poetry since high school, but I feel like I should branch out after reading so many  novels and works of nonfiction.  Poetry is, after all, literature.  Going into my mid 40's, I finally met a handful of poets who I respect, so at the very least I owe it to these acquaintances to acknowledge the validity of poetry as a form of literature.   I did enjoy A Sand Book by Ariana Reines.  She peppers her poetry with contemporary references to sex, drugs and celebrities, and it isn't hard to figure out her point of view.

  Here is one example of a her style:

Witness me as I draw this X
Everything your eye touches is the content of your kingdom
The crown slides down over my eye
The world exposes its egg to the Sky
 man It will be Thursday again
Ashton’s skateboard face and Demi’s skull face will be bathed in severe sun
People Magazine will go up in flames

 Or another:

wanna feel the heat of a woman who knows pain
 Yazidi women and girls call each other comrade
 I’m not at all certain this is true
I met Pussy Riot at Richard Hell’s one night, proceeded to not write about it
Richard had just read a thing in public to make him look like no friend to women

   Reines is also a studio and performance artist, and I wouldn't be surprised to see her write a novel or at least a book of short stories.  A Sand Book is a good book of poetry for people who don't read poetry.

Friday, March 20, 2020

The Slynx (2003) by Tatyana Tolstaya

The Slynx
The Slynx (2003) by Russian author Tatyana Tolstaya, published by the New York Review of Books

Book Review
The Slynx (2003)
by Tatyana Tolstaya
New York Review of Books Publishing
translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell

  I am excited to dig in to the New York Review of Books catalog on my brand new 5th Kindle.  I love the backlighting on the newer Kindles.   Like many books I pick, The Slynx combines fiction in translation, literature and speculative fiction.   The Slynx is a brazenly post-apocalyptic tale set in the area surrounding Moscow, 200 years after "the Blast" (a nuclear holocaust) has reduced society to a level to what one might call "the stone age," only minus the wonders of nature and animals one can hunt.  Instead, most people subsist entirely on meals made from mice, which also serve as currency.  There are no pack animals, and ill favored members of society are dubbed "Degenerators" and force to serve as horses to pull the chariots of the wealthy.   Those called the Oldeners mutated so that they do not age, but they are not held in high regard.  For most others there are "Consequences" mutations from the nuclear apocalypse.

  Benedikt, the narrator, isn't so bad off given the parameters of his universe.  He has a job transcribing books- copying books- one should say- and he is engaged to a lovely girl with claws for feet, who is the daughter of the leading Saniturions, a secret police charged with hunting down any loose knowledge and punishing those who withhold such knowledge, contained in left over books, from the government.  

  Even allowing for the translation and Tolstaya's use of Russian derived jargon that has no English translation, The Slynx is a comfortable read, comparable to the dialect in A Clockwork Orange, and I would well recommend it to anyone with an interest in dystopian/speculative/translated fiction. 

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Cat Chaser (1982) by Elmore Leonard

Book Review
Cat Chaser (1982)
by Elmore Leonard

   I'm working my way through Elmore Leonard, mostly via Audiobooks.  So far I've got  Bandits (1987), Get Shorty (1990),  La Brava (1983) and City Primeval (1979).  That leaves me about 30 more books from his detective fiction period and omitting his early western novels. 

  At this point I'm asking myself, what are the plot points specific to THIS Elmore Leonard book (Miami, a hard bitten ex-soldier who was part of the force that invaded the Dominican Republic, the ex chief of the secret police under Trujillo and the woman who is said soldier's ex wife and current wife of said ex chief of the secret police, and a New York city wise guy who goes by the name, "Jigsy."

  The other question I ask myself is are there any motifs that repeat themselves- and I did identify one: Elmore Leonard likes it when people are killed in the bathrooms of hotel rooms.  Specifically, you disarm one or more people by luring them into the bathroom under false pretences, then while holding them at gun point, make them disrobe in the shower/bath, turn on the water and shoot them while the water is running.

   As always, Leonard makes for a great Audiobook experience- his books were made for the Audiobook format!  Freely available on the Libby library app via the Los Angeles Public Library

Dead Astronauts (2019) by Jeff Vandermeer

Image result for Dead Astronauts (2019) by Jeff Vandermeer
Dead Astronauts hard cover edition, Jeff Vandermeer
Book Review
Dead Astronauts (2019)
by Jeff Vandermeer

  The phenomenon of an artist having a broad, popular hit and following it up with a less popular, more "artistic" flop is as old as the phenomenon of "hits" itself.  Dead Astronauts, is one of those efforts, by a writer with a lot of money in the bank and a publisher who is willing to publish whatever on the strength of profits already earned from his earlier work.   Calling the narrative of Dead Astronauts fractured does not do it justice!   Who are these Dead Astronauts from the title?  When do the events of Dead Astronauts take place?  Why can the animals talk? What is the City? What is the Company? What the fuck is going on?

   More or less, the Astronauts hate the Company which produces genetic-engineering monstrosities and deposits them on the outskirts of the City.  After I finished reading the book, I went online and read the reviews from last December, and confirmed that I didn't "miss" anything.  I mean, I will freely admit that I didn't really have an idea as to what, exactly happened, or care enough about anything to think about it beyond the time I spent actually reading the book.    I do question whether Dead Astronauts is more of a prose poem than an exercise of genre-literary fiction.  Several of the chapters just consist of various Company created monstrosities invoking the same phrase for pages and pages of text.

   I waited...three months to read the Ebook, and I just wasn't buying it.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

The Manor (1967) by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Book Review
The Manor (1967)
 by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Replaces: Sula by Toni Morrison

  Isaac Singer is a complicated figure in world literature.  He won the Nobel Prize in 1978,  for a career where he wrote in Yiddish but found fame in English translation, decades after his books were published in their original edition, often in serial.  He died in 1991 a canonical author, but whether he represents anything greater than the culture of Eastern European Jews who were annihilated int he Holocaust remains an open question.  See for, example this  Guide to Singer published in the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2012.  Addressing Singer's bibliography in a comprehensive fashion requires coming to terms with the fractured timelines and multiple translations, both with and without Singer's living assistance. 

   Also there is the fact that Singer is very, very, very unfashionable, so unfashionable that a mid period banger like The Manor can't even be found on the first page of his Amazon author results.  I understand it- The Manor is the kind of turn of the century multi-generation family saga that most closely resembles Buddenbrooks era Thomas Mann with a heavy dose of mid-19th century Russian histrionics.  The Manor isn't cheesy or schmaltzy, the Polish Jews featured here are at the cusp of modernity and intimately tied to the embryonic industrial revolution in late 19th century Poland.

    The Manor doesn't pull any psycho-sexual punches, and his characters are as sophisticated about sex (if very much not as reasonable) as those in a Philip Roth novel set a century in the future.   One take away for my dive into Singer's bibliography is that he does not deserve his dowdy, unfashionable reputation.   His people, wiped off the map, offer insight on avoiding, or embracing our own demise. 

Escalante's Dream On the Trail of the Spanish Discovery of the Southwest (2019) by David Roberts

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Dominguez-Escalante Trail from the 1776 expedition 
Book Review
Escalante's Dream On the Trail of the Spanish Discovery of the Southwest (2019)
by David Roberts

  At the same time that the United States was declaring independence from the United Kingdom,  Silvestre Vélez de Escalante and, Francisco Atanasio Domínguez set out from Santa Fe, New Mexico in an attempt to blaze a trail to the Spanish mission in Monterey, Ca.  It was a risible goal, especially because the first method to properly calculate longitude wasn't invented let alone publicized until after the expedition had departed.   They also picked a comically difficult route, heading north into the mountainous Mesa Verde region.

   They obviously failed in reaching their objective, and as Escalante's Dream: On the Trail of the Spanish Discovery of the Southwest, their pioneering, and in many ways admirable, adventures in the intermountain west have been relegated to footnote status in the history of America.  Roberts, well known for his fearsome adventures as a mountaineer, is in his own twilight- much of the "personal" section of this travelogue style book involves the aftermath of his continuing fight against cancer.  The combination of personal musings on what it is like to live with the aftermath of throat cancer (bland foods only!) and period detail, mostly drawn from a scattering of sources ranging to a contemporaneous journal of the expedition, to a mimeographed binder published in the 200th anniversary, meshes well together.

   It doesn't seem to be uncommon to include serious personal details in this sort of book. In  Atlas of a Lost World (2018), author Chris Childs hints at a nasty divorce and child custody fight without ever actually describing what happened.   Atlas of a Lost World is about recreating the entry of humans into the New World, so when Childs start talking about how a trip down the Canadian/Alaskan coast was the "last family trip" he is in similar territory.


Tuesday, March 17, 2020

The Captain's Daughter (1836) by Alexander Pushkin

Image result for alexander pushkin
Russian author Alexander Pushkin

Book Review
The Captain's Daughter (1836)
by Alexander Pushkin

   I thought there would be more Pushkin in the original 1001 Books list- he only got one title, Eugene Onegin (1833)- which is a prose-poem-novel, complete with a rhyming scheme.  The Captain's Daughter, on the other hand, is a "real novel" about a Russian military officer involved in the 18th century pacification of the Cossacks and other malcontents in the "wild south" of the Russian Empire.   Only 140 pages long, The Captain's Daughter packs plenty of action into the plot and gory details even by 21st century standards.  For example, the Czar's armies were in the habit of mutilating rebels by cutting off their ears and nose and then letting them go.    The reader also gets descriptions of places like glamorous Orenburg.  Pushkin does a good job of conveying the vibe of 18th century Russia.  I guess, if there is a criticism/observation to be made it is that The Captain's Daughter is quite obviously derivative of Sir Walter Scott- it's a well established connection.

  Generally speaking I don't think Walter Scott gets enough attention as the first generally popular novelist in the way we tend to think of modern celebrity. In a way, his career invented the idea of "succesful novelist."   The entire choice to read The Captain's Daughter was guided by a perusal of the Library available Ebook offerings from the New York Review of Books- I love to see their editions, inevitably of obscure books and authors that I STILL don't know, but I never buy their books for the same reason, so I'm excited to get into the Ebook editions of these titles.

The Birth of the Modern (1991) by Paul Johnson

Book Review
The Birth of the Modern (1991)
 by Paul Johnson

  I've had English journalist/academish's epic (1200 pages!) The Birth of the Modern on my "to-read" shelf for over a decade, so I actually jumped at the chance to listen to the 50 hour plus Audiobook, on the theory that this was the only way I was actually going to get to this book, which, mind you, is not an academic treatise but rather a treatment of this broad subject meant for a GENERAL audience. 1200 pages OR  a fifty hour Audiobook.  What do you get for your time investment: A state of the art survey (circa the late 1980's) of world history between 1815 and 1830, basically, with a heavy emphasis on great men and international affairs.  Johnson is not one of those popular historians who, trained by the annales school of french language history, dwell on society from the bottom up. 

 In fact, American general and President Andrew Jackson is the star of The Birth of the Modern- Johnson opens AND closes with him.   Within Johnson's particular career arc, The Birth of the Modern was his follow-up to his breakthrough, Modern Times, a popular synthesis of 20th century history that found a broad popular audience on both sides of the Atlantic.    The tone is generally consistent with "New Yorker Lit"- book length versions of subjects that would find a sympathetic audience of readers of the New Yorker.

  I don't regret the decision to listen to the Audiobook, but I feel like a lot of the value of a broad synthesis like this is lost if you can't review the end notes, which contain all the original research that Johnson relied upon for his glib narrative. Most theorists of the modern would blanch at the prospect of placing such a rough periodization on a subject like "The Birth of the Modern" but at the same time it is that breathtaking ambition that makes The Birth of the Modern bearable for a general reader.

 Special shout out to the narrator, Wanda McCaddon, who does an amazing job on such an unbearably lengthy text.

To Each His Own (1966) by Leonardo Sciascia

Book Review
To Each His Own (1966)
by Leonardo Sciascia

Replaces: The Ogre by Michael Tournier

  Leonardo Sciascia is a Sicilian born Italian writer with dozens of books in his native Italian and a handful translated into English.  To Each His Own has had two English language editions, the first English edition was translated by Adrienne Folke and published in 1968 under the title, "A Man's Blessing."  The 1992 reprint of that translation was called To Each His Own.  As far as I know he never had a moment where he connected with a big audience in English translation. 

  Thematically, Sciascia embodied his native Sicily, with an emphasis on the corruption of contemporary society at the hands of organized crimes and its partners in business, government and religion.  To Each His Own takes the form of a who-done-it:  A town pharmacist receives an anonymous threatening letter, soon after he is murdered, and Professor Laurana, an acquaintance of his, tries to get to the bottom of the crime, which is written off by the local authorities.

  To Each His Own reminded me of any number of books by Patrick Modiano if you swap Paris for the Sicilian countryside.  Sciascia replaces another French author on the 1001 Books list.  The Ogre, by Michael Tournier, was the 1970 Prix Goncourt best novel winner.   It's tough to see a French language title written after World War II drop off the list, they seem to be in short supply starting in the mid 20th century up until today- other than Houellebecq and Binet I could hardly name a third contemporary novelist. 

Monday, March 16, 2020

She Would Be King (2019) by Wayetu Moore

Moore in November 2018
Liberian-American author Wayetu Moore
Book Review
She Would Be King (2019)
by Wayetu Moore

   She Would Be King is a reimagining of the birth of Liberia, a country founded by freed African American slaves from the American South in the mid 19th century.  Liberia had a terrible 20th century- Moore's own family fled from the violence when she was a child, settling in the USA, but I've always thought that the experience was unique and I remember seeing images of American-Liberians from the early part of the 20th century, dressed like plantation owners in the South and being puzzled and amazed.  She Would Be King is billed as a magical-realist re-telling of the birth of Liberia, but it is more the case that only the end of the book gets into the formation of the Liberian state, and the rest is about three outcasts: Gbessa a red-haired African who is expelled from her tribe for being a witch, Norman Aragon, the son of a Jamaican planter and African slave and June Dey, a slave on a Virginia plantation.

   The three "origin" stories are told separately, giving the first half of She Would Be King a fractured feeling.   The three finally come together, only to be separated almost immediately, and Gbessa is taken in by proto-Liberians, while Dey and Aragon split up, and basically drop out of the second half of the book.  Only Gbessa, who ends up marrying the newly minted head of the Liberian army, remains central to the narrative, and while I enjoyed She Would Be King, I didn't think the story really hung together.  Particularly the shift from telling the origin story of the three outcasts- who all have magical powers- btw, into them adventuring together for a brief period, into the portion where Gbessa joins the Liberian colony and June and Norman disappear. 

The Shadow King (2019) by Maaza Mengiste

Mengiste, BookExpo 2019
Ethiopian author Maaza Mengiste

Book Review
by Maaza Mengiste
The Shadow King (2019)

   Like everyone, I plan to have plenty of reading time on my hands, as a lawyer with his own office and no kids, I'm relatively insulated from the most dire impacts of the epidemic like the closing of schools and losing my job, but just the elimination of sports adds a dozen hours a week.  Here in Southern California, the libraries have closed, so I'm making my way through a stock of books I actually bought  and I've really stepped up my "Ereading" with the purchase of a fifth kindle, which allows library books checked out via the Libby app.

  I bought The Shadow King earlier this year at Eso Won Bookstore, located in South Los Angeles, the oldest African-American bookstore in LA, during the Martin Luther King Day Parade.   The idea of a novel about the 1935 Italo-Ethiopian war, with an emphasis on the female participants on the Ethiopian side, intrigued me.  The fact is that I prioritize new releases written from unfamiliar viewpoints and even though I've always found Ethiopia interesting since I learned about the existence of Ethiopian Jews in Hebrew School, I'd be hard pressed to identify a single piece of literature that takes place inside Ethiopia.  Same for film and television.  When it comes to music, I'm a little better off thanks to the widespread post-internet era distribution of Ethio-Jazz, but it's a thin level of familiarity.

  It is important to know for the purpose of reading this book that Ethiopia was a colonial power WITHIN Africa for centuries, and the modern nation-state of Ethiopia historically comprised a panoply of ethnicities who were united under Emperors from the Amharic ethnicity.   This Empire maintained a continuous existence from the 12th century, with many links to the deeper past.   Amharic, the language, is part of the Semitic family of languages, close to Arabic and Hebrew than other African languages. 

   Which is all to say that when Italy invades Ethiopia, one should not expect the typical narrative of sophisticated Europeans decimating an over-matched, poorly organized native population.  Quite the opposite!  As depicted in The Shadow King, the Ethiopians were well organized, even in the absence of their Emperor, who decamped to Brighton in England during the war. 

   The Shadow King approaches the conflict from a variety of perspectives.  She's got the Emperor Haile Selassie, Kidane who leads a rag-tag group of Ethiopian soldiers in a cat and mouse game with an Italian soldier leading his armored column through the highlands.  Kidane is married to Aster, a proud woman from a noble family as well as Hirut, more or less a slave to Kidane and Aster.  The Italian soldiers are also represented, through the Captain and a staff photographer with Jewish parentage, worried about being recalled to Italy.  My familiarity with Ethiopian names made keeping track of the characters difficult, it reminded me of reading Russian novels in high school.  Mengiste, whose family emigrated after the socialist dictatorship took over, packs her second novel with details, almost to overflowing, but doesn't give you any lengthy exposition or background to help the reader situate the struggle.

  The Shadow King isn't without its ugly moments, particularly the relationship with Kidane and Hirut, which features several scenes of out and out rape, the overall message being that heroes can have terrible flaws and villains their good points.  For example the Italian captain, an otherwise despicable characters, protects his ethnically Jewish photographer.

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