VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles (2016) by John Mack Faragher


Book Review
Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles (2016)
by John Mack Faragher
WW Norton & Company

John Mack Faragher is one of America's foremost popular-academic historians, serving as a history Professor at Yale University, and also writing top shelf narrative history on subjects ranging from the explosion of the Arcadians (today's Cajuns) from Canada and a biography of Daniel Boone.  Faragher is more than a synthesizer of academic history journals, if Eternity Street is any indication (and I'm sure it is) he (and his research assistants) are also doing original research based on primary records.  Here, Faragher draws heavily on the written court records of 19th century Los Angeles.  In doing so he has written an extraordinary work of popular history and illuminated a little known but important time in California, and by extension American, history.

  Even if you know California history, Los Angeles in the 19th century is a bit of a blur.  You could be well conversant in the subject and forgiven for knowing, essentially, nothing about the 19th century history of Los Angeles, let alone even the broad outlines of the development of Spanish/Mexican Southern California.   Faragher's narrative, which extends back fully into the mid 19th century, is a rich depiction of a violent border community, with a combustible mix of domesticated and wild Native Americans, a land owning class of "gentes con razon" (people of reason) and an underclass of "gentes sin razon" (people without reason) that contained Spanish/Mexicans, both types of Native peoples, African-Americans (free), mixed race Mexican/Indians and increasing numbers of Anglos, most of whom came from the South, but who also contained an important minority of Boston based traders, some of whom became Mexican citizens and married into the existing land owning class, others of whom maintained their American citizenship and resisted integration.

  Although the path that the history takes is of course familiar to anyone on the planet, the details of that path are what concerns Faragher, particularly the difficulty of establishing the rule of law as we understand it in the United States, a process that was not fully complete for decades after California became a state.  The meat of Faragher's narrative concerns issues with lynch mobs and vigilante violence, and the difficulty that the state had establishing control of that behavior.

  In this way Faragher is plugged in to larger trends in American history outside the history of the West- books that point out the incredible comparative lawlessness of post-Civil War America.  Faragher makes it clear that yes, mid 19th century Los Angeles was an incredibly lawless place, with a per capita murder rate that ranks it among the most violent societies of all time.  He documents examples with court records, from testimony and coverage of the press.  Frequently the stories end with the perpetrators being dragged out of their cells and lynched just outside of downtown.

  I could go on for pages about it- and the other subjects.  Faragher is from Southern California- he went to UC Riverside for undergraduate, and Eternity Street is a rich and valuable contribution to the history of this area.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Love's Work: A Reckoning with Life (1995) by Gillian Rose


Book Review
Love's Work: A Reckoning with Life (1995)
by Gillian Rose

  Gilliam Rose was a serious philosopher- English- of Jewish heritage.  She played an important role in English language discussion of Continental philosophical figures like Theodor Adorno, Marcuse and Derrida. The was also diagnosed, at a young age, with ovarian cancer, and she died from it.  Love's Work is a slim book about her experience.  It is, of course, philosophical but also incredibly sad and moving, and clearly a work of literature with canonical value even though it is nothing like a novel or really any other book that the editors chose to include in the 1001 Books list.   While I enjoyed it- particularly her matter-of-fact description of having a "stoma" after a cancer related colon surgery.  I'll spare the uninterested the details of what, exactly, a "stoma" is, but if you know, you also know that it is probably one of the most disturbing things that can happen to a human.

  Death is not something most people chose to think about- thoughts about death that last for long periods or that become overwhelming are a frequent sign of mental illness in the healthy, and as Rose points out in calm detail, there are many, many, many ways that a human diagnosed with cancer faces a frightening ordeal when seeking treatment.

  I

The Reader (1995) by Berhnard Schlink


Image result for kate winslet the reader
Kate Winslet received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Hanna Schmitz in his movie version of The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
The Reader (1995)
by Berhnard Schlink

  The front of Bernhard Schlink's 1995 novel The Reader has "Oprah's Book Club" written above the title and "#1 National Bestseller."  It sold half a million copies inside Germany, made the New York Times Best Seller list in the United States(the first German language book to top the New York Times best seller list, says the wikipedia page), and spawned a  moderately well-received Stephen Daldry directed, Kate Winslet starring film version that received five Oscar nominations.  The Reader is a clear member of the "international best seller" genre of literature from the 1980's onward.

  The Reader covers the familiar (to anyone who stays apace of German language fiction that gets translated into English and released in the US and UK) psychological territory of German struggling to cope with the aftermath of World War II, and their roles before, during and after that conflict.  It would, frankly, be a little shocking to read a German language book from this period that doesn't- especially one that has been translated into English for an English language audience.

  The crux of The Reader is the relationship between 15 year old narrator Michael Berg and Hanna Schmitz, a 36 year old woman who, when Berg meets her, is working as a conductor on the public transit system in a moderately sized West German city.   Hanna has no husband, no children, no friends. The first portion of The Reader, dealing with Berg and Schmitz's technically illicit love affair is handled explicitly but delicately. 

  Next it is revealed that Schmitz has been accused of being a guard at Auschwitz and a smaller satellite camp- or rather, was- Berg narrates the trial portion from the present, as he remembers past events.  The title refers to the fact that an important part of Berg and Schmitz' relationship was that she would have him read to her.  Later, witnesses testify that as a Nazi guard, Schmitz would pick out weak inmate on the verge of being weeded out and sent to the death chambers and have them read to her, in the same way that Berg read to her as a boy.

  Schlink provides a satisfying resolution that was obviously a huge part of the success of The Reader in it's translated form.  I would say that the very commercial success it enjoyed taints in terms of long term canonical status.  BUT if you are actually into Holocaust literature The Reader is a five star must, that definitely earns a place on the Holocaust lit shelf of your collection.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017 by Jesmyn Ward


Book Review
Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017)
 by Jesmyn Ward

    The 2017 National Book Award ceremony is next week, November 15th (Watch it live on Facebook!)  Sing, Unburied, Sing is the last of the five nominees, and the only one of the five books I actually bought. Jesmyn Ward is the only one of the five nominees with a prior win, in 2011, for her novel Salvage the Bones.  The National Book Award isn't big on repeat winners- unless I'm missing something it looks like Saul Bellow (3 times) is the only repeat winner.

  To recap, the other four nominees are Dark at the Crossing by Eliot Ackerman, The Leavers by Lisa Ko, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and Her Body and Other Stories by Carmen Machado.  Only Her Body and Other Stories (short story collection) isn't a novel.  The National Book Award has given out multiple awards for short story collections, so this isn't a disqualification for actually winning, but it is for me.   Both Pachinko and Dark at the Crossing are written by American authors, but neither book has much to do with America itself.  Pachinko has nothing to do with the United States at all, except for the nationality of the author.  Dark at the Crossing features an Iraqi-American protagonist, but the book takes place on the border of Turkey and Syria.

  Looking back at the list of recent winners, only Europe Central, by William T. Vollmann stands out as a book whose only connection to the USA is via the nationality of the author.  I would say that lack of sufficient connection to the United States via the setting or characters is a reason not to give the prize to those nominees.  That leaves Her Body, The Leavers and Sing, Unburied, Sing.  It's pretty hard to fathom- considering the lack of repeat winners in the past history of the National Book Award- to imagine that Ward will break that trend.  The Leavers is what remains.  Before I wrote this post, I would have said my two favorites were The Leaver and Sing, Unburied, Sing.

  Sing, Unburied, Sing is wild: Set in the under-class of rural Mississippi in the present day.  There are a collection of narrators- a young interracial boy with a black Mom and a white Dad.  The child is the primary narrator, but he is joined by the voice of the Mom, the voice of the black/Native American Grandfather and, this being 2017, a ghost or two.  In fact, ghost narrators seem to be very in vogue in the upper echelons of literary culture at the moment- see Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, which just won the 2017 Booker Prize in the UK.

  Ward ranks high both in terms of her descriptive realism and her inventive technique.  It's not exactly magical realism, but the spirit world is omnipresent.  The Leavers, on the other hand, is a conventional bildungsroman about an ethnically Chinese boy who is adopted by white American parents.   That is a most conventional set up- only the novelty of the viewpoint, particularly the chapters written from the perspective of the Mom elevate The Leavers into the orbit of a potential prize winner.  So The Leavers- that would be my pick/guess.

The Master of Petersburg (1994) by J.M. Coetzee


Book Review
The Master of Petersburg (1994)
 by J.M. Coetzee


  So very many J.M. Coetzee novels in the 1001 Books project.  It's like they ran out of ideas in 1988 and just decided to pitch a dozen Coetzee titles into the mix.  I mean, sure, the Booker winners, OK, I get it.  And throw in another books a decade- what is that- five titles?  The 1001 Books project has like, a dozen Coetzee books in the first edition.

  The Master of Petersburg uses Dostoyevsky as his narrator and main character, returning to Russia during his German exile to investigate the circumstances behind the untimely death of his estranged step son.   As it turns out, his son has fallen in with a rag tag bunch of (real life, historically based) Nihilists and he bounces between them and the Czarist investigators, who suspect his son of being involved with said nihilists.   The version I read was an American paperback edition released after his 2003 Booker Win- in line with the idea that The Master of Petersburg is a second-tier Coetzee novel, which still makes it good enough to be in the 1001 Books project.

The End of the Story (1995) by Lydia Davis


Book Review
The End of the Story (1995)
 by Lydia Davis

  Lydia Davis is mostly known as the creator and master of "flash fiction;" stories that are one or two sentences in length.  Here is an example:


The Outing
An outburst of anger near the road, a refusal to speak on the path, a silence in the pine woods, a silence across the old railroad bridge, an attempt to be friendly in the water, a refusal to end the argument on the flat stones, a cry of anger on the steep bank of dirt, a weeping among the bushes.

    Davis was also married very briefly to Paul Auster, and is also a well known translator of French fiction, including Proust.  She's been a finalist for the National Book Award (2007) and she won the Man Booker International Prize in 2013- kind of a lifetime achievement award for otherwise non-qualifying (American) authors.  All that said, The End of the Story was a drag- a middle class white woman tale of woe- about an academic who is trying to recall an affair with a much younger man.  Literally everything about The End of the Story is sad, presumably on purpose, but I think the melding of the European style philosophical novel with the anomie of educated white women in the late 20th century is a disastrous formula for literature. 

    At this point, I could go half a decade without reading another European style philosophical novel/post modern novel written by a white, educated American.  There simply isn't a lot of interest there, from a literary viewpoint, that hasn't been done a million times before.  Add into the mix the emergence of a mulitiplicty of non white/educated/American voices within the space of the novel, and it just makes book like The End of the Story feel like a waste of time.  Sad educated white woman, maybe read a Toni Morrison novel and tell me about sad then.

  Also, flash fiction sounds dumb to me.


Sunday, November 05, 2017

Her Body and Other Parties (2017) by Carmen Maria Machado


Book Review
Her Body and Other Parties (2017)
by Carmen Maria Machado

  Her Body and Other Parties was a surprise nominee for the National Book Award this year.  The debut short-story collection by Carmen Maria Machado was published by a small, regional press in Minneapolis with support from the Minnesota state government and Target Corporation.   Beyond that, Her Body and Other Parties is edgy and dark, many of the individual stories containing elements like unreliable narrators, post-apocalyptic back drops, participation by super natural forces in every day life- you know, spooky shit.

 So in that regard, the commercial angle seems pretty clear cut- there is potential interest from genres like speculative fiction, LGBT fiction (Machado is a lesbian, as are almost all of her narrators) and then there is also the literary pedigree of Donald Barthelme and the post-modern short story- or George Saunders, to use a more recent example.

  Does Her Body and Other Parties read like a National Book Award winner? No.   But just the nomination has to be a career maker for Machado, and I'm sure she'll get a deal with more books.  It's just, for me, a collection of shot stories will always lose out to a novel, that the only reason I don't see it as a potential winner.  But the National Book Award does give out the fiction award to short story collections frequently, so that bias doesn't apply to them. 

The Folding Star (1994) by Alan Hollinghurst

Book Review
The Folding Star (1994)
 by Alan Hollinghurst

  It bears repeating that when it comes to embraces LGBT culture, the United Kingdom has lagged behind other English language countries like the United States.  The "normalization" of gay male life in the British isles had to wait until well into the 20th century.  Alan Hollinghurst is the premiere contemporary novelist representing the viewpoint of a "normal" gay man from England living in the late 20th century.  His career has been representative of a serious literary author who hasn't had a break out cross-over hit.  He's not well known in the United States.  He did win a Booker in 2004, for The Line of Beauty, which is thematically similar to The Folding Star, in that it covers the experiences of a young gay man with a middle class background who grew up in England.  A major difference between the two is that prize-winning The Line of Beauty takes place inside England and The Folding Star takes place in Flanders.

  In Flanders, he falls for a variety of guys, a Moroccan street hustler type, his young tutee (he is making a living tutoring students in English.),  a Dutch hustler who makes his living with dirty videos and phone sex.  There is a healthy portion of unflinchingly depicted gay sex, perfectly normal, with no moral overtones.  The sex though is just an aspect of the author's realism, refreshing, coming as it does during the great hey-day of post-modern lit. No narrative tricks, difficult to follow plot or multiplicity of voices.  Hollinghurst does a good job of integrating his fictional present with accurate historical details about the role of the local community in World War II. 

  Flanders is the capital of the northern part of Belgium, which is Dutch speaking and has historical ties to the very idea of "greater Germany" that Hitler was so insightful to exploit.  It's an area where questions of 20th century ethnic identity are very much at issue, and perhaps Hollinghurst is trying to draw a comparison to contingent ideas about gay rights evolving over time.  

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Whatever (1994) by Michel Houellebecq


Book Review
Whatever (1994)
by Michel Houellebecq

  A major difference between literary culture in the United Kingdom vs. the United States: the two biggest English language audiences, is the relationship with French literature.  In the United States, French literature is essentially only known in translation, because the audience for French originals is limited to native French speakers and academics.  In the United Kingdom, the roots of English/French bilingualism go back a thousand years.  Many of the aristocratic families of England had roots and branches inside France, and England had a more direct relationship with French culture in the 17th and 18th centuries, when it was preferred to English in the halls of power throughout Europe.

  Thus in England there is a small but important audience for French originals.  Translations are just as important for reaching a wider audience, but it is the difference between a small and no audience for French originals.  So in a project like 1001 Books- squarely based in London, there is a higher awareness of French authors, and this leads to a bigger audience for French fiction than in the United States, even though the US market is much larger.

  Michel Houellebecq who is barely known in the United States, but a quasi-celebrity in the United Kingdom.  He's known for courting controversy with his fiction- his most recent book, Submission, is a work of speculative fiction where France has become a Muslim majority and falls under Islamic "Shariah" law.

  Whatever was Houellebecq's first novel- one can read it as an updating of The Stranger, or a French version of The Catcher in the Rye.  The protagonist and narrator is a young software engineer, dispatched to the provinces in a multi-week training assignment.  He is filled with ennui.  Given the time period, you can see Whatever as a French version of Douglas Coupland/Generation X era young adult angst.

  To his credit, Whatever is the first book inside the 1001 Books project to really convincingly portray the nascent "computer" culture of the 1990's (and forever after.)  

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994) by Haruki Murakami


Book Review
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994)
by Haruki Murakami

  Haruki Murakami was 15 years into his career as a novelist, including translation into English, when The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle cemented his status as a purveyor of international best-seller literature.  The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was a hit both domestically, where it served the purpose of answering his (then) numerous critics that his fiction wasn't authentic; and internationally, where the 1997 one-volume translation became an "instant" best-seller and beloved companion to a generation of casual readers of literary fiction.    In fact, Haruki Murakami is arguably a household name in houses where people read literary fiction.

  And amazingly I've never picked up a Haruki Murakami book, despite the fact that I could "tell you" that he is a fan of jazz, cats and magical realism, all of which figure prominently in this and other books. But one incorrect assumption I made is that his fiction was "soft" or, perhaps "genteel," when in fact   b has some of the most horrific depictions of 20th century war-time atrocities I've ever read, in addition to the jazz and cats.

  The prose isn't dense, but the ideas are. The speculative fiction/magical realism elements are so tightly described that it seems more appropriate to emphasis the realism of the "magical realism" formula in the context of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.  The translation allows for ambiguities, and as you make your way through this book, which was originally a set of three, shorter books in Japan, you realize that part of Murakami's genius is the way he lets ambiguity grow within the context of his story.

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