Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, May 05, 2018

The song of Achilles (2011) by Madeline Miller

Book Review
The song of Achilles (2011)
 by Madeline Miller

  I'm guessing that Circe, the new novel by American author Madeline Miller, is going to be a hit, think the multi-format property Wicked, but instead of the Wicked Witch of the West, Circe, the sorceress from the OdysseyThe song of Achilles was her first novel, published in 2011.  It took me a minute to lay hands on Circe.  In the meantime, The song of Achilles was readily available.  Like Circe, The song of Achilles is any easy pitch, "The Trojan war, retold from the perspective of the male lover of Greek hero Achilles."

  Focusing on the gay relationship at the center of Achilles, between the hero and Patroclus, who narrates the book, misses the larger concerns of Miller.   Any biography of Miller will tell you that she is an astute student of the time period, with a background in "the classics" as they are still taught in the Ivy League schools of the United States.   I found her grasp of the psychology of the Greek hero to be acute: Anything you need to learn about fame and the desire of fame you can get from the ancient Greeks.  They invented the idea of individual fame and personally I think there is a straight line to be drawn between the Greek Gods and modern celebrity culture.   TMZ and The Iliad, basically the same thing.

  Miller gets that.  One of the only actual Greek words that makes it into The song of Achilles is when Patroclus critizes Achilles for his hubris, or pride leading to downfall.  Hubris is all over The Iliad, the Odyssey and Greek literature generally.  It teaches us that man should try to compete with Gods.  We still haven't learned the lesson.

Less (2017) by Andrew Sean Greer

Book Review
Less (2017)
 by Andrew Sean Greer
Published July 17th, 2017
Lee Boudreaux Books

   I'm sure I wasn't the only one who had to look up Andrew Sean Greer when Less, his fifth novel, won the the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction last month.   I picked up the win early enough that I was able to snag the pre-win library copy within a month.  When I picked the book up from the library, I was surprised to see a quote from Armstead Maupin on the cover.  Perhaps Maupin sells books, but he's not really a prize winner type.  Reading the plot summary on the back flap: Aging novelist, well regarded but not popular, struggles with the end of a lengthy affair with a younger man and his approaching 50th birthday by patching together a world tour of speaking engagements, culminating in a camel caravan in the Moroccan desert; I thought to myself- sounds kind of light for a Pulitzer Prize in Fiction winner.

  Then I actually read the book, and I can see where the Pulitzer committee was coming from. As Arthur Less, the narrator and protagonist reflects, the generation of Gay artists that came before him was essentially wiped out by AIDS.    Part of the benefit of wining the Pulitzer Prize in Literature is that you don't have to convince an audience to read your book, they'll just read it because it won the award.  That's great news for Less, and for Greer, who is no doubt is now receiving the type of attention that can't help but expand his audience.   As Less himself himself points out- or rather- has pointed out to him by a variety of different character in the book- the plight of a lonelyish, poorish, highly cultured gay man living in late 20th century San Francisco is not a particularly sympathetic plight.  It's not particularly, as they on the internet, relatable.

  I'd probably actually buy an earlier novel by Greer if I saw it at a bookstore. Less seems like the kind of book that will be adapted for film or screen but I could see a very bad version.

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Book Review: Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution by Priya Satia

Book Review
Empire of Guns:
The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution 
by Priya Satia
Published April 10th, 2018
Penguin Random House Publishing

  If I could, I'd fill this blog with reviews of newly written history books, but that is a tall order. Fields like "18th century European history" don't pull much shelf-space at the remaining physical book stores, and there isn't a ton of popular interest in anything older than the American Civil War with book buying audience in the United States, period.   When I read about Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution, I thought, "This is a new book about 18th century European history- I simply must track down a copy."  I finally found an Ebook through the Los Angeles Public Library.  The Ebook appeared intimidating with a near 600 page length, but about 180 of those pages were the end notes and index.  The end notes aren't included in the text of the Ebook, so it reads as an incredibly detailed but none the less non academic  take on her subject.

  Empire of Guns takes heavy cues from John Brewer's 1989 classic in the field of 18th century history, The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State 1688-1783.  Satia doesn't hide the ball, Sinews is cited in her very first footnote.  She and her publishers are no doubt relying on the lack of familiarity with Sinews among the contemporary American audience for books about gun control.  Like Brewer, her thesis explicitly relies on documenting the close ties between gun manufacturers and the British Empire.  Unlike Brewer,  Satia extends her analysis all the way up the present day and seems to be making the point that the United States needs to move away from his history by limiting the right of Americans to buy guns.

  That, of course, is a controversial thesis, and it's possible to take issue with some of her analysis.  For example, she dismisses the seminal United States Supreme Court decision in Heller, which held that the 2nd amendment contained a personal right to own guns, in a sentence.  I wouldn't credit those who call Empire of Guns overlong or too dense for general readers, unless they are general readers uninterested in 18th century history. 

Siddhartha (1922) by Herman Hesse

Book Review
Siddhartha (1922)
 by Herman Hesse

  Siddhartha by Herman Hesse was translated into English in 1951, thereafter it became a horseman of the 1960's culture, a staple of dorm rooms and be-ins, a status it continued to enjoy for decades.  It's the kind of book that peaked in influence by the 1970's and then suffered for being to closely affiliated with a specific place and time, even though that place and time was half a century away from the place and time Siddhartha was originally published.

  It's possible to see Siddhartha as a progenitor of the idea in the West that one could travel to India in search of Enlightenment, that Enlightenment could be actually found in India.   This was a novel perspective in the 1960's, particularly in the United States, which didn't have the same connection to "the East" as the British Empire.   It's often said that Siddhartha is "about" THE Buddha, i.e. Gautama Buddha, the historical personage who is credited with the creation of Buddhism. Guatama Buddha was also known as Siddhartha, but this Siddhartha is not that Siddhartha. 

  I remember reading a vintage 1970's era paper-book version of Siddhartha that I bought from Moe's Used books on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California when I was in high school.  At the time, Buddhist/Hindu philosophy was unknown to me, about as exotic to me as it must have been to German readers in the 1920's and American's in the 1960s.  I think that is the key to the enduring popularity of Siddhartha- it's a gateway to an interest in Buddhist/Hindu philosophy. 

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

The Count of Monte Cristo (1848) by Alexandre Dumas

Book Review
The Count of Monte Cristo (1848)
by Alexandre Dumas
Blackstone Publishing

   This forty eight hour audiobook tops Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson (42 hours) as the longest audiobook I've tackled.  The length gave me ample time to reflect on the differences in form between the modern novel: usually about 300 pages long and the serial format which dominated the early to mid 19th century.  Authors writing serials were often paid by the word and so these sorts of books contain volume: Volume characters, volume plot, volume length. 

   At 1276 pages in the printed version, The Count of Monte Cristo represents a peak of this form.   The story of Edward Dantes spans thirty years, a half dozen different countries, features fifty different characters who play substantial roles in the plot and Dantes himself boasts eight different names (mostly though he is the Count of Monte Cristo.)  Despite the incredibly labyrinthine plot machinations, the essence of The Count of Monte Cristo is easy to state in two sentences:

 Edward Dantes, a promising young sailor, is betrayed by two friends and a judge and sent to a remote island prison.  Eventually he escapes, and makes good his revenge on those who betrayed him and their families.
   Like a road trip, getting there is at least half the fun, and Dumas (and his ghostwriter/collaborator Auguste Maquet sprinkle an incredible amount of specialized knowledge into the text.   It's these details that keep you interested.  Some of the devices Dumas uses for length are pretty funny, like the paralyzed character who can only be understood through elaborate blinking and pointing routines, all of which are described in full every time he shows up in the story.  These is also a ton of soliloquy/internal monologues where the reader is treated to pages of descriptions of internal mental processes.

  I hit a wall about 30 hours in, but as the dominoes fall into place during the last 20 hours, my spirits lifted, and at the close I gave a hearty huzzah for his triumph.   Finally, there are a ton of cool early 19th century style points to be gleaned here, if you are into that kind of thing.

House of Leaves (2000) by Mark Danielewski

Book Review
House of Leaves (2000)
by Mark Danielewski

   Like Donnie Darko or Infinite Jest, House of Leaves is a love it or hate it proposition, an 800+ page book containing a half dozen different narrative voices, typefaces, page layouts and the most footnotes in a novel I've ever seen outside of the aforementioned Infinite Jest, which, now that I think about it, used end-notes, not footnotes.   The two major narratives in House of Leaves are about a purported documentary film about a house that contains infinite space inside of it AND a story, told in the footnotes, of a late 20th century LA hipster type who discovers the manuscript about the documentary film in the bedsit of a Bukoswski like deceased hobo.

  I was astonished- astonished- to learn for the first time of this book via the 1001 Books project. Not because I particularly liked it or anything like that, but just that it very much seems like something someone I know would have read or told me about.  It may be simply that it was published at a time- I was in law school in 2001- when I wasn't really tracking on new books.   The copy I read- a 2nd edition, is the cleaned up, big budget version that includes not only the novel but a companion piece, called The Whalestoe Letters, which are letters written by the institutionalized mother of the LA hipster type who authors one of the two major narratives in the book.

  At times, the "infinite house" at the center of House of Leaves, and the explorations within, seem to comment on the eccentricities of post-modern criticism: People wandering around in an infinite darkness, unable to derive any specific meaning from their experience.   Such postmodern fuckery was hardly novel in 2000, when House of Leaves was published, but Danielewski brings a certain counter-cultural swagger that obviously appealed to the readers who made it such a cult hit. 

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