Dedicated to classics and hits.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Lost City of the Monkey God (2017) by Douglas Preston

Book Review
The Lost City of the Monkey God (2017)
by Douglas Preston

  The Lost City of the Monkey God is a strange combination of true-life archaeology and true-life thriller written by Douglas Preston, who has hit the best seller list a number of times both for non fiction and Dan Brown style adventure fiction.  Anecdotally located in the mountainous south of Honduras, the Lost City was traditionally known as the "lost city" by a generation of American funded non-academic explorers and adventurers. 

  The impetus for this particular expedition to find this legendary lost city was the success of LIDAR- a plane based radar device that can penetrate ground cover to see human made objects hidden in dense jungle, it had already scored notably successes in the Arabian peninsula and Cambodia.   Much of the first hundred pages is devoted to a summary of past attempts to discovery the city, a survey of the literature surrounding the site and many pages on the logistics required to get a team into the most likely site, not to mention the process of flying the LIDAR plane to find the ruin in the first place.

  Spoiler alert, they find the Lost City, located in the prosaically named valley T1. As it turns out, it is a lost civilization- not Mayan but with heavy Mayan influence, with a hey day of 1000-1400. The third act plot twist involves almost the entire expedition contracting a horrific jungle disease called "white leprosy" and their attempts to seek medical treatment.

  There is also some amusing material about Preston talking to academics angered by the publicity generated by the (admittedly publicity hungry) expedition.  So it's interesting, fun to read, not that deep.  There was a lost civilization down there- not Mayan- but Mayan influenced.

American Pastoral (1997) by Philip Roth

Book Review
American Pastoral (1997)
by Philip Roth

  Man, the hits keep coming for late career Philip Roth. American Pastoral won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 and even though he inevitably seems to write about weird old guys from New Jersey, he never writes the same book twice, dabbling in meta fiction, speculative fiction and the roman a clef despite having established his initial literary reputation on the back of realistic portraits of urban life in the northeast.   American Pastoral is also one of Roth's Zuckerman novels, about Nathan Zuckerman, successful novelist generally assumed to be the alter ego of Roth.

  Despite American Pastoral being narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, the book is about Seymour "Swede" Levov, a Jewish-American student athlete of vast renown, grown old and successful, but tormented by the 1960's radical inspired bombing of the local postal office by his 16 year old daughter.  Although Zuckerman narrates from the present, most of American Pastoral takes the form of Zuckerman imagining Levov's life, culminating in the bombing, but moving back and forth within different periods in the past.

  I thought it was a little strange that this was the book that won Roth a Pultizer.  By 1997 he had been a prospective Nobel Prize for Literature winner for a decade, and he still had not won a Pultizer Prize for fiction.  Ultimately, American Pastoral derives its strength from the well observed horror of a parent at the choices made by a child.  That is under developed literary territory.

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Life of Insects (1998) by Victor Pelevin

Book Review
The Life of Insects (1998)
\by Victor Pelevin

  19th century Russian literature is truly "classic" in the sense that it is universally appreciated by all who take an interest in world literature. It is not uncommon for one of several 19th century Russian classics to be the "favorite" of anyone who cares about world literature, or for one of a few Russian authors to be named as one's favorite author, whether you grew up speaking English, Japanese, Arabic or Russian.  This 19th century work has earned translated Russian literature a kind of life time hall pass in English and the other languages of the west.  Pity then, that the USSR turned out to be such a bust, artistically speaking.  The general Russian artistic perspective post-Communism can be summed up as "negative," and this is very much in evidence in The Life of Insects, by Russian author Victor Pelevin, about modern Russians who are also literally bugs.

  Of course, any intersection of humans, bugs and English translations will evoke Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka about a man who famously wakes up as a bug, or beetle, or cockroach, depending on the translator. Pelevin is hard to pin down, and at times I was left wondering if a confusing passage was a product of the author's intent, the difficulty of the translation or a combination of both.   The impact was to make The Life of Insects hard to follow, in the same way that the post-Naked L:unch output of William S. Burroughs is difficult to follow. 

People are bugs. It's an allegory of life in Russia after the fall of Communism!  That's about all I got out of it.

Jack Maggs (1997) by Peter Carey

Jack Maggs (1997)
 by Peter Carey

  One of the principles of canon formation I've noticed is that if you are trying to canonize the recent past, there is a marked bias in favor of books that either won a big yearly award or by authors who have won said big yearly award in the past.   For "new" authors, i.e. previously non-canonical authors the main routes are 1) a break out debut novel 2)retrospective elevation of earlier works after a canon making event occurs for a specific author 3) retrospective elevation of books with a current audience ("Best Seller list") via critical acceptance.

  You can see these principles at play in the construction of the 1001 Books list from the first, 2006 edition.  Books selected from the 1950's through 1980's, a period when most of the major yearly book prizes were "ramping up," shows only a vague correspondence between the list of winners and the selected titles.  However, once you get to the 1990's, almost every book seems to a prize winner or a new book by a recent winner.  Australian author Peter Carey fits into this schematic.  He is a two time Booker Prize winner, alongside canon-staples J.M. Coeteze and Hilary Mantel.  Jack Maggs, while not a prize winner, is a clever example of historical metafiction often categorized as a "parallel novel," where an author takes the actual plot of another novel and rewrites it, usually from a different perspective that that of the original author.

 Here, Jack Maggs is a parallel novel of Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, except that it takes the form of a tale that inspires the Dickens-substitute author to write his version of Great Expectations.  The main character, Jack Maggs, is the returned convict from Great Expectations, and Henry Phibbs, the son in Jack Maggs is the equivalent of Pipn from Great Expectations.  The major leap here is to make Dickens himself a character in the retelling of one of his novels.

  This allows Carey to bring to bear the biographical details raised in the non-fiction corpus of Dickens studies into his retelling.  This elevates Jack Maggs over Dickens himself, and it also captures the lesser understood dark side of Dickens interest in character interaction.  Being familiar with the standard Dickens biography, I recognized several clever integrations of fact via fiction.

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