VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Family Matters (2002) by Rohinton Mistry


Book Review
Family Matters (2002)
by Rohinton Mistry


   I wonder what Parsi-Canadian author Rohinton Mistry has been doing since Family Matters was published in 2002.  He hasn't published a novel since then, and a quick Google search barely turns up any internet era news.  Both Family Matters and A Fine Balance tell the stories of multi-generational families living in Bombay/Mumbai in the 20th century, but Family Matters is the book that most closely mirrors Mistry's family background as followers of Zoroastrianism living in India after leaving Iran/Persia after Islam deposed the Zoroastrian monarchy there. Zoroastrianism generally gets credit for being the first Monotheistic religion, and if you dig hard enough you can find that it directly influenced the development of Judaism, since Jews intellectuals were living in Persia for centuries prior to the crystallization of the old testament. 

   Zoroastrianism plays a background role in Family Matters- all the characters come from that faith, and adherence to its tenets, including a strict prohibition on intermarriage, play a big role in the plot, but other than those two observations there isn't a whole lot to distinguish Family Matters from the Hindu family of A Fine Balance.  Like all books set in present day India, the mere day to day experience of living, even as a member of the educated elite class comes as a shock to any western reader.

  The struggle to maintain cleanliness, central to the Hindu faith and Indian civilization as a whole, can only be understood in terms of just how lacking the large cities of India lack it.   Here, the family patriarch, retired professor of Western Literature Nariman, experience a crisis when he breaks his ankle- already suffering from Parkinson's disease.  Initially living with his two middle aged stepchildren, he is shunted to his daughter, who lives in an apartment he purchased for her with her husband, a sales man at a local sporting goods store.

   The day to day struggle of caring for Nariman consumes most of Family Matters.  What exists outside of that thread of plot resembles plot points from A Fine Balance, specifically the temptation and peril of corruption in a culture where avoiding it is impossible.  Mistry extends this familial struggle down to the children in Family Matters- no one is spared. 

  It says something that Family Matters is almost lighthearted compared to A Fine Balance, which, after all, is mostly about the lifetime consequences of incest perpetrated by a father against his daughter.  Compared to that, cleaning up the diarrhea of a 75 year old man being forced to live in the hallway of his daughter's two bedroom apartment is a walk in the park.
  

Drop City (2003) by T.C. Boyle


Book Review
Drop City (2003)
by T.C. Boyle

  Here's a classic random late list selection from the original edition of the 1001 Books list.  Drop City is a middle o f the pack work from a not-quite-elite author.  I mean T.C. Boyle is cool, I guess, but I wasn't feeling this tale about a group of hippies living in a commune in far Northern California called "Drop City."  The fictional Drop City is not to be confused with the real Drop City, which was a highly influential early commune in Colorado. The inhabitants of Drop City are a largely unsympathetic bunch, even by the low standards of counter-cultural types in contemporary literary fiction.  After a crisis with the local authorities forces them from their land, some of them decide to relocate to the wilds north of Fairbanks, Alaska, where a recently retired cabin dweller has gifted his land and cabin to the found of Drop City.

  More interesting are the inhabitants of rural Alaska the commune dwellers encounter, led by Sess Harder, who is the most vital voice among the various narrators.  Sess is wooing a woman named Pamela, who has taken out an ad in the local paper looking for a husband.  Once the hippies arrive in Alaska, their terrible timing, arriving just before the onset of the unbelievably brutal Alaskan winter, becomes clear and the third act unspools like a horror movie with Alaskan winter as the monster.

  Inevitably, I see Boyle identified as a comic author, and I personally pride myself on possessing and being able to recognize sophisticated dark humor, but calling Drop City in any way funny is a stretch. Perhaps calling it satire makes it easier to digest Boyle's lack of empathy for his characters.  Boyle is nothing if not acerbic, but Drop City didn't do much for me vs reading an account like The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, already accomplished.

 In 2018, the most interesting connection in Drop City is the link between the end of the commune era and the rise of the frontier/Alaska culture, which has only gotten bigger since 2003.  That world now includes a half dozen long running reality shows and one Vice Presidential candidate.   You could argue that the frontier cabin culture is the obverse of the 1960's counter culture- the right wing version of the left wing hippie world.  

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Billy Budd, Foretopman (1924) by Heman Melville


Book Review
Billy Budd, Foretopman (1924)
 by Heman Melville

  I would argue that Herman Melville is second only to Jane Austen in the intensity of his posthumous elevation to canonical status after languishing in literary obscurity while alive.  The peak of that movement was, in fact, the publication of Billy Budd, never published during Melville's lifetime, which was discovered by the very same critics who were already engaged in the posthumous canonical reevaluation in the aftermath of Melville's death in 1891. 

 Melville's posthumous rise to canonical status in world literature is tied to his status as a forerunner of modernism, a direct link to the densely written prose of later writers like Henry James and William Faulkner.  His dense, complicated prose  is like a blueprint for the kind of "serious" literature critics and academics favored in the early twentieth century, rich in allusions, short on incident.   Under 100 pages, Billy Budd is as brief as Moby Dick is long winded, and the 90 odd pages of Billy Budd include an opening salvo of philosophy by the narrator that barely qualifies as fiction at all. 

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Circe (2018) by Madeline Miller


Book Review
Circe (2018)
by Madeline Miller
Published April 2018

   If you want to get idea about what American authors might be in line for the National Book Award or Pulitzer Prize in Literature this year, you could do worse than to look at the "related items" listing for Circe over at Amazon.com.  You've got Circe itself- which is  a best seller, critically acclaimed, published by a mainline US publisher, and from a genre (historical fiction) that has found favor in the past decade.  Related titles include Overstory by Richard Powers, The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer and the Only Story by Julian Barnes- all new books by past literary prize winners.

  Miller herself seems poised to jump into that field with Circe, which you could argue is a companion piece to A Song of Achilles, in the same way that The Odyssey and The Iliad are related.  Specifically, A Song of Achilles covers the territory of The Iliad and Circe tackles the The Odyssey.   In Circe, Miller plugs into many au courant literary trends beyond re-telling a classic work of literature from a new perspective.  The mythological element adds a dash of fantasy/Harry Potter type appeal, her grasp of the psychology of Greek heroes imparts a piece of modern TMZ style celebrity culture.

   Circe as portrayed by Miller is of course, sympathetic. She finds herself exiled to a remote desert island as a scapegoat for a newly discovered power of witchcraft, among her and her siblings, the children of Helios, the titan/god of the Sun and her mother, an ambitious nymph.   On the island she has her famous encounter with Odysseus, which leaves her with child, and which sets the stage for the remainder of the narrative.

  There is nothing slow or boring about Circe- Miller keeps clipping along, and by the end I was left with the conviction that the best-seller status and critical acclaim was merited.  Towards the end, I found myself wondering who would be cast as Circe in what is sure to be a movie version.  Would Gal Gadot be too on the nose after Wonder Woman?

Interview with the Vampire (1976) by Anne Rice

Image result for kirsten dunst interview with the vampire
Kirsten Dunst played the girl vampire Claudia in the movie adaptation of Interview with the Vampire by Anne Rice

Book Review
Interview with the Vampire (1976)
 by Anne Rice


  Largely credited with spurring the most recent revival of interest in vampire culture, Interview with the Vampire is going on a half-century of being the single most read book about vampires that isn't Dracula by Bram Stoker.   The 1897 publication date of  obscures an even older lineage for the vampire in western literature: In 1819 Lord Byron wrote a so-called "fragment" of a novel featuring the first Vampire in western literature.   Thus, by the time Dracula was published, people had been talking Vampires for close to a century.

  Tracing a literary pedigree for the vampire in western literature beyond Byron is a fools errand, surely the origination of the vampire character by the pre-eminent English poet and literary celebrity of his era is enough.  Rice certainly deserves credit for pulling the Vampire into the age of tape recorders, gay love and locales like New Orleans.  Her "new world" vampire, epitomized by the conflicted young planter cum vampire, Louis, is urbane and sophisticated, and most importantly, torn about the morally dubious prospect of constantly needing to murder innocent children in order to survive.

  This represents an innovation on the Count Dracula/Nosferatu motif of the vampire as aged Eastern European nobility, brought to the west by boat for reasons which often remain unexplored.  The conflicted vampire is a vampire who retains the moral sensibility of an ethical human being.  If you've read the entire "Vampire Chronicles" you are aware that the first volume is a tame jumping off point for a mythology that rapidly grew to include Egyptian Gods and all manner of supernatural competitors.  In Interview, you've only got the vampire Lestat, Louis, the girl child vampire, Claudia (memorably played by Kirsten Dunst opposite Brad Pitt's Louis.

  I'm certain I read Interview before the 1994 film, meaning I read it in high school.  I was never a goth, but I was goth adjacent and spent a year or so chasing various goth type girls in college before I found a long term girlfriend (who herself was goth adjacent.)   Revisiting the audiobook version today, I was struck by just how bad Rice can be as a writer, making the incredible world-wide success of Interview a tribute to her grasp of the appeal of a vampire to a popular audience circa 1975.

  Interview with a Vampire has been so overwhelmingly influential that it now can almost seem derivative if you aren't mindful of it's progenitor status. For example, True Blood, the recently popular HBO TV show, is so influenced by the aesthetic of Interview that it almost seems like a riff, in retrospect.

Monday, May 14, 2018

First Person (2018) by Robert Flanagan

Image result for siegfried heidl
John Freidrich, the real life inspiration for Siegfried Heidl, who turned a sleepy industrial education outfit into a multi hundred million dollar fraud scheme. 
Book Review
First Person (2017)
 by Robert Flanagan
Published in the United States April 2018

  This is the first novel by Australian (Tasmanian) author Robert Flanagan since The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which won the Booker Prize in 2014.  The longlist for the 2018 Booker Prize is announced in July, my take is that the best way to stay on top of potential longlist titles is to read new books by prior nominees and winners, priority given to winners and recency of the win.  First Person is both by a winner and a recent winner.  Extra bonus points for being the first novel he's published since he won- I've noticed that authors put together several nominations and one win for a sequence of novels.

   The argument against First Person being a potential Booker Prize longlist title is that it was not well received- at least in the United States, by critics or audiences. I suspect the reception was similar everywhere except his native Australia.   However, as a card carrying member of the philosophy of the con, or the idea, best expressed by David Mamet in Glengarry Glen Ross, that the essence of life and society can boil down to successfully stealing money from other people.  My sense, in reading the coverage of First Person, is that reviewers are not disciples of this school of thought, and they aren't particularly interested in the experience of John Freidrich, the real life inspiration for the Siegreid Heidl, the Australian con man who the Flanagan/narrator character (Kif Kehlmann).

  I don't agree with critics who called the narrative structure- a series of nested flashbacks as the present day Kif Kehlmann types out his memoirs in a New York City hotel room- clunky.  This might be chalked up to the decision to listen to the Audiobook instead of obtaining a physical copy.  I would recommend the Audiobook if you want to take First Person for a spin. 

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013) by Robert Flanagan


Book Review
The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013)
by Robert Flanagan

   The Narrow Road to the Deep North, the six novel by Australian author Robert Flanagan, won the Booker Prize in 2014.   I purchased a hard back copy shortly after the win.  After that, my hard back copy sat on the shelf for three years, until I read it during summer of last year.   It is unclear why it took me so long to read such an eminently readable (320 pages) book about an interesting subject: The experience of Australian POW's building the Burma Railway in 1942.   Notably, Flanagan also includes the lives of the captors, including both Japanese officers and Korean enlisted men among the dramatis personae.

  The horrific experience of the POW's during the war occupies only a portion of the narrative- the rest of it moves backwards and forwards in time, as Flanagan explores the causes and consequences of the inhumanity of the Japanese to their captors (and to their own soldiers, it must be said.) The "hook" of The Narrow Road to the Deep North is this multi-dimensionality.  Although I can think of at least a dozen World War II era POW books, not a one uses characters from both sides, or at least not to the extent that Flanagan does here.


   The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a must for fans of 20th century war narrative, less so for others, but rewarding for those who take the plunge.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Plague (1947) by Albert Camus


Book Review
The Plague (1947)
by Albert Camus

  Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the aftermath of the 1960's, it seemed normal that French intellectuals like Jean Paul Sartre, Simone Beauvoir and Albert Camus had a role to play in the intellectual development of a curious adolescent reader.  Reading The Plague, probably the best novel to come out of the French existentialist was de rigeur, and I can remember discussing it after class in the still-legal-to-smoke cafes of Berkeley.  I hadn't revisited The Plague, or even though of Albert Camus, until I recently checked out the Kindle ebook copy from the Los Angeles Public Library.

  Reading it again as a forty year old, I now marveled that such a dry, dour tale penetrated so far into the consciousness of the American audience.  Certainly, the fact that Camus won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957, the second youngest writer to ever win the prize, and the added fact that he died in a tragic car accident not four years after he won the prize, did something to cement him as a figure of note to would-be tragic adolescents. Reading an ebook, whatever the other advantages and disadvantages, is 100% less romantic than reading a moldy paperback in the back of a college-town cafe.  Half the pleasure of reading The Plague is letting the people around you see you holding the book, reading  the book.

  Shuffling through the e-pages, I found The Plague a bore.  The magic of that high school era encounter was lost in the ebook.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Modern World by Maya Jasanoff


Book Review
The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Modern World
 by Maya Jasanoff
Published November 2017

   I love Joseph Conrad, and so does author Maya Jasanoff, the excellent Harvard Professor of European History.  Jasanoff begins The Dawn Watch, which is a combination of literary criticism and literary exploration, by apologizing for liking Joseph Conrad, even though his books feature racism in a prominent position.   Her answer to, "Why Conrad?" boils down to an argument that Conrad was instrumental in helping the world places see places: colonial Africa, Asia and Latin America that were blank places on the map, as far as literary imagination went.

  I agree with Jasanoff, and I've said on this blog- before reading this book- that the pleasure of Conrad is the pleasure of discovering these new places.  Conrad did we might call "raise awareness," and by doing so he set the stage for the explosion in the literature of the global south.  I found a particularly telling moment near the end, after Conrad died, when Virginia Woolf, arch-modernist, penned a hateful obituary in the Times Literary Supplement.  When Jasanoff quotes her, you can hear the sneering voice of the high modernists across the decades.

 I listened to the Audiobook version- my first non fiction Audiobook, but Jasanoff is such a skilled writer, and the subject is so interesting, that I felt like I was listening to a work of fiction.  I would recommend The Dawn Watch for anyone interested in Joseph Conrad, his life and his works.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Independent People (1935) by Halldor Laxness


Book Review
Independent People (1935)
by Haldor Laxness

   I've never been to Iceland, despite being asked to go at least a half dozen times.  I've turned down offers to attend the Airwaves festival, a personal invitation from a long-time San Diego neighbor who relocated, and requests from two significant others to go.  My sense is that few, if any of the American's I see posting photos on social media about their Iceland trip have read Independent People, written by Iceland's Nobel Prize in Literature winner, Halldor Laxness.   I read Independent People for the first time a decade ago, when my Icelandic neighbor lent it to me after I expressed interest in knowing about the "real" Iceland- beyond the landscape photos and Bjork.

   I'd admit that Independent People is a tough sell for a casual visitor to Iceland. It is almost 500 pages long, and focuses almost solely on the life of a small time sheep herder, living on a marginal farm on the edge of Icelandic civilization.  The title, Independent People, translates in the original Icelandic to "self-standing"folk, and it a concept near and dear to Bjartur, the peasant-farmer, who takes possession of an allegedly haunted holding and renames it "Summerhomes" in much the same spirit that the original Viking settlers dubbed "Greenland."  Summerhomes is allegedly haunted by a pre-Christian/medieval witch and a pagan demon.

  Pre-Independence Iceland was an incredibly impoverished place- not even indpendent until 1944, so much of Independent People takes place during the late colonial period.  For all that modernity intrudes into the initial portion of the narrative, it could have been seven hundred years ago, but eventually modernity rudely arrives at Summerhomes.  This really is THE book to read if you are heading off to Iceland itself, but maybe give yourself a couple weeks before you take off, lest you not finish before you leave.

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