Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Small Country (2018) by Gael Faye

Image result for gael faye

Book Review
Small Country (2018)
by Gael Faye

  Gael Faye is a French-Rwandan hip hop artist, and Small Country is his debut novel, a bildungsroman about the Rwandan/Burundian civil war/conflicts, written from the perspective of a mixed-race child growing up in a privileged neighborhood of Burundi.  Gabriel, the narrator and protagonist, is living as about as care free a life as one could hope for in the Africa of the mid 1990's.  Yes, his parents- a white, French father and Tutsi-refugee mother from Rwanda have split up, but he lives in a nice neighborhood, in a house with staff, surrounded by other mixed-race and even white children who all go the same private school for the children of Europeans who live in Burundi.

 Of course, every reader is well familiar with what lies in the near future, even if Gabriel depicts the decent into racial violence and genocide with a mixture of confusion and wonder.   Gabriel remains at the fringes of the violence, though the Rwandan genocide is brought home for him when his Mother returns from post-genocide Rwanda is a state of shock which persists for the rest of her life.  Faye describes the genocide itself through the eyes of his returning mother, and I have to say, I found it shocking, even with the 1000 page Nazi SS book The Kindly Ones in my recent reading history.

 What is so shocking about the 1990's Rwandan genocide of Tutsi's at the hands of the Hutu majority is that it was not hidden or secret, and was in fact instigated via mass media and perpetrated by, more or less, the entire population, not just the military or paramilitary gangs.  Neighbors, hacking up neighbors with machetes- women, children, everyone.

Star Maker (1937) by Olaf Stapledon

Book Review
Star Maker (1937)
by Olaf Stapledon

   I recently completed the Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy-  written by Chinese science fiction author Liu Cixin and I have to say that my mind was blown.  Not so much by book one- which was amazing- and reviewed here, but by the second and third books The Dark Forest and Death's End, which are impossible to even discuss without ruining the sheer mind-blowingness of it all.  But in summary, the trilogy is a variation on the standard "first contact" narrative, where Earth makes contact with an alien race.  The surprise and delight is in the science and philosophy that Cixin brings to the table, and while both might be off putting to casual readers, Cixin clearly strikes a chord, one that has resonated not just in his native China but also in the West, where Amazon studios recently picked up the trilogy for development.

  The experience of the trilogy was so revelatory that I found myself wondering whether I had missed some influential works of science fiction that might have inspired Liu.  The Foundation Trilogy by Issac Asimov is an obvious inspiration, and the characters and the book reference it.  Another book that is often cited by people writing about the Remembrance trilogy is Star Maker, by Olaf Stapledon.
I'd heard of neither book nor author, so I checked out 1970's era reprint.

  Stapledon was an English science fiction writer who had the misfortune to do most of his writing either directly before or after World War II, a time when opportunities were slim for trans-atlantic publishing of all sorts, and before science fiction was taken seriously by literary critics.  He became a cult author, for example, Borges wrote a foreword for 1960's era reprint of Star Maker.   

  Star Maker is, I think, the first serious attempt to imagine the outlines of intergalactic civilization.  Stapeldon's Star Maker is an English man, living in the 20th century, who, one night, rises out of his journey and begins travelling among the stars.  When he lands on a world with intelligent life, he is able to partially occupy the consciousness of the "other humans" as he calls them.    What follows is a systemic attempt to describe all forms of intelligent life in the galaxy.

  Stapledon then follows with an incredible description of millions years of Galactic history, featuring battles, intergalactic space travel and even conscious stars.  It is a wild ride, although there is little in the way of plot or character development. I found myself repeatedly needing to confirm that Star Maker had actually been published in 1937, because it feels several decades ahead of its time.

  I think there is a strong argument to include Star Maker as a canonical novel, perhaps as a substitute for other proto-genre works like At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft (1936), or a work of detective fiction like The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett (1931), Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy Sayers (1933) or The Postman Always Rings Twice by James Cain (1934).  Do Hammett and Sayers both need multiple titles published in the 1930's?  Surely one book by each author is sufficient.

The Inheritance of Loss (2006) by Kiran Desai

Book Review
The Inheritance of Loss (2006)
by Kiran Desai

Replaces: The Red Queen by Margaret Drabble (Read/unreviewed)

   Kiran Desai is the rarest of rare birds: A second generation writer of literary fiction (daughter of thrice Booker Prize shortlisted Anita Desai), with achievements to equal those of the parent.  The Inheritance of Loss was Desai's second novel, and it made it to the Booker Prize shortlist in 2007.   The most surprising fact about Desai is that she hasn't written a novel since.   Kiran was joined by three books written by her Mom in the first revision of the 1001 Books list, and all four additions represent the larger effort by the Editors to diversify the list both in terms of number of Authors represented and number of viewpoints.

  The younger Desai moved, with her Mother, to the United States when she was 14 and The Inheritance of Loss reflects an understanding both of life in India (mostly the "Hill Country" bordering Nepal) and the United States (the milieu of illegal immigrants working in the bowels of New York City restaurants).   There is no doubt that Indian authors with an education and familiarity with living in the west possess an advantage when it comes to being selected to diversify the canon.   It's nice when those writers share the voices of less educated people, particularly those inside India who may have been excluded from the limited information that western readers of literary fiction receive about that place.

  At the same time, it's not the same as having a member of said less educated classes speak for themselves.  In a sense, it's the same problem that you get when William Styron (a white man) writes a prize-winning novel about the black leader of a slave revolt, The Confessions of Nat Turner.   It's not as bad as that example, but it is still an example of privileged voices defining the narrative of the less fortunate.

  The book that The Inheritance of Loss replaces, The Red Queen by Margaret Drabble, was critically drubbed when it was released for similar reasons: A white, Canadian author telling the story of a Korean woman from the Middle Ages.   Not a bad thought, but maybe let a Korean author tell that particular tale.   Apparently, I was so little impressed by The Red Queen that I didn't even write a review.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Boatbuilder (2018) by Daniel Gumbiner

Book Review
The Boatbuilder(2018)
 by Daniel Gumbiner
Published by Mcsweeney's  May 2018

   The Boatbuilder was, I think, a surprise pick for the 2018 National Book Award Fiction longlist.   It is a brief tale of addiction and redemption, featuring a very retro white-male (Jewish even!) protagonist, seeking to overcome an opiate addiction in a place that sounds like a combination of Bolinas and Mendicino in Northern California.  "Berg" as he is known, is the grandson of a Rabbi who was making a decent living "selling anti virus software"(presumably at the enterprise level) when he succumbed to opiate addiction in the aftermath of a lingering concussion.   He has relocated north in the hope of putting his addiction behind him.

    Once he established himself, he falls in with an eccentric boatbuilder with a background in sociology and an excellent client who uses his finely crafted sailing boats to smuggle drugs from Mexico ("Only marijuana" Berg's mentor assures him.)  The "action" in The Boatbuilder is minimal, but there is plenty of incident, mostly Berg's own struggles falling in and out of addiction.

  The author deserves credit for crafting a potential National Book Award winner out of such run of the mill material:  A disenfranchised, well-educated white man, the hippie craft culture of Northern California, learning to overcome drug addiction.   I personally had little sympathy for Berg and his plight.  I've had plenty of direct experience with the impact of drug addiction on people's lives, specifically, many of my clients facing lengthy prison sentences are there because of their addictions, specifically because their addiction, and the need for money to finance said addiction, makes them ideal for the low reward/high risk work of drug smuggling.   Those clients of mine, facing decades of prison, face real consequences because of their drug addiction.

 Berg, on the other hand, has "really bad headaches."  I mean, fuck off, Berg.  Get your fucking shit together and get out there and do something with your life.  Or die- it doesn't matter to me, neither before or after reading The Boatbuilder.   If this book wins the National Book Award for Fiction this year I will be sorely disappointed, and I don't recommend it unless you are specifically interested in the opiate crisis and recovery narratives.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Where the Dead Sit Talking (2018) by Brandon Hobson

Author Brandon Hobson, nominated for the 2018 National Book Award for fiction for Where the Dead Sit Talking.
Book Review
Where the Dead Sit Talking (2018)
 by Brandon Hobson

   Where the Dead Sit Talking is another 2018 National Book Award Fiction longlist nominee.  Author Brandon Hobson is an enrolled member of the Cherokee tribe of Oklahoma.  The protagonist of his bildungsroman about a Native American kid being raised in a foster home is Native American, but like the character in There, There, another 2018 National Book Award Fiction longlist nominee written by a Native American author, all the action takes place, "off the reservation," and both books are deeply bound to the often isolated position of Native Americans within the larger American society.

  There is nothing particularly Native American about the experience of young men alienated from contemporary modern society, but there is no denying that Sequoyah, is the product of an authentically Native American voice.  One aspect of this experience in both books is the lack of an older generation to transmit "authentic" Native traditions, leaving the narrators to construct their own identities out of what they can grasp from their environment. 

  In Where the Dead Sit Talking, Sequoyah is literally marked off from the rest of society by a series of grease burns on his face, "An accident, it wasn't on purpose;" he tells people about the time his Mom, in the midst of an emotional phone call, gesticulated while cooking, burning his face with the hot grease.

  His mom in prison awaiting sentencing on a drug case, Sequoyah finds some stability at the home of the Troutt family, and friendship with Rosemary, another foster child with the Troutt family, also a Native American.  There is also George- not Native American, and probably autistic or at least on the spectrum.  As Sequoyah uneasily awaits his Mother's next opportunity for release, he has experiences typical of the modern bildungsroman, a little sex, a little drugs.  Hobson builds towards a third act that is foreshadowed on the first page, but still managed to leave me guessing- event after the end of the book.


Animal's People (2007) by Indra Sinha

Image result for bhopal chemical disaster
Famous image from the Bhopal Chemical disaster, when exposure to toxic pesticide chemicals killed
thousands and maimed thousands more.

Book Review
Animal's People (2007)
by Indra Sinha

Replaces:  Never Let Me Go (2006) by Kazuo Ishiguro (Review April 2018)

Ishiguro's foray into dystopian fiction, Never Let Me Go, is replaced by Animal's People, Indra Sinha's well received novel about the impact of the Union Carbide/Bhopal Chemical disaster, which has maintained its status as the worst industrial accident of all time until today.  The leak of toxic chemicals killed thousands, but it also wreaked havoc on the unborn, accounting for a wave of horrific birth defects.

 In Animal's People, the narrator is one of those disfigured by the chemical exposure before birth.  His spine twisted in utero, he walks on all fours, giving rise to his eponymous sobriquet, "Animal."  Animal's status as a 20th century Indian street urchin will be familiar to readers of contemporary literary fiction.   Animal is, as is acknowledged by the characters in the book, particularly bright in the way of literary street urchin, an Artful Dodger type, if you will. 

  Animal is part of a wider community that is engaged in a decades long attempt to obtain redress for the victims of the terrible chemical spill.   Their leader is Zafar, a young Muslim community activist  and Nisha, his love interest, and also Animal's patron.  The plot is set into motion when Elli, an American doctor with no specific ties to the community, shows up and announces that she is opening a free clinic.  Suspicions abound, leading to a community boycott, and Animal finds himself in the middle.

   It's hard to argue with the replacement of Never Let Me Go- Ishiguro was bound to see a reduction in any revision- and Never Let Me Go is not one of his top three books and Animal's People fulfills the prime directive of contemporary literary canon construction:  Acknowledge new voices and new perspectives.   Although Animal's People is very much and Indian novel, down to characters to speak a geographically specific slang, there is a universality in the response of a downtrodden community to a brutal environmental-chemical disaster that elevates Animal's People to a canonical level of interest.


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