VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, September 17, 2021

No One is Talking About This (2021) by Patricia Lockwood

First time American novelist Patricia Lockwood made the Booker Prize shortlist with No One is Talking About This
Book Review
No One is Talking About This (2021)
by Patricia Lockwood

     Congratulations to all the Booker Prize short-list nominees!  I feel like making the short-list is huge for most authors- almost as good as wining, whereas making the longlist is only a so-so experience, heavy readers like me are way more likely to take your book for a spin, but a longlist nomination doesn't do much for the general Audience, like in the United States, straight up nobody gives a fuck about the longlist titles.   I was surprised to see No One is Talking About This made the shortlist- one of three American books next to the forthcoming Bewilderment by Richard Powers (which also made the National Book Award longlist- announced today) and Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead- another surprise to me.

  I had been hearing about No One is Talking About This here and there for months, basically in headlines that announced it as  "The Great Internet Novel" or questioning that idea.  Knowing that I was going to read it eventually, I skipped the debate.  The truth that No One is Talking About This is half internet novel, half novel about a difficult childbirth, I think the two portions are literally split in two as in "Part One" and "Part Two." 

  I didn't love the plot- it seemed pretty maudlin to me, which I think is probably the point- moving beyond the internet and cynicism to find real meaning in the horrors of everyday life, but as a criminal defense attorney who spends most of his time defending indigent defendants from the vagaries of the Federal criminal justice system,  I am well acquainted with the emotions Lockwood describes.  I just can't imagine this is going to win the Booker Prize, but the shortlist is huge, and it really sets up her next book.

   Also, the Audiobook is great, narrator Kristin Sieh really nails a narrator who could be hyper annoying in Audio form, but is not.

Friday, September 10, 2021

Great Circle (2021) by Maggie Shipstead


Book Review
Great Circle (2021)
by Maggie Shipstead

   Great Circle is another 2021 Booker longlist pick, written by American author Maggie Shipstead.  At 569 pages, Great Circle puts the "long" in longlist but fortunately it's a fast ride.   Shipstead skips between past and present as she tells the intertwined tales of Marion Davies, a 20th century aviatrix with LGBTQ tendencies and Hadley Baxter, a contemporary actress who is enlisted to play Davies in a feature film after she gets terminated from her star-making Twilight-esque role in a YA fantasy franchise.  Also along for the ride is Jamie, Davies' artist-twin brother as well as a host of secondary characters- enough to fill two basketball teams.    

  Other than the late developing LGBTQ angle, it's hard to pinpoint the attraction of the Booker panel to this title as a longlist contender.  True, they love an epic work of historical fiction (See 2013, The Luminaries by Elanor Catton and the two wins by Hilary Mantel for her Thomas Cromwell trilogy.  It's nice to see a book on the longlist that can plausibly be described as a "fun read" or "page turner" but again, at 569 pages it had damn well better be.   I thought her depiction of contemporary starlet Hadley Baxter was particularly clever but even after I finished I was left asking questions about the relationship between the two characters.  I believe the idea is that the same actress would play both roles in a movie/tv version (which would be a movie/tv version of a book that is essentially about the process of making a movie based on a book...trey meta.)

  The short list gets announced next week on the 14th.   Excited to see who makes the cut!

Wednesday, September 08, 2021

The Promise (2021) by Damon Galgut

Damon Galgut – Movies, Bio and Lists on MUBI
South African writer Damon Galgut, will the third time be a charm for the Booker prize.
Book Review
The Promise (2021)
by Damon Galgut

   You'd have to consider The Promise by Damon Galgut a favorite for Booker shortlist status since he's already made it twice before (but never won.)  I'd say he's also a top pick for actually winning the Award- if he makes the shortlist how can they not give it to him.  So far I've read six of the Longlist titles and The Promise is certainly shortlist worthy.   Is The Promise an out-and-out winner? No, but the Booker winner criteria seems to change with each successive jury.

   It's impossible to discuss Galgut to a general audience for literary fiction without comparing him to J.M. Coetzee, specifically as a potential successor (awkward because Coetzee is still writing novels) or heir to Coetzee's legacy.  In the Booker related interview I read in the Guardian, Galgut (who must be sick to death to Coetzee comparisons to the point where it must be extremely bad form to bring it up to him) talked about his respect for Cormac McCarthy- to the point of once trying to psych himself up to knock on the door of his house when he was in New Mexico. 

  Andddd... I guess I can see that influence in The Promise though I can' entirely put aside Coetzee. Can anyone out there blame me?   I didn't love The Promise, it's one of those books that is so well drawn that it is awkward to read.  There is no experimental structure but he does manage to write the tragic history of this South African family in a way that rewards a reader who makes it to the end.   That is a sign of a good author and a good book- it makes the reader think it is one thing and then it turns out to be another. 

Boy in the Field (2020) by Margot Livesey


Book Review
Boy in the Field (2020)
by Margot Livesey

   Boy in the Field is another gender-equity pick but there is no doubt that Boy in the Field is a hit for Livesey- with over a thousand Amazon reviews- big numbers for a small-scale work of literary fiction about three young siblings who find a young man battered in a field by their route home from school. Mom and Dad are are also major characters, but their can be no doubt that Livesey has written this book from the point of view of the kids.  Luckily, they are interesting kids. 

  The plot is less so- it looks like Livesey has some background in crime fiction- I saw comparisons to Patricia Highsmith for her earlier work- and there are some crime elements- the violent assault of the eponymous boy in the field- but there is no doubt that we are firmly in literary fiction land, where people sit in their house and think deep thoughts about the why of it all.  There can be no doubt that Livesey is an acute observer of the inner lives of children, but let's be honest, kids usually aren't that interesting, and upper-middle class ones from the wealthy, English speaking parts of all are least of all.

The Farthest Shore (1972) by Ursula Le Guin


Book Review
The Farthest Shore (1972)
by Ursula Le Guin

    I am struggling in my quest to reach gender equity in my reading this year.  I think when I started keeping track it was a 70/30 split, currently I've got the split down to 60/40 in favor of men.  There are three major areas I've identified to help bring my numbers up:  Non-fiction, Genre fiction(Sci Fi, Fantasy, Crime) and Classics.  Authors like Ursula Le Guin and Octavia Butler are good because they straddle two of the three categories, genre fiction and classics.  

  One of the interesting aspects of Le Guin's career is that she wrote her two main series, The Earthsea Cycle and the Hainish Cycle, at the same time.   Le Guin started in 1966 with the first four books of the Hainish Cycle and then, at the encouragement of her publisher, she started the Earthsea series. Although she continued to publish at a ridiculous rate for decades afterwards, I think there is a good argument that you can start in 1966 with Rocannon's World and end in 1974 with The Dispossessed, with all of the main Earthsea titles in between.   That is a solid eight book list.  All the books are very manageable, it is interesting to compare Hainish vs. Earthsea and it avoids getting into the messy decades of short stories and children's books. 

   The Farthest Shore is set decades after the events of the first two books. Ged, the protagonist from the first two books, is the powerful Archmange of Earthsea. A mysterious malaise is spreading through the domain, rendering magic unusable and reducing the people to a semi-barbaric state.  Ged sets himself the taks of putting things right...but at what cost.  It seems clear that in 2021 the only people reading The Farthest Shore are going to be serious Le Guin fans.  There is more of Le Guin's Taoist influenced philosophy in this book, and Ged's travels through the islands of Earthsea are the most expansive geography of any Le Guin book from the eight book Hainish/Earthsea series.

  You would think both series would be ripe for "peak streaming" adaptation.  I wonder who owns the rights.

Birth of a Bridge (2010) by Maylis de Kerangal


Book Review
Birth of a Bridge (2010)
by Maylis de Kerangal

     I'm unsure how I heard about Birth of a Bridge, a novel by French author Maylis de Kerangal about the building of a bridge in a fictional Southern California city.   I know why I read it- How often does a writer from another country write a novel about building a piece of American infrastructure?  I'm glad to report that Birth of a Bridge is EXACTLY what you would expect- de Kerangal to different voices- the construction boss, the female cement engineer, the yokels who actually have to put the bridge together.  There is a French crane operator, a grasping Mayor.  It all hung together fairly well, though the generic Southern California city location seemed silly at times.  Where is Coca?  Everywhere. Nowhere. 

   The author doesn't use Birth of a Bridge to make grand statements about modern society, she just tells the story of putting together this bridge.  It's an interesting story even if it isn't going to change the world.

To Walk Alone in a Crowd (2021)by Antonio Munoz Molina


Book Review
To Walk Alone in a Crowd (2021)
by Antonio Munoz Molina

   This is a new English language translation of Munoz-Molina's 2018 ode to the flaneur.   Originating in 19th century France, the flaneur was (usually) a man who took pleasure in lengthy walks around a city (Paris) and coming into contact with different levels of society.  Prior to the entry of the flaneur into Western culture, the idea that someone with means would purposefully chose to expose themselves to the lower rungs of society was controversial, to say the least.  Indeed, often times the whole idea of wealth and status was to segregate yourself from the less fortunate.   Flaneurs were also among the first to actually LIKE the experience of living inside a city, and appreciate the aesthetics of the city itself, again, controversial at the time.

   Flaneur-ism has maintained a vibrancy that has long outlasted the original French version.  There is an entire literary movement, called "psycho-geography" that mostly consists of lengthy descriptions of prosaic urban environments in time and history, and it's impossible to ignore the impact of flaneurism on most literary subcultures since the advent of modernism.   

  To Walk Alone in a Crowd is not exactly a novel, but it is centered around writers and their experiences in various cities, Walter Benjamin, on the run from the Nazi's,  Fernando Pessoa in Lisbon, Edgar Allan Poe in Boston and Baltimore.  Melville in New York.   He combines personal observations with actual history based research, for example:

  A great step forward will take place when different routes are juxtaposed. From 1846 to 1849, Poe, Whitman, and Melville are all living, working, and walking simultaneously through New York City, orbiting around a small number of magnetic poles: a particular bookstore, the offices of a handful of literary journals, the houses of a few cultured people that hold soirees.

  He speculates on the intersection of literary lives:

There is a kind of invisibility to Herman Melville, as if lost or perpetually estranged among the people walking down the street with him, or in the smaller sphere of his literary circles, the bookstores and cafés. Walt Whitman, who was his exact contemporary, must have crossed paths with him. When Melville’s first book was published Whitman wrote a favorable review in a Brooklyn paper. Melville was a reader of Poe, and both frequented the same bookstore in New York, whose owner they knew well. But they never met, or if they ran into each other now and then, to the point of becoming familiar strangers, we will never know it. Melville walked quickly, in long strides. He said Broadway was a Mississippi flowing through Manhattan. During a trip to London in 1850 he spent his days exploring alleyways and courtyards, bookstores, theaters, cafés, dubious streets he would have avoided in other people’s company, where women stood at the corners offering themselves under the gaslight.

   The rest of the book is mostly about the narrator and his desire for a rootless existence:

YOU CHOOSE WHAT YOU WANT AND WHEN YOU WANT IT. I want to live like this, unencumbered, taking walks, reading books, carrying a backpack with notebooks and pencils, wearing a pair of sturdy hiking boots that give a slight elastic impulse to my heels and to the muscles in my legs, the head of the femur sliding in the hip socket, the strength of the hip, an ancient bone, the base on which the spinal column rests. I want to live on foot, by hand, by pencil, at ease, responsive to whatever I meet, loose like the air that moves around my body as I walk or like a graceful swimming stroke. I want to remain astonished.

   I unabashedly loved To Walk Alone in a Crowd, and I find myself thinking about it weeks later, and going back to some of the authors he mentions- Edgard Allan Poe, for example, and rereading some of his tales.
  

What Strange Paradise (2021) by Omar Akkad


Book Review
What Strange Paradise (2021)
by Omar Akkad

  I really enjoyed Omar Akkad's debut novel, American War, a well imagined tale of future dystopia in post-Civil War 2 America. For his second novel he's chosen a less genre milieu: Present day coastal Mediterranean Europe, under siege from would be immigrants from the African side of the sea.  The main protagonist is Amir, a refugee from war-torn Syria by way of Egypt who is the sole survivor of the wreck of the Calypso, an overloaded smuggling boat.  His perilous state is rendered slightly less so by Vanna, a girl of the same age as Amir, who takes him under her wing and tries to help him.   Help,  in this book, means getting off the island, and that is what Amir and Vanna go about doing.

  The narrative flashes between the present day flight from danger is interspersed with the story of Amir's flight from Syria and trip across the Mediterranean.   Clearly, Akkad is in the business of generating empathy for Amir and his kindred spirits, who are too often dehumanized in the debate over southern European immigration.  Personally, as someone who works on the southern border of the United States defending people accused of illegal entry, alien smuggling etc, Amir's struggles seem fairly mundane- nothing I haven't heard a thousand times before, with the possible exception of the horrific wreck of his smuggling vessel. 

   Akkad is not without sympathy for his villains- a theme in his work that continues from American War.  By doing this he encourages empathy for all sides, not just the folks he favors.

The Council of Animals (2021) by Nick McDonell


Book Review
The Council of Animals (2021)
by Nick McDonell

   I hadn't heard of author Nick McDonell before reading The Council of Animals, his strange novella written from the perspective of post-apocalyptic sentient animals who have gathered to render judgment on the shattered remnants of humanity.   This is McDonell's first delve into the world of fantasy/science fiction, his prior works being a enfant terrible style debut about spoiled rich kids in New York (Twelve) and a host of non-fiction work mostly concerning Iraq, Afghanistan and the impact those wars have had on its participants and observers. 
  
  I listened to the Audiobook version, which was a mistake.  The style that McDonell has chosen for his sentient-animal narrators is understandable but it doesn't translate well into Audio, or at least, it didn't in this version.  I wish I had just read it.  Hard to recommend on any grounds.

Black Mamba Boy (2010) by Nadifa Mohamed

Book Review
Black Mamba Boy (2010)
by Nadifa Mohamed

  British-Somali author Nadifa Mohamed made the 2021 Booker Longlist with her yet unreleased The Fortune Men.  Since I can't read The Fortune Men yet, I settled for reading Black Mamba Boy, her 2010 debut bildungsroman/roman a clef which fictionalizes the extraordinary childhood and young adulthood of a character based on her father.   There is nothing particularly unusual about the plot points in Black Mamba- young Somali boy seeks his place in the world with little help from fate, but the setting- beginning in pre-World War II Yemen before switching to the horn of Africa during World War II and Egypt and Great Britain after World War II, is breathtaking.

   But again, the plot itself- the incidents, the Oliver Twist-esque suffering, is a bit much and perhaps it explains why Black Mamba Boy didn't take off.  Looking forward to reading The Fortune Men when it comes out!

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