Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip's War (2018) by Lisa Brooks

Book Review
Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philips War (2018)
 by Lisa Brooks

  Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip's War won the Bancroft Prize this year.  I had never heard of King Philip or his war until a couple years ago during a trip to East Booth Bay, Maine, which has a King Philip's Trail.  Funny, I thought to myself when I saw it on my map, England never had a King Philip.  Turns out, King Philip was a nom de guerre of a Native chief named Metacomet, and he was the purported leader of the Native forces during what was the first Indian war between English settlers and indigenous groups.

  New England isn't a hotbed of revisionist native history, although this isn't true for the role of New England in revisionist natural history, where books like Changes in the Land by William Cronon were at the forefront of the new eco-history.    Brooks is a more conventional historian, very much in line with the times as she seeks to reconstruct "submerged voices" using a variety of techniques, including italicized passages which are written as fiction, from the perspective of various native actors.

   I'm familiar with this school of Native-American history, and I appreciate it.  A major take-away for non specialists is that the idea that Native North America was an uncivilized wilderness was only true so far as whites moved into territories that had very recently been devastated by white spread diseases.  Native tribes in the northeast didn't cultivate land the same way as English settlers, but they did cultivate the land, and they were far from naive about the difficulties of their situation.  They also shared the kind of inter-group social relationships that characterizes "western" civilization.

  Another revelation from Our Beloved Kin is the extent to which Native's who converted to Christianity were not spared from depredations, indeed, they were often singled out as proxies for the anger of English settlers who were angry at other natives.

Black Box (1985) by Amos Oz

Book Review
Black Box (1985)
 by Amos Oz

Replaces:  Master of St. Petersburg by J.M. Coetzee

  I'm fifty plus books deep into the first revision of the 1001 Books list, and as you can see, I've made it into the 1980's.  Amos Oz was omitted from the first book and then got two titles into the first revision, one of those authors who hasn't quite won the Nobel Prize in Literature but who has managed to make an international literary reputation from a relative backwater (Israel) in the world literature scene.   Oz has a reputation as a pacifist and an advocate for Arab/Israeli peace, but you wouldn't know it from Black Box, which is about a divorced couple, he a wealthy and internationally famous professor of conflict studies working in Chicago at an American University, she his unfaithful wife, struggling to raise their wayward son and saddled with a new husband with his own agenda.

  Black Box develops in epistolary form, letters back and forth, from the husband to the wife, the wife to the husband, from the son to the father, the father to his lawyer, the step father to the father, etc.   It's an unusual format for a book written in the 1980's, the epistolary novel having largely passed out of fashion in the late 18th century.   Like the other Amos Oz book on the 1001 Books list in 2008, Black Box is an almost entirely humorous affair, and the whole exercise reminded me of a Philip Roth novel with all the fun parts cut out.  Maybe it's because I'm simultaneously making my way through the Zuckerman books, some of which take place in Israel during the early 1980's.   I would be hard pressed to recommend Black Box.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

The Prague Orgy (1985) by Philip Roth

Book Review
The Prague Orgy (1985)
 by Philip Roth

  The Prague Orgy is typically described as the fourth novel in Roth's nine volume Zuckerman series, about his alter ego, Nathan Zuckerman.  It isn't a novel- it's only 77 pages in print- either a novella or a long short story.  It also marks Zuckerman's departure from the United States into parts unknown, here Prague, later England and Israel.    In The Prague Orgy, Zuckerman is dispatched from the United States to Communist Czechslovakia, where he has been tasked by an expatriate/exiled Czech writer to recover the unpublished short stories of his father- written in Yiddish. 

  In Czechslovakia he encounters the very horny and desperate, an embittered ex-wife of the exiled Czech writer, currently in possession of the desired manuscripts, as well as the Czech secret police, and then it is all over.   The Prague Orgy has also been called a coda to the first three Zuckerman books, which by then had been published in one volume as Zuckerman Bound.   Today, the first three Zuckerman books are published individually, as is The Prague Orgy, though I can't imagine spending fifteen dollars on a seventy seven page Philip Roth novel. 

Sunday, April 28, 2019

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Yao (2007) by Junot Diaz

Book Review
The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Yao (2007)
 by Junot Diaz

  Junot Diaz is one of those contemporary authors who I managed to miss over the past decade.  I knew that Diaz won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 2008.  I noticed the Audiobook edition was read by none other than Hamilton the musical writer Lin-Manuel Miranda- another cultural phenomenon I've missed.  Which is all in the way of saying I had long suspected that I wouldn't like this book, but I wanted to give it a fair shot, especially since so many other people love it.

  I'm sure there isn't a lot of advantage to be had in trashing a decade old Pulitzer Prize winner.  Diaz isn't the first person to tackle the Trujillo Dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, and this book often references The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa.  The travails of  life under the Trujillo regime are similar to the travails suffered by others under Third World dictators- or the mid twentieth century totalitarian dictators of the World War II era. 

   The other part of The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Yao involves the life of young immigrants in America, Oscar and his older sister.    I can't remember a book I've enjoyed less.  I think it was probably the combination of Diaz' "street smart" jargon- which I believe is a major reason people love it- and the voice of Lin-Manuel Miranda who I clearly do not appreciate in any way shape or form.  I'm not saying this book or Miranda is not good, the popularity of both and the general universal critical acclaim would indicate that they are both excellent at they do. but no, not for me. I'm also going to take a pass on Diaz' other books because I just don't think I could take it.

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