Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, June 28, 2019

A Memory Called Empire (2019) by Arkady Martine


Book Review
A Memory Called Empire (2019)
by Arkady Martine

  If you search the term, "space opera" on Google, you will read that it was coined as a pejorative term to describe over-wrought science fiction which mimicked the "opera" of a soap opera on television.  It was never a reference to opera the art form.  Space Opera is known for imitating models like ancient Egypt, ancient Rome, ancient China, etc, except with advanced weaponry and fast than light speed travel, all of it poorly explained to the reader.

  So to call A Memory Called Empire a space opera is accurate, but also a little dismissive.  There's nothing wrong with space opera per se, but it would be hard to imagine such a work transcending genre limitations.   However, Arkady Martine- a pseudonym for Anna Linden Weller, a scholar of the Byzantine Empire, is not your average space opera debutante, and I think her publisher, Macmillan, has high hopes for her Texicalaan, of which A Memory Called Empire is the first volume.

  I listened to the Audiobook- I think I might actually be too ashamed to read an actual copy of A Memory Called Empire.  They used a woman to narrate, which makes sense because the narrator and protagonist is a woman- a young ambassador sent from an independent mining outpost to the center of a giant galactic empire.  It is a human universe, though Martine appears to be setting up a conflict with the first "non human" civilization in the galaxy.  Martine's academic background shows up in her loving description of the Texicalaan imperial bureaucracy.

  Oh also Martine is LGBT and so is the main character, so that's cool, because the world of speculative science fiction can be pretty male and cis male heavy. 

The Porpoise (2019) by Mark Haddon


Book Review
The Porpoise (2019)
 by Mark Haddon

   You could call English author Mark Haddon a one-hit wonder on the basis of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which has spawned a theatrical version and which, to this day, continues to sell buckets.  Just in the past week, I check his Amazon sales rank- which was impressive- and I saw Curious Incident on display at the local Barnes & Noble.

  But, as my girlfriend reminded me when I brought up The Porpoise, Haddon's new novel, he actually has published multiple novels since Curious Incident as well as a collection of short stories.   Both novels were standard issues white people and their problems type books, but the collection of short stories included flights of fancy and science fiction type themes which hinted that Haddon was figuring out what he should have known after Curious Incident proved a hit:  YOU NEED A HOOK.

  Curious Incident, a detective story about an autistic kid, had a hook.   The Porpoise also has a hook, being a remaking of the Greek myth of Antiochus, the Greek tyrant with incestuous leanings.   Shakespeare remade the Greek myth in his Pericles play, and Haddon layers his own modern interpretation on top.   Haddon really lets himself go in terms of themes, in addition to the incest, which is unavoidable with the source material being what it is, he also adds ghosts, time travel and Godly interventions, while juggling narrative in the present, the Mediterranean middle ages and the Elizabethan era.

  The Audiobook I listened to made for an exciting listen- I raced through, and emerged convinced that Haddon maybe had another hit on his hands, but it doesn't seem like he's generated alot of buzz and/or sales, so maybe not.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

The Beautiful Mrs. Siedenman (1989) by Andrzej Szczypiorski


Book Review
The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman (1989)
by Andrzej Szczypiorski

Replaces: The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood


   A clear theme from the 1001 Books revision in 2008 was adding in new and different viewpoints, and as you move back in time, the interest in diversifying the viewpoints embodied by the books on the list becomes clearer.   Szczypioski is a Polish author, not Jewish, and was a staunch critic of the Communist regime and member of the Solidarity movement.  The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman is sort-of about the title character, the Polish looking Jewish wife of a recently deceased Doctor, trying to avoid internment in the Warsaw ghetto by posing as the Polish widow of an Army officer (not Jewish.)

   But really the approach is kaleidoscopic and we get the perspectives of several different characters- the resistance fighters who spring into action when she is denounced by a local Jewish informer.  The perspective of said informer.  The sympathetic ethnic German who has lived in Poland his whole live but finds himself as an officer in the German army, but secretly helps the Polish resistance, the German officer who is in charge of ferreting out secret Jews among the Polish population.  The activity of the book takes place over a single day: Mrs. Seidenman is denounced, arrested and released, and the various characters reminiscence about life before, during and after the invasion.

  Mrs. Seidenman replaces another Margaret Atwood novel, The Robber Bride.  How crazy is it that Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in 2013- a  Canadian writer unrepresented in the 1001 Books list, while Atwood is among the most listed authors.  It must drive Atwood NUTS.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Ancestral Voices (1986) by Etienne Van Heerden


Book Review
Ancestral Voices  (1986)
 by Etienne Van Heerden

Replaces:  The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald

  Etienne Van Heerden is an under-appreciated South African writer with strong American and European ties, including stints at the Iowa Writer's Workshop and the University of Leiden.  Van Heerden was raised speaking Afrikaans, but Ancestral Voices was written in English.   Van Heerden never formally broke with the Apartheid era South African regime, and he wasn't persecuted, but he was on the right side of history, and a member of one of the first organized group of Afrikaner writers to meet with the African National Congress.

  Ancestral Voices takes the form of an investigation into the mysterious death of an intellectually challenged bastard-child of a wealthy Afrikaner farming family.  The child falls down one of many bore holes that dot the property in an endless effort to secure fresh water for the farm.  The magistrate- the central figure in the story- arrives from the city months after the death, and only one thing is clear: no one is talking. 

  Ancestral Voices is a frank narrative about the Afrikaner ruling class, in all their ugly glory.  Like books about the white slave owning class of the Southern United States, it's possible to see glory and shame in the achievements of the pioneer Afrikaners.  Yes, they were genocidal towards the unorganized tribes men who they found near their land.   I guess, in their favor, you could say that they didn't get involved in trading slaves, and frequently dealt with the remaining black-African population with something resembling respect.

  Not the family in this book though- where the interracial offspring of a son of the family and the daughter of an early black servant becomes a subject of generations of tension.   At times, it is unclear where Van Heerden is headed with the investigation itself, which ends up being an exploration of generations of racial and family grievances.    Of course, that is the point, and the detective story who dun it is just a hook to get the reader involved in the lives of this tragic clan.

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