Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Hunger (1890) by Knut Hamsun

Book Review
Hunger (1890)
by Knut Hamsun

  The creation  Nobel Prize in Literature  in 1901 was a stroke of genius on behalf of the non-English languages of world literature.  The Swedes managed to create the world's foremost literary prize independent of the English speaking world, and that decision has played no small part in attempts to avoid the utter domination of world literature by English speaking and writing authors.  It also means that there are dozens of Nobel Prize in Literature winners who are almost unknown at the time they win the award, with English language translations that may be under distributed or non-existent.

  Today, a Nobel Prize in Literature by a non-English language author is a sure signal that those books that either haven't been translated or well distributed in English will now be so, and that an Audience for those books will be waiting.   I'm bringing this up because Knut Hamsun is one of the non-English language early winners who have avoided neglect.  Although it was his epic, Growth of the Soil that was seen as the key event prior to him winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, modern English language audiences inevitably have only read Hunger, which is his most well known and book and one that places in squarely in the proto-Existentialist literary world alongside Dostoyevsky and J.K Huysmens.

  In fact, Hamsun's self-abusing protagonist bears many similarities to Raskolnikov, the anti-hero of Crime and PunishmentCrime and Punishment was published nearly thirty years prior to Hunger, and I found myself wondering whether Hamsun was familiar.  Hunger is a must for the would-be existentialists, short and to the point, it avoids many of the excesses of 19th century literature, and it isn't hard to imagine Hunger being published today, or at least in the 20th century.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter(Glasgow Trilogy Book 1) (2013) by Malcolm Mackay

A cocktail bar on a Glasgow side street
Scene from the Glasgow Underworld, location of The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter by Malcolm Mackay, book one of his Glasgow Trilogy
Book Review
The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter(Glasgow Trilogy Book 1) (2013)
by Malcolm Mackay

   Like science fiction/fantasy, crime fiction is another genre where I'm on the look out for books which cross the divide between genre and literature.   This escape from a genre pigeonhole into the wider and more prestigious world of literature is a cardinal development of the 20th century cultural-industrial complex, where interested professionals (critics, professors, graduate students of literature) comb non-literary territory to "elevate" and with it, their own prestige by virtue of "discovering" hitherto overlooked talent. 

  The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter was published in the UK in 2013, winning genre crime-fiction type awards.  In 2015 it crossed the sea to the United States, where a well designed US copy has joined its brethren in the Glasgow Trilogy has garnered similar positive attention.  Calum MacLean, the hit man-narrator who has been hired to kill Lewis Winter, behaves like a character in a Japanese samurai/ronin film:  He has a code of ethics, professional aspirations and a business-like attitude towards murder.   Mackay elevates the proceedings above typical genre territory with insightful writing about the victim, Lewis Winter, a small-time Glaswegian drug dealer with a pushy, younger girlfriend and aspirations towards intruding on the drug selling territory of MacLean's employer.

  Glasgow is, of course, a major character.  Anyone familiar with Scottish literature of the 1980's and 1990's will know about the lower classes of Glasgow, but the depiction of the Scottish underworld was novel.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

La Princesse de Clèves (1678) by Anonymous

Madame de La Fayette.jpg
Marie-Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne, comtesse de La Fayette, purported author of La Princesse de Cleves.

Book Review
La Princesse de Clèves (1678)
 by Anonymous

   There are a slew of books from before the 1800's left in the 1001 Books project because I didn't read ANY of them, I just thought it would be too much like school.  That was back in 2008, and now, in 2018, that decision has come home to roost, and I found myself slogging through an Ebook of La Pcincesse de Cleves, generally regarded as the first French novel and first psychological novel.  Tell the truth, I got little to nothing out of it.  It's all very hard to follow, I would advise taking notes if you go here. 

Against the Grain (2017) by James C. Scott

Image result for against the grain james c scott
Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, published August 2017 by Yale University Press
Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States
by James C. Scott
Published August 2017
Yale University Press

  I've been familiar with James C. Scott, currently a professor of political science at Yale University, since I majored in political science at The American University in the mid 1990's.  My thesis, about political participation among "straight edge" punks in the Washington DC area, was couched explicitly in terms he laid out in his earlier work, about the passive resistance of slaves and peasants to overwhelming authority.   Honestly don't remember how the two things tied together. College was a bit of a haze in that regard.  But the name stuck with me, but when I saw he had a new book out about the deep history of the earliest states, I leapt at the opportunity to read Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States.  Almost one year later, I got the copy I had placed on hold in the LA library system and yes, it was worth the wait mostly if you are interested in a) the history of the earliest states b) the theories of passive resistance to authority Scott has advocated in his career-making work. c) pop culture takes on these very same subjects by best-selling authors, who Scott clearly acknolwedges in his forthright preface, where he admits he is not an expert in these fields (ancient political science, you could say) and is relying on the work of others, probably leaning heavily on graduate students.

     Scott brings his distinct perspective to the relatively staid world of ancient political science.  Most specialists on ancient civilization are either linguists or archeologists, and both practices have deep roots in the days of European empire, colonialism, etc.  Scott, on the other hand, comes from the very cutting edge world of major American research universities with their own publishing houses and potential for celebrity generating publicity into fields like film and television.  It kind of looks like what Scott, in his own highly intellectual way, is doing here: Making a play for something more than the adulation within the political science community.  Considering how progressive and innovative his ideas are, about how ancient government is at heart an exercise in slavery, and how human kind has not benefited particularly from the rise of agriculture and it's role in allowing the growth of the first political states.

   His argument is intellectual ammunition for those who would role back the clock on human innovation and technology in many different respects, and it isn't hard to imagine a world where Against the Grain was embraced by a dangerous crowd for the wrong reasons.   At the same time, his arguments are just so interesting, and so well constructed, that is difficult not to get swept along- and is also a characteristic of his more specialist centered earlier work. 

Monday, July 09, 2018

Walden (19854) by Henry David Thoreau

Book Review
Walden (19854)
by Henry David Thoreau

   Everyone reads Walden in high school in the United States. I was no different. At least I think so- before I started the audiobook version this time through I couldn't remember anything except the things everyone knows, Thoreau, in the woods, talking about self-reliance and nature.  Listening to the Audiobook is a real experience- memorable- like listening to a Spaulding Grey monologue.  Or a Thoreau monologue.  If I had to make one dinner party point about Thoreau is that he is very detailed about the mechanics of his solitary existence, down to the cent, on multiple occasions.  There is also the more familiar transcendalism which is more or less an American rewriting of the Hindu-Buddhist-Greek wisdom that was not well diffused in Anglo-American culture in the mid 19th century, and indeed Thoreau was one of the first on this side of the Atlantic to popularize that bevy of ideas.

  Withdrawal and retreat are at the heart of any thorough understanding of Hinduism or Buddhism, and Thoreau plainly is attempting to make those same points his American context.  I finished listening while staying at the Bee Keepers cottage outside Freeport, Maine.  The Airbnb we stayed in had a hardback copy on their living room table, and Thoreau was very much on my mind as we sat on the ocean shore and tried to identify sea-birds and ocean life.  Thoreau is still relevant today, particularly for those unfamiliar with the underlying Eastern wisdom that informs his work.

The Clay Machine Gun (1996) by Victor Pelevin

Book Review
The Clay Machine Gun (1996)
 by Victor Pelevin

  Only after I bought The Clay Machine Gun online did I discover that in America, the same novel was published as Buddha's Little Finger in the United States.   Adding to the confusion, the Russian title translates as Chapayev and Void-so... three titles.   The Clay Machine Gun is firmly rooted in the free wheeling era between the collapse of Communism and the rise of Putin-ism.   You can see parallels to artists in Weimar Germany in the way Pelevin takes advantage of artistic license to fashion a dark and disturbing vision of the failings of that society.  Like many authors writing in a less-free society, Pelevin also makes use of surrealism and allegory to craft multiple layers of meaning.

  Here, the narrative bounces between time periods, sharing one narrator, a "Peter Void."  Half of the book takes place in the time of Revolutionary Russia, where Void becomes the aide-de-camp of a Tibetan mystic/Russian Army General who posses the Clay Machine Gun/Buddha's Little Finger of the title- an ultimately annihilating relic of the finger of the buddha that holds the ability to make the entire universe vanish.  If you consider that revelation a "spoiler," then more power to you.

 The more contemporary half of the plot involves a present day Peter Void- confined in a mental institution, where he is told that the other half of the plot- about the Russian general during the Russian revolution- is a hallucination caused by some kind of multiple personality syndrome.

 Pelevin also includes historical counterparts for Void's psychiatric ward companions- a Japanese hit man, a Viking warrior and a trans character who has a Strangelovian ride with Arnold Schwarzenegger.   It is all realistically surreal, if that makes sense. 

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