Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Trainspotting (1993) by Irvine Welsh

Image result for kelly macdonald trainspotting


Book Review
Trainspotting (1993)
 by Irvine Welsh

   Trainspotting is one book where the reader never need feel ashamed that he only read it after seeing the film.  IN FACT, Trainspotting the book wasn't even published in the United States until the movie version came out in 1996.  The book, like the movie, is known for it's affectionate, comedic look at a decidedly unaffectionate, uncomedic milieu, that of Scottish junkies and casuals during the AIDS era.

  I was a fan of the film- saw it three, four, five times?  Twice in the theater in the United States, once in the theater in London (the Prince Charles in SOHO), maybe twice on DVD.  The affection I felt for those lovable Scottish junkies in college has diminished over the years.  The book did not particularly impress me, specifically I've also been reading some James Kelman novels, and he does basically the same thing with much more swagger.

  The book is unsurprisingly rougher than the hit film.  In particular there is an omitted plot about the revenge one of the characters seeks against another street punk who infected his girlfriend with AIDS.  Much of the dialogue in the film is drawn directly from the book.  To me, there was little difference between the two.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The 7th Function of Language (2017) by Laurent Binet


Book Review
The 7th Function of Language (2017)
by Laurent Binet

  Whether or not you are a good candidate to read Laurent Binet's detective novel about the death of Roland Barthes in 1980 likely depends on 1) You knowing who Roland Barthes is 2) You being interested in him, and other similar figures like Foucault, Derrida, J.L. Austin and other real life figures from French and American Academia in the 1970's and 80's.  One needs a passing familiarity with this world to derive any pleasure from The 7th Function of Language and actually getting all the "jokes" requires more than that.

  I think it is possible to read The 7th Function of Language as a kind of history of this time period- this "time period" being the period in the 1970's and 1980's when French semiologists were in direct and sometimes bloody conflict with Anglo-American analytic philosophers.  It was a war fought in the halls of American Academia and the stake were control of the so called "linguistic turn" which more or less sought to place a detailed and dense discussion of language at the center of the humanities.  All sides agreed that language was crucial to understanding the larger questions of philosophy.  On one side, Anglo-American analytic philosophy said that it WAS possible to derive some kind of ultimate meaning from the usage of language by humans, with the French taking the opposite side- more or less.

  Binet tucks this real historical debate into his work of fiction- into the title, even, The 7th Function of Language, which refers to a 'magical' or 'performative' function of language that allows "words to do things."   In the book, Barthes is supposedly murdered after a meeting between him and would-be French President Francois Mitterand to discuss the usage of this function in the upcoming French election.  Investigator Bayard quickly picks up a French graduate student/professor as his guide, and together they delve deeply into the world of Foucault (smoking cigars, getting his dick sucked, and lecturing the reader at the same time), Althusser, Derrida as well as their American counter parts, during a third act trip to Cornell University.

  In addition to knowing, generally, who all these people are, it also helps to know some of the underlying controversies- to which Binet frequently refers.  For example, much of the French cultural theory from this period, typically known as semiotics, was based on  detailed analysis of 17th and 18th century French literature which is completely absent from the English canon.   Another example, almost all of French cultural theory is based on the ancient tradition of rhetoric.  In fact, you can't understand any of the mentioned authors if you don't have a basic grasp of what rhetoric was, and the very mechanics of the plot- involving a group of ferocious debaters called the Logos Club, requires an appreciation of the centrality of rhetoric to the European philosophical discussion.

  So if you've made it to the end of this review, and understand what I said, you will probably enjoy The 7th Function of Language, and if you don't, just forget it.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

History of Wolves (2017) by Emily Fridlund


Book Review
History of Wolves (2017)
 by Emily Fridlund

  The 2017 Man Booker Prize gets handed out on Tuesday.  History of Wolves is the longest of long shots- a first time novel by an American author, written about far northern Minnesota.  History of Wolves is squarely in the genre of 'creepy lit'- in it's North American guise History of Wolves closely resembles Annie Proulx and The Shipping News in the way the "exotic" landscape and story share space in the narrative.    The plot elements of History of Wolves are both alien and familiar:  A failed commune, Christian Scientist belief.   The narrator is a woman, looking back on a formative child hood experience.  Fridlund doesn't play hide the ball- there's a dead child at the center of it all, and this information is revealed on the second page.

   This is the only entry on the 2017 Booker Prize shortlist that surprised me via its inclusion.  I mean it's good no doubt- and I was actually in this area- well- as far North as Duluth, anyway, this year- so I get the appeal, but the book itself didn't stand out and my personal feeling is that the creepy lit genre is a tad on the dowdy side.

  Fridlund also weaves in what can only be described as a "sub plot" about a teacher/student sex scandal, and I found that bit frankly to be not compelling.  Also, I was left wondering what the two plots had to do with one another.  A good piece of regional fiction to be sure, but not a prize winner.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Birdsong (1993) by Sebastian Faulk


Book Review
Birdsong (1993)
by Sebastian Faulk

  Birdsong is another 1001 List entry that falls squarely within the 1990's era "international best-seller" lit.  It has all the elements:  An English protagonist, a foreign location (France), at an exciting time in the past (World War I).   The narrative moves back and forth in time, between the past and present, using characters in multiple countries, revolving around questions of time, love and fate.

  Any enduring interest in Birdsong outside fans of this particular genre of literature is in his more-graphic-than-expected depictions of sex (between the Englishman and his first love, a Madame Bovary type living in provincial France) and even more graphic-than-expected depictions of death and madness in the trenches of World War I.

Specifically, a large portion of Birdsong (the title refers to the "miners canaries' used to detect poison gas in the trenches of World War I), takes place in the units that were devoted to tunneling under ground- recruited from coal mining areas and workers who had been laboring on the London Tube.  This underground aspect of World War I is under...I wouldn't say "appreciated" is the right word, but not well understood.  I wasn't much taken by the rest of it, love across the decades, the power of fate, etc.  Spare me.

  Birdsong would be a clear and obvious cut from a revised version of 1001 Books if I was the editor.

Felicia's Journey (1994) by William Trevor


Book Review
Felicia's Journey (1994)
by William Trevor

   Irish author William Trevor died last year, after ascending to "grand old man of Irish literature" status.  His career was just short of the pinnacle of literary recognition- five Booker nominations but no win, a Whitbread Award (for this book), tons of formal recognition inside Ireland, occasional mention as a candidate for Nobel Prize for Literature (only for the living.)

  Trevor, like many serious authors of the late 20th century, made a living writing about figures on the outskirts of society- here it is pregnant teen Felicia, a poor Irish girl from the provinces, who journeys to the Midlands of England to find the boy who knocked her up.  There she encounters what might be called "an assortment of characters," but mainly consists of Mr. Hilditch, who, somewhat improbably appears to be a serial killer of young women.

  You might call it another example of 90's vintage "Creepy Lit" although his Wikipedia page refers to "Gothic elements."   Using criminals and criminal characters became very much in vogue during the 1990's, in my mind it is all traceable to the popularity of serial killers movies starting with Silence of the Lambs (1991), the international success of which must have inspired a generation of would-be novelists to really go for it when it came to creepy material.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Golden House (2017) by Salman Rushdie


Book Review
The Golden House (2017)
by Salman Rushdie

In attempting to anticipate future canonical works of literature, it helps to start with recent works from authors who have already achieved canonical status. The best predictor of future inclusion in any particular canon is past inclusion for the same artist/creator.  The inclusion of a new work by an already canonical author is the "front door" to canonical status, as supposed to various back doors like a career capping Nobel Prize for Literature or other artistic prize, or inclusion via the development of a post publication "cult" of admirers for either the author or work.

   Thus, every new work by Salman Rushdie- who has done everything BUT win the Nobel Prize for Literature and who is still churning out new works of fiction every couple years, is worth a read, even if it is to say, "Not his best stuff."   Coincidentally, that is what I would say about The Golden House, Rushdie's Bombay by way of New York riff on The Great Gatsby, bubble culture and our new President.  I'm not saying I regret the reading experience, even if this mid-period representation of Salman Rushdie echoes the frenetic prose of Spy magazine editor turned novelist Kurt Andersen.  Rushdie's hyper-kinetic reference also resemble a de-footnoted David Foster Wallace.  Which is not to say that Rushdie is copying anyone else- Rushdie is Rushdie; but I question whether New York City and American culture is really in his authorial skill set.  

   Certainly his awkward satire of the Trump/Clinton in the guise of the Joker vs. Batwoman, while...creative...doesn't really land.  So to his well meaning but awkward excursion into the world of contemporary trans politics.  I'm not saying he doesn't get it, I'm just saying The Golden House is not one of those works that transforms your understanding of the subject, nor is it one of those works that creates great empathy for any of its characters.  Rushdie's Golden family- a father and three grown sons, all have their moments, but the overwhelming touchstone of all three sons:  Artist, Autist & Trans and the father is self-obsession.  What is autism but an inability to relate to others?  And what is trans identity but an overriding fixation on one's own sexual identity.  As for artists, we already know about them.

  The most compelling moments in The Golden House are so intimately tied to the denouement that discussion risks spoliation, but I found the portions set in Bombay, or discussing Indian culture and society to be far more convincing then his American scenes.  So, The Golden House isn't going to displace The Satanic Verses or Midnight's Children, but it's worth a read.

Monday, October 09, 2017

An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe (2016) by Benjamin Madley


Book Review
An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe
 (2016) by Benjamin Madley
Yale University

  I went to law school at UC Hastings in San Francisco.  While I was there, I worked for Professor Jo Carrillo.   Among other subjects, Professor Carrillo teaches American Indian law, or as it is now called, Laws Concerning Indigenous and Native Peoples in the United States.  I also clerked at California Indian Legal Services, a Legal Services Provider for the Native Californian community.   I
never had the opportunity to practice in the field- it is a tough, tough gig to get, but I've maintained my interest.

   Benjamin Madley isn't the first to make out a case against the United States for genocide- his own ample bibliography makes that clear.  But I think it's the first academically serious attempt to make a legal case that 1) California Indians were a victim of a genocide  2) The United States bears responsibility for abetting that genocide.   It is a case that is fraught with issues ranging from the documentation of the potential facts of genocidal acts (many happened far away from white civilization, Native practice was to cremate dead bodies,  to the identity of the perpetrators of those genocidal acts (some United States army troops, but also many informal volunteer vigilantes), to more typical legal questions like whether one can consider the California Indians a single "people" for the purpose of the analysis.

  In many ways, Madley's attempt to make a legal case for genocide, which, in my opinion, he fails to do, helps to obscure what is simply the best available history of the conflict between White settlers and Native Californians in far North California.  Genocide or not, surely a fuller reckoning of the crimes committed against the Native peoples in California is due.

     The major crimes delineated by Madley are simple: Wholesale extinction level murder, supported by state and non-state actors at all levels of white society between California independence/accession  to the United States, through the end of the Civil War.  For the white people trying to settle in the Gold Rush areas and throughout Northern California, the continuing presence of the Native Peoples in "their" territory was like a personal affront, which could only end in the extinction of those Natives.

  Madley does a great job of extracting genocidal rhetoric from the newspapers of that time.  Although these newspapers weren't state actors, they do an excellent job of conveying the "inevitable extinction" discourse that dominated this time period.  Tied to this rhetoric, the actual acts that Madley described, which typically involved a largish group of non-combatant Natives being massacred by whites with guns- seem logical.

   My opinion, both before and after reading this book, is that the Native people's in California were the victim of war crimes, or crimes against humanity but that it didn't rise to genocide unless one is inclined to define a "people" as an individual tribe or band of Native people's.  Crimes against humanity were very much par for the course.  Take the Modoc tribe of Oklahoma, originally from far Northern California.  After a brief rebellion, an entire group of Modoc's was relocated to Oklahoma, where they remain.  If that ain't ethnic cleansing, I don't know what is.

  To me, the most incredible part of this story is that as of 2017, the whole area where these atrocities occurred- California north of Sacramento- is hardly desirable property.  Most of it is held by the Federal Government in the form of National Parks and Forests.   Why not give some more land back to those tribes directly affected by the crimes against humanity discussed in this book?
   

 

Monday, October 02, 2017

The Shipping News (1993) by Annie Proulx


Book Review
The Shipping News (1993)
by Annie Proulx

  The Shipping News was pretty ubiquitous in the Barnes & Nobles and the independent book stores when i was in high school in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Proulx won a Pultizer AND a National Book Award for The Shipping News, her spare, "darkly comic" northern gothic.  Set in Newfoundland, (Proulx is from the US and lived in New England when she wrote The Shipping News),  this book is one of those "international best-seller" type titles that move across national boundaries (Canada and the US, at least), and spawned a poor but well intentioned movie version in 2001 that starred Kevin Spacey as protagonist Quoyle, and Juliette Moore as love interest Wavey Prowse.

  In 2017, The Shipping News still has an audience- and Proulx- thanks in part to the movie version of her short-story Brokeback Mountain, has a life time pass to publish or not publish as she desires.  Most recently, she published a 730 page novel about a multi-generational family of French immigrants living in Canada over the course of 300 years..  Perhaps too ambitious for the Barnes & Noble crowd.

  Proulx writes convincingly about loneliness and spiritual redemption. The Newfoundland location is memorably described, and The Shipping News is filled with convincing local detail.  The double National Pultizer/National Book Award is rare, and I enjoyed The Shipping News but I'm surprised it did so well during award season back in 1993/1994.

The Invention of Curried Sausage (1993) by Uwe Timm


Book Review
The Invention of Curried Sausage (1993)
 by Uwe Timm

  No, The Invention of Curried Sausage isn't *just* about that subject, of course. German author Uwe Timm packs A LOT of 20th century issues into his sparse 215 page novella (small pages, wide margins).   The narrator is a writer living in Berlin, he returns home to seek out a woman who he swears was the first person in Germany to sell the now staple German fast food dish curry-wurst- basically a sausage sliced up and cooked, and served with a sauce that combines ketchup and curry powder.   The narrator remembers buying it from her in the immediate aftermath of World War II, so he returns to track down the story.

  As one might expect from a work of fiction, the truth is very complicated, and Lena Brucker, tells her story about World War II: an absent husband, a job working in a food distribution center during the war and her encounter with an AWOL soldier who she shelters during the chaotic days around the end of the war, and who she then tricks into staying long after the end of hostilities in Germany.

  Again, as one might expect in a novel involving Germans and World War II, fraught with moral ambiguity. Timm has a light touch- particularly when compared with his contemporary German authors.  I wouldn't exactly call The Invention of Curried Sausage a comic novella, but it has some funny moments.

A History of the Alans in the West (1973) by Bernard S. Bachrach

Image result for alan roman horseman
Alan horseman from the steppe region settled in France during the late Roman period.
Book Review
A History of the Alans in the West (1973)
by Bernard S. Bachrach
University of Minnesota

   One of the most common misconceptions surrounding the late Roman Empire is imputing our own racial hierarchy to ancient times.  The familiar racial schematic of "white = good", "brown = not as good", "black = bad" did not apply in Roman times.  Rather, there were good Romans and bad Barbarians.   Bad Barbarians could and often did become good Romans, and there were no racial restrictions on that elevation.  It follows that the Roman army made use of whatever forces it could find- especially at the end.  Almost all of the late Roman generals were either full or partial Barbarians who had assimilated into the Roman army.

   Many of these groups are familiar- the Goths/Germans, the Gauls, Burgundians, etc.  These were peoples who were living in Western Europe when the Romans arrived, and they are typically considered to be the ancestors of the current native populations in those areas.  However there were also groups like the Alans, a multi-ethnic group of Central Asian steppe nomads who were pushed west in the early 3rd century AD.  Alans fought on horseback, at a time when the Romans didn't typically use calvary- see photo above.  They fought for and against the Romans, but eventually many were settled in and around Southern France and Switzerland to serve as guards for the roads- then under threat from a variety of internal and external forces.

  The Alans spoke an unknown, Indo-Iranian language- still in the Indo European family but on the opposite side of the family tree. It's unclear what, exactly, happened to the settled Alans in the west after the collapse of the Roman Empire, but as a horse riding, elite cavalry military force, they bear a striking resemblance to the Knights of the Middle Ages- and they were in the right place (France) to participate in the creation of the feudal system.

  Bachrach puts together using a variety of Roman sources and contemporary place names- many variations on Alan in Southern French place names- and in Brittany/Breton. Bachrach notes that the native Gauls and Bretons didn't even have horses, let alone ride them into battle carrying lances. 

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Autumn (2016) by Ali Smith


Book Review
Autumn (2016)
by Ali Smith

   Scottish author Ali Smith is the Susan Lucci of the Booker Prize: Two short-list appearances before this year (2005, 2014), no wins. Autumn is the first of a projected four book series about the state of contemporary Britain, each book named after the seasons.  E.g., the next book is Winter.  The Ladbrook's odds have her in fourth place with 9/2 odds.   You also might call her the sentimental favorite, she's Scottish, the prior nominations and the topicality of Autumn (the New York Times called it "the first post-Brexit novel."

   I wouldn't vote for Autumn- what is there is good, but if we're talking about a four book series Autumn/Winter/Spring/Fall I can't see voting for the first book in the series.   Autumn is a slim book- under 200 pages in hardback, with ample margins and line spacing.   Smith writes in an elliptical style, which makes Autumn easy to read, almost breezy.

   Which is not to say that Autumn is simple or facile- quite the opposite.  Smith explores time, memory and the post-Brexit atmosphere of the UK (spoiler alert: it's mean, and vaguely dystopian.)  The central plot concerns a friendship between Elisabeth, the narrator, and Daniel Gluck, here childhood neighbor and friend.  Gluck is lying comatose in a nursing home at 101 throughout, and some of Autumn features his consciousness drifting through space and time.

  Autumn also brings to an end my survey of the 2017 Booker Prize short-list- I have a hunch that Elmet, by first time English, lesbian author Fiona Mozley could be an insiders favorite- she is tied with Mohsin Hamed's Exit/West  at 4/1 odds.  Regrettably, Elmet doesn't have an American publisher and the LA library hasn't bought a copy.  History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund has the longest odds.  Fridlund is American, History of Wolves is set in northern Minnesota.

  I don't feel comfortable making my own pick in the absence of Elmet, but I think favorite Lincoln in the Bardo is a solid choice. 

Saturday, September 30, 2017

4 3 2 1 (2017) by Paul Auster


Book Review
4 3 2 1 (2017)
by Paul Auster

    Is Paul Auster a great American novelist?  Sure, that is a loaded question in 2017, does such a thing even exist in 2017?  Isn't the whole idea of the great American novelist and the great American novel itself problematic in so much as it invokes the specter of white male class and privilege? Up until the publication of 4 3 2 1 in January of this year, you could argue that Auster himself agreed that there was no point in writing the great American novel- simply judging by his books, which are typically short and elliptical, consciously eschewing the kind of length and solidity that typically coincide with books judged to have a shot at fulfilling the manifest destiny of the great American novel.

    If you look at Auster's career up to this point- what have you got?  Does he have an Audience- certainly, popular and critical.  He's had best sellers, all his books get the full review treatment and he's dabbled in successful films. On the other hand, he's near 30 years into his career as a well regarded novelist and he has yet to back a first level literary prize- No Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, no National Book Award (that seems pretty amazing considering some of the books which have won in the past 30 years).   He doesn't even appear in the long odds section of the Ladbrook's 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature betting table.

   He's also got a reputation for writing literary genre fiction and a thematic obsession with the vagaries of fate and existentialism- all traits that have helped secure book sales in the English speaking world, but neither of those characteristics have endeared him to the people who hand out major literary prizes. 

  And as I was saying earlier, before the publication of 4 3 2 1 you could say that Paul Auster hasn't won a major literary award because he isn't trying to win a major award.  He just didn't give a fuck, wasn't trying, and was content with his lot as a top selling "serious" author in late 20th and early 21st century America.  After all, that's not a bad place to be for a writer of serious fiction.

   But 4 3 2 1 changes that analysis, because here he has a written a book that begs to be considered for major literary prizes, and in fact, it has made the 2017 Booker Prize short-list.  The current Ladbrook's betting chart has him second to last place at 5/1.  The inclusion of 4 3 2 1 on the shortlist was itself the biggest surprise of the 2017 shortlist announcement.   It was a surprise because 4 3 2 1 hasn't been particularly well received by critics, and at a very solid 850 pages it is not a light read. It's hard to imagine any casual readers dipping into 4 3 2 1 unless they are die hard Auster fans or they've been told that this is "the" book of the season/year, or a contender for that status.   Before the Booker Shortlist announcement, I was of the opinion that 4 3 2 1 was a ridiculously self-indulgent flop by an author who has blown his chance at long-term canonical status.

  After reading 4 3 2 1, I want to hail it as a major work- partially because I read the damn 850 pages and saying it is a great book justifies the investment of time.  I think an aspect of this book which makes it difficult to judge is the unabashedly retro bildungsroman story of a non-religious  male Jew growing up in the New York City in the mid to late 20th century.   The meta fictional device that somewhat obscures the retro feel is that Auster tells four different versions of the same life, from birth through young adulthood.  Each version is different as it relates the narrator and his personal life, but the "outside world" remains the same in each version.  For example, the student unrest at Columbia around the time of the Vietnam War, and the Vietnam War itself, and all major historical events from the time period depicted remain true to "life."

  Any cursory survey of the reviews of 4 3 2 1 make it clear that the narrator is a stand in for Auster himself.  One important plot point, the sudden death of a friend at summer camp when he was a young adolescent- occurs both in the real life of Paul Auster and in 4 3 2 1.   Auster manages to spell the overwhelming white/maleness by making his narrator gay/bisexual in some of his timelines.  But still- 4 3 2 1 bears a strong resemblance to the work of Phillip Roth and Saul Bellow.  He's moved forward a few decades in time (from Saul Bellow, at least), but the story of a hyper-literate Jewish American growing up in the New York area in the mid to late 20th century is one of the most traversed literary pathways of 20th century literature.

  4 3 2 1 is a book written to win literary prizes, so it's ultimate value is likely to be judged by it's ability to bring home said prizes.  At least a National Book Award.

Friday, September 29, 2017

On Love (1993) by Alain de Botton


Book Review
On Love (1993)
by Alain de Botton

  Alain de Botton is a oddity- a French style "public intellectual" of a type almost unknown in America for the past half century- a writer with opinions, based on philosophy, about how one might live in the modern world.   To a cynical eye, you might say he is a high falutin lifestyle guru- and the fact that his "Ted Talk" is on the first page of his Google search return is telling.  For those reasons, I like but don't love Botton. Even though I don't know anyone outside of my current partner who has one of his books on the shelve, I would be vaguely embarrassed to admit that I was a fan.

  That said, I find myself quietly nodding my head every two to three pages of any Botton written work I dig into.  His brand of philosophy leans heavy on classical Stoicism and his methods and style hearken back to the tradition of  Plato and Aristotle. Adapted for the 20th and 21st century literary marketplace, of course.  This background is clear even in On Love- his first, and basically (barring a sequel) only novel- and his biggest hit- a book that sold hundreds of thousands of copies across the world and gave him the audience for his true calling of life as a public intellectual/pop philosopher.

  On Love shows some of that philosophical heritage- writing a novel in numbered paragraphs strikes me as something only a classically trained philosopher would do (though that particular tradition dates to 19th century analytic philosophy.)  I'm sure On Love made the 1001 Books list simply because it is his only novel, not his best work.  For my money, that would be the Consolations of Philosophy, which I've kept on the shelf for two decades.  The idea of prostituting philosophy for the marketplace is controversial.  Really the only people in this country who care about philosophy are academics, so Botton took this leap of popularizing philosophy, but I think he deserved to be acclaimed, not criticized.  Better Botton than nothing at all, that's what I say.

The Fall of the Roman Empire (2006) by Peter Heather


Book Review
The Fall of the Roman Empire (2006)
 by Peter Heather
Oxford University Press

   The Fall of the Roman Empire is the book that historian Peter Heather wrote before his wider ranging book, Empires and Barbarians (2010).  Both books seek to up end the conventional (circa 18th century) explanation that the Roman Empire fell because of the failure of its leading citizens and a descent into decadence.   This explanation, promulgated by Edward Gibbons in his famous Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,  was so compelling that it continues to hold sway, and variations on his 18th century themes are frequently recycled today in the context of the "Decline and Fall of the American Empire."

  Not surprising is that Peter Heather vociferously disagrees with this 300 year old explanation.   Less surprising is that it literally took over 300 years for Gibbon to get his full come uppance.  Heather is both imaginative and creative in drawing on resources to elaborate his account, which squarely blames the fall of Rome on barbarian outsiders.   He draws from the familiar written (i.e. Roman) resources, but also incorporates archaeological findings- much of them from the period after World War II, to support his argument.

  That argument is this:   In the third century AD, the Sassanian Empire united the Near East and, after delivering a crushing defeat to the Roman Army (and actually capturing a Roman Emperor), became the foreign affairs obsession of the Roman elite.  From the 300's through the end of the Western Empire, Rome devoted a substantial amount of it's very finite resources to creating a strategic stale mate with the Persians, and this reality limited the ability of Rome to defend the West.

  Meanwhile, in the West, Barbarians tribes had been drawn into the orbit of the Western Roman Empire.  These Barbarians got the short end of the stick from the Romans for centuries, but they also learned about the Roman Empire, and many emigrated into the Empire and joined the Roman Army.  The bottom line is that when events between the Romans and western barbarians came to a head, Rome didn't have the resources to do much except fight the Barbarian armies that made their way onto Roman soil.

  This dynamic resulted in several Barbarian incursions into the West, culminating in the attacks of Attila the Hun, which devastated the Western Empire and created a diminished level of tax revenue, which further lessened the ability of the Western Empire to handle the increasing barbarian problem.  The Roman Empire was huge, but from a governance perspective it was very unsophisticated- basically- they taxed agricultural produce and used the money to pay the army.  Wealth was in land, so when things started to fall apart, Roman elites basically had to deal with it, or lose the source of their wealth.

  This prevented elites from mounting any sort of resistance- and unlike feudal Europe, Roman land holding elites did not maintain their own armies.  In the end, Rome kind of faded away, leaving behind elites that still considered themselves Roman, and barbarians who were mostly influenced by the Roman example.

  

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Complicity (1993) by Iain Banks


Book Review
Complicity (1993)
by Iain Banks

  Four titles from Scottish author Iain Banks in the 2006 edition of the 1001 Books list!  That is a lot of representation from a non-canon author of  what is essentially high-brow/regional genre fiction.  He is squarely in the heartland of the renaissance of Scottish literature from the late 20th century.  Complicity is basically a serial-killer story, about a guy who goes around killing Thatcher-era Captains of Industry and other emblems of Thatcher era authority in prosaic fashion- again, the relationship of the killee to their perceived moral failing is made part of the method of dispatch (cut off the arms of an arms dealer, sodomize a rapist sympathizing high court judge.   Complicity immediately brings to mind What a Carve Up!, by English author Jonathan Coe, which employs the same bag of tricks in a "country house" novel setting

  Clearly, the English intelligentsia had murder on the mind in the early 1990's, although you could also read the introduction of such graphically violent stuff into the 1001 Books list from England and Scotland as a reaction to the influence of American and Hollywood- and the penchant for both to make canon works which include graphic sex and violence.   In Complicity, Cameron Colley is a serious journalist- covering politics and current events for a Scottish broadsheet.  He enjoys playing computer games, smoking and drinking, crystal meth and fucking an old college classmate (who is married to another college classmate).  He's on the trail of a hot story involving the illicit sale of arms during the Iran-Iraq war (specifically, the mysterious deaths of several of those involved from "natural causes") when new bodies start piling up.

  Banks also narrates chapters from the perspective of the unknown serial killer.  I suppose those chapters are shocking, but not really, for an era where Silence of the Lambs qualifies as a golden oldie. Maybe in 1993, in Great Britain, sodomizing a rapist-positive High Court Judge was something at the edge of imagination but not today.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Exit West (2017) by Mohsin Hamid


Book Revew
Exit West (2017)
 by Mohsin Hamid

  Exit West is currently sitting second on the Ladbrokes 2017 Booker Prize odds list- at 4/1, same as Elmet by Fiona Mozley, both are behind Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders- at 2/1.  Elmet is proving a difficulty to procure- NOT purchased by the LA County Library System.   But if George Saunders makes sense as the favorite, Mohsin Hamid makes sense as a strong second place- more so then Elmet, which is a debut novel by a white, English, female author.  Lincoln in the Bardo may be a debut novel by Saunders, but Saunders is well, well known for his short fiction- even beloved, and Mozley is unknown.

  Hamid, on the other hand, has an impeccable international literary pedigree- Pakistani, educated in England the United States, works out of London, has a prior hit in the category of literary fiction (The Reluctant Fundamentalist- 2007- a prior Booker short list nominee.)  He's creative in terms of his narrative technique and his South Asian background is well under-represented in Western Literary Fiction.

   In Exit West, Hamid introduces an element of what might be called "speculative fiction"- the invention of a multiplicity of "doors" that open up between places in the global south and places in the global north.  In other words, one would be sitting in the middle of a Civil War in sub-Saharan Africa, and then someone would find a door, and anyone could go to wherever that door would take you- Greece, England, America. Nobody knows how the doors work, and no one can do anything to stop people from moving between countries.

  The story is told about Saeed and Nadia- a couple living in an unidentified city in the Middle East- but sounds like someplace in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq or Egypt that descends into Civil War.  The doors are introduced after we get a solid 100 pages on life in a contemporary Middle Eastern Civil War.  This portion reads like something you'd read as a New Yorker short story.  Then Hamid introduces the doors, and shit gets weird, though not, it deserves to be said, as weird as one might expect from the set up.  Hamid uses a light touch in terms of introducing polemic  about the global refugee crisis, even though Exit West is directly about this topic.

 Rather, Hamid's views (dreams) about the potential solutions to our current crisis manifest as plot points in the story.  Where one might expect a dark, even dystopian second and third act (based on the reality of how the Western nations treat their CURRENT would-be immigrants who show up without permission), Hamid paints a gently humanistic, even optimistic picture.

  I wouldn't reverse the current odds on the Ladbroke's table-  the use of literary devices derived from science fiction/speculative fiction are certainly no bar to winning a major literary award, but it's hard to see how The Reluctant Fundamentalist- which was a critical success, a popular seller and intensely topical (albeit so is Exit West)- could lose and Exit West would win.   You could also look at Hamid's track record and biography- even without reading all of his works- and surmise that he could well possibly be building up to something truly spectacular. Compared to that hypothetical master work, Exit West seems like a mere appetizer. 

Days Without End (2016) by Sebastian Barry


Book Review
Days Without End (2016)
 by Sebastian Barry

    |Irish author Sebastian Barry had a big miss on the Booker Shortlist announcement this year.  Going in, he had the second best odds against getting shortlisted (behind The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead- another miss.)  Going in Barry had everything trending in his direction: Prior short list presence, a hot genre (historical fiction) and a unique perspective (a gay Irish immigrant soldier.)  Having missed out, it appears that two books set in 19th century American around the time of the Civil War was one too many for the 2017 Booker Shortlist (and The Underground Railroad would have been three.)   Why did Lincoln in the Bardo make it above Days Without End?  If I had to guess, it would be on the basis of originality/creativity- Lincoln in the Bardo is creative both in plot and execution, whereas Days Without End is a pretty straight forward "Cormac McCarthy a la Blood Meridian, except take away the metaphysical hoodoo and instead the narrator is gay."

   Booker Shortlist fail aside, Days Without End is a genuine delight, and squarely within the fictional universe where I would like to spend my days.  I learned from the London Guardian book review that Barry has devoted himself to telling the story of two Irish families, the Dunnes and the  McNulty's, over a series of books (and plays? Barry started as a playwright before focusing more on fiction.)  Here, the narrator is Thomas McNulty, he's left behind his starved-to-death family in Ireland and finds himself wandering mid 19th century America, where he meets his life long companion and enlists in the pre-Civil War United States Army- then in it's "Indian Wars" era.

  Barry crisply narrates several horrific semi-genocidal episodes against Natives in California, before relocating McNulty to the plains, where the Olgala Sioux become their primary "nemesis."  The economy of the narrator- strongly reminiscent of the way Cormac McCarthy writes about 19th century America- is studded with the real life horror of the West.  After that, McNulty and his partner adopt a Native girl, and raise her as their daughter.  From there, it's a brief respite as early drag performers and then enlisting in the Civil War.

  The narrative moves quickly, there is no time to be bored, and the incident and resolution are satisfying. Days Without End is under 300 pages, and although the narrator is an illiterate 19th century Irish immigrant, the prose remains very readable.  No problems with jargon or argot here.   Can't wait for the movie (television?) version, which is sure to come. Are those movie rights still available?  Literally The Reverent meets Brokeback Moutnain here.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Operation Shylock (1993) by Philip Roth


Book Review
Operation Shylock (1993)
by Philip Roth


    The case for Roth as an all-time great, vs. a "great in his time" is based on his late career productivity, which was singled out by the Booker Prize when they gave him an International Prize in 2011.    Ultimately, though, Roth is perhaps the premier non winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in the 20th and, indeed, 21st century, a status which spawns it's own cottage industry almost every year when the new winner is announced.  Bob Dylan winning last year was a particular high point for the "Philip Roth didn't win again" school.  This discussion inevitably tracks with a corresponding complaint that the Nobel Committee is somehow "biased" against English language writers.

  The idea is that Philip Roth is the best American writer of his generation to NOT win the award, and since the Nobel Prize for Literature is only awarded to living (and active) authors, Philip Roth, in his 80's and retired, is missing, or has already missed his chance.  Personally, I'm more interested in the prospects of the still writing Thomas Pynchon when it comes to American authors and the Nobel Prize for Literature, but I am beginning to really appreciate Roth, despite him being underrepresented in the 1001 Books project.

  Operation Shylock is another strong mid-late career Philip Roth title.  It is a meta-fictional lark about a character Philip Roth, the author, confronting his doppelganger over his dissemination of a "reverse Zionism" involving the re-distribution of Israeli Ashkenazi Jews back to Europe.   While in Israel, he is drawn into the Operation Shylock of the title, a trip to Greece to meet with a shadowy cabal who may or may not be Jews who are secretly funding the PLO.

  Shylock has action, comedy and lengthy soliloquy's by almost all of the characters.  Roth, the author/narrator and Roth the impostor are both obsessed with the then current John Demjanjuk Nazi war criminal trial.  Roth raises many interesting questions about Judaism, anti-antisemitism and the Israeli-Palestinian problem, while also writing an interesting plot and creating compelling, if familiar, characters.  In short, as one of his characters might say, "What is there to complain about?"  Only that Philip Roth, an older, white Jewish, Prize winning author has nothing interesting left to observe about the human condition, but this is plainly not the case.

 

 
   

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street (2014) by Paula Rabinowitz


Book Review
American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street (2014)
 by Paula Rabinowitz
Princeton University Press/ Princeton and Oxford


   If you wanted a capsule summary of 20th century aesthetics, you'd start with the pre-modern "high vs. low culture," where "high culture" is "good" and "low culture is "bad."  From there you move into Modernism- High Modernism- in the early 20th century.  Modernism had a deep impact on 20th century life and it was a movement driven by artists, rather than academics.  Modernism was subject to a virulent critique by artists and academics, particularly in Germany and France, who produced dueling schools of what might be considered "post-modern" aesthetics- the Germans, with the Frankfurt School, produced a critique of the "culture industry" and the resulting products, while the French produced a critique that called into question the ideas at the heart of aesthetics- what is an artist? what is art? who does art serve?  These two dueling philosophies fought it out in American Philosophy and Literature departments all over the Western world, where the French wing dominated academic discourse for decades.  Most recently however, the highly specialized French vocabulary used to describe art has been largely deposed by fans of the Frankfurt School, and this shift has meant that specialist literature in the fields of art, literature and philosophy have become more accessible to a general audience, because it's just easier to understand.

   Rabinowitz persuasively argues her position that the ideas of Modernism were largely introduced to a popular American audience via the medium of of pulp paperbacks- not just via genre fiction, but also through literary fiction and non-fiction.  She explores these subjects, as well as the way that pulp indiscriminately mingled high and low culture- which is certainly a point that was largely missed both at the time discussed- early to mid 20th century, and by the French post-modernists, who were largely uninterested in actually, like, doing research instead of making air castles of theory.   There are numerous high points, but American Pulp reads more like a bunch of papers grouped together than a stand alone work.   She comes close, at times, to articulating a kind of unified field theory of pulp and pulping, but like a good Academic, she stops short of making bold and outrageous claims. 

Monday, September 18, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo (2017) by George Saunders


Book Review
Lincoln in the Bardo (2017)
by George Saunders

  So here I am, more or less caught up with contemporary fiction.  The 1001 Books Project originally ended in 2006, so "the present" means the period between then and 2017.  Reviews of contemporary books will focus on their potential for canonical status, with the understanding that it is unknowable whether I am correct or not.   Unfortunately, the single best indicator would seem to be those books that either win major literary prizes or are nominated for such.  This criterion will take into account the sales record of each title, since simply looking at the best seller for canon candidates (while efficient) is simply too depressing to contemplate.

  Lincoln in the Bardo is the second 2017 book I've read in this category- the first being Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad.  Both books were selected based on their low odds on the Ladbrook's table for Booker Prize shortlist nominees.  Lincoln in the Bardo DID make the short list, The Underground Railroad did not.   Lincoln in the Bardo also has the top odds to win the prize- currently at 2/1.  Author  George Saunders is well known as a short-story writer and an essayist- I actually saw him speak last year in Los Angeles because my girlfriend is a fan and I left saying, "Well, he should write a novel." (He alluded to the fact that he was doing so during his talk.)

   So here is that novel, and yes, he did do an amazing job writing his first novel, with critical plaudits and an appearance at the top of the New York Times best-seller list.   It is a very appealing package: First time novel by a known quantity, combines historical fiction and the supernatural, popular United States President (Abraham Lincoln) appears as a major character (though not the Lincoln of the title.) AND- AND- it's is very, very easy to read, written in a format where each statement is written in citation format, whether or not it takes the form of actual dialogue or a quote from a historic text about the Lincoln administration.

  The Bardo of the title refers to the Tibetan spiritual concept which roughly equates to "purgatory"- neither heaven nor hell but a kind of supernatural waiting room, where unresolved issues may cause spirits to linger in the corporeal world as spirits, their issues reflected in their "physical" demeanor.  The Lincoln of the title is the President's son, William "Willie" Lincoln.  He died at the very beginning of the Civil War, and the story is "based" on two subsequent visits that the President made to Willie's tomb.

  Saunders manages to pack an astonishing number of voices into the 300 pages- over 100 by most accounts.  The other voices are other left behind spirits, and each of them adds some value to Saunders vision of Civil War era America. The grave yard in which Willie is laid to rest stands next to a paupers grave where African-Americans and vagrants were unceremoniously dumped, and thus Saunders is able to inject more social concern into a novel about ghosts and Abraham Lincoln than one might initially consider possible.

  It is this extra level of plot- the white graveyard next to the black graveyard, which I think really pushes Bardo into canonical territory.  Also, the fact that is both clearly a work of "experimental" fiction AND fast/easy to read and understand- that is a rare quality, and a canonical quality.   I think, weighing against it is the fact that it lacks the "weight" that often marks a canonical novel.  The technique of writing an entire book as a series of quotes from other sources detracts from the over-all impact, and may directly alienate less serious readers- a key component of the audience for a newly canonical text.

   Surely, the winning or losing of the Booker Prize will be a huge factor. The prize, like the winnowing of the long list to a short list is notoriously unpredictable, but with 2/1 odds, Lincoln in the Bardo is the odds on favorite.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Robber Bride (1993) by Margaret Atwood


Book Review
The Robber Bride (1993)
by Margaret Atwood

  Oh man, rich white English-speaking people and their fucking problems.  I could write a book.  OH WAIT EVERYONE ALREADY HAS.  Add The Robber Bride to that shelf.  It shows Atwood doing her best Doris Lessing/Nadine Gordimer take, dressing up standard white-lady personal issues with a noirish/mystery angle.  As you would expect from a Canadian author, nothing is genuinely shocking in these pages, even though she tries- comically- in my mind- to inject a frisson of drugs and Bohemian low life to the proceedings.  The story of three female college friends:  A wealthy business lady, a college history professor and a ditzy hippie- and their encounters with the outrageous Zenia- a woman of no known origins, who lies and fucks her way through their lives, before dying- in Lebanon- in the first chapter of the book.

  Atwood takes up backwards in time for each of the three main characters- giving each a different backstory with various levels of trauma- the mother of the history professor just walks out one day, the mother of the hippie goes insane and dies, and she is molested by her adoptive father (her uncle). Each also gets to tell the story of their traumatic encounter with Zenia- all involving stolen money and sexual betrayal.

   Like the characters in a Doris Lessing novel, you get the firm impression that Atwood does not like her own characters very much.  Each of them is played like a fiddle by Zenia in their turn and when it turns out that Zenia is not, in fact, dead, they allow her to manipulate them all AGAIN.    Being generally familiar with the Canadian national character, such a plot isn't wholly surprising, but if she tried that shit in a major United States city she would be dead or in jail.

The Secret History (1992) by Donna Tartt


Book Review
The Secret History (1992)
 by Donna Tartt


    The Secret History is one of those exception that proves the rule(s) of the marketplace for late 20th century literary fiction.  It was a debut novel (!) by a woman(!) written about an esoteric intellectual subject (the study of ancient greece)  featuring unlikable characters (a group of elite college students who kill a couple people)  that was immediately recognized as a potential hit (initial printing of 75,000 instead of 10,000) and was a sales success (best-seller.)

  I'll admit that it does make an enjoyable, quick read,  Almost every major theme in the book relates not necessarily to the study of ancient Greece, bur the ideas of philosopher Nietzche's ideas about ancient Greece in his very well known The Birth of Tragedy- nowhere mentioned in The Secret History despite having character espouse ideas taken directly from it's pages in almost every chapter.  Tartt, a Bennington College graduate, bases The Secret History in a thinly veiled Bennington stand-in called Hampden.  I'm certainly no stranger to the particular literary appeal of Bennington- Less Than Zero- probably my favorite novel is written by another Bennington grad and partially set there.  Last year, while in New Hampshire, I drove to Bennington and spent the weekend just to get the vibe.

  That said, I don't think The Secret History is canon- particularly after The Goldfinch, written eight years after the first edition of 1001 Books was published, won the Pultizer Prize.   The Secret History is a fun read and the themes revolving around esoteric knowledge and privilege are ever-green, but everything else, including the murders at the heart of The Secret History (and revealed to the reader in the prologue, so calm down if you are somehow reading this before you read the book.) were firmly in the "who gives a fuck what happens to these people."

  

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright (1993) by Mark Rose


Book Review
Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright (1993)
 by Mark Rose
Princeton University Press/Oxford University Press

   One of the major things I've learned in the last decade are the many ways that insubstantial, "intellectual property" can be worth as much, if not more, than the real thing (property).  The details of the beginnings of treating intellectual property similar to real property is not "the way it has always been."  Quite the opposite.  Up until the 18th century, artists typically created at the request of royalty or clergy, and any resulting property rights from such works were granted as a "privilege."    In other words, you write an Opera for King Charles and he gives you a scroll giving you the exclusive rights to print copies of the score for some period of time.

  This was just the way things were until the 18th century, specifically, the 18th century as experienced by the English/Scottish/Irish book selling trade, which was undergoing a rapid expansion as the audience for printed matter grew by leaps and bounds.  This set off a struggle over who could print what- typically quite independently of the authors themselves, who would usually simply sell their right in their own work to a publisher for a small sum.

   Basically there were the existing Publishers, working under a royal grant that pre-dated the 18th century and stretched by to the London Stationers guild.  On the other side, there were rogue publishers- often located in Ireland and Scotland, who would churn out cheaper editions of current titles, and then sell them for much less than the price set by the London based publishers.   The London Publishers wanted a tool that allowed them to stop this trade, and that led to the introduction of a Copyright law.

   The major issue at the time is whether the copyright would be forever or for a fixed term- and the victory of the fixed terms-  typically "the life of the artist" plus some fixed term of years- was a victory for the outsiders.  It is also the way copyright continues to function until this day.  Rose also points out how much the copyright idea of the author coincides with the 18th century cult of Shakespeare, who became the ideal romantic Artist, despite the fact- as Rose points out- he himself was nothing like the ideal of the Romantic artist- taking all of his plots, and some of his actual language from other sources.

  Rose points out that these assumptions about the nature of authorship (a Romantic, creative ideal) remain embedded in the legal system for copyright, even as literary theory has moved far, far beyond 18th century Romantic ideals about artistic creation.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A Heart So White (1992) by Javier Marías



Book Review
A Heart So White (1992)
 by Javier Marías

   The absence of Spanish (from Spain) authors from the 1001 Books list is a little unexpected, but I attribute it to the dominance of Latin American writers and "magical realism," combining with the fact that the traditional Spanish literary perspective, that of a professional, white, male adds little to the list of works by similarly situated authors who write in English.  In fact, Spain, outside of Barcelona, remains a staid, traditional society circa this past decade (when I visited).  The influence of fifty years of the soft facisim of Franco was stulifying on the development of the international culture that is necessary for literary fiction to achieve prominence in translation.

  Marías himself is an exception that proves the rule.  He spoke fluid English, taught in both England and the United States and the international tone of A Heart So White is made explicit through the narrator- a translator/interpreter (don't get him started on the difference between the two, nor on the difference between simultaneous and consecutive translation) who speaks four different languages fluently.  Although A Heart So White is written in Spanish and translated into English, it seems fair to say that nothing, or almost nothing is lost in the translation, since the narrator/author is himself aware of the ambiguities that translation presents and draws the attention of the reader when it occurs in the text.

   In other ways, A Heart So White resembles the continuation of the European Philosophical novel tradition.   The narrator narrates obsessively, working through different logical permutations of events and the possibility of future events.  In other ways, A Heart So White resembles the "existential" Detective fiction of early Paul Auster- where a loose who-done-it provides the skeleton for the philosophical musings of the protagonist.

  As a criminal lawyer who deals daily with translators in the precinct of Federal Court, I am well familiar with the interpreter/translator culture, which, at the highest levels, attracts an almost insane percentage of people who have come from Spain or the tonier countries of Latin America to translate in the American court system.  The number of "official" Court interpreters in Federal Court who come from either the USA itself or border cities like Tijuana and Mexicali is almost non existent.

  But- there is nothing ground breaking to read here- no Spanish equivalent of "Magical Realism" or "historical metafiction" to draw a wider critical or popular audience outside of Spain and the Spanish language- despite that it may have well been written in English, for all the difference it makes.


Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism (2007)by Edward Bahr


Weimar on the Pacific:
German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism (2007)
by Edward Bahr
University of California Press

  I like the University of California Press, but I don't love it. It's respectable, particularly when it comes to titles about California but almost everything I read from there is intended for specialists, general readers need not apply.  Such is the case with the very interesting Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism, a thorough treatment of the nuts and bolts of the writing and activities of German exiles like Horkheimer and Adorno, Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht and others- including non-exile immigrants like architects Neutra and Schindler.

  The German exile artists were, to a man, west-siders.  Bahr provides a useful list of addresses where the exiles lived, none are further east then Brentwood.  As Bahr makes clear, the "Los Angeles" that these leftist intellectuals experienced was the west side. He grounds the book in the study of German "exile literature" and Weimar on the Pacific functions more as a work of literary criticism than the social history one might prefer (though Bahr doesn't skirt concrete details like the address and description of their homes.)  With the exception of Thomas Mann, who had already won a Nobel Prize for Literature, none of the profiled exiles were particularly famous or wealthy during their time in Southern California.

   Bertolt Brecht comes off as the most entertaining of the big four: Horkheimer, Adorno, Brecht and Thomas Mann. He has an austere reputation, and although he didn't coin the term "culture industry" like Horkheimer and Adorno, he was well aware of their work.  Brecht did things like write poetry complaining about the Southern California movie industry.  All except Mann had a hugely negative view about the United States.  Bahr points out lengthy efforts by Horkheimer and Adorno to equate the market capitalism of America with Nazi Germany.   Perhaps they were just anticipating the rise of Donald Trump, but up until last year it seemed like a strange comparison.

  There are many moments, large and small, that make for entertaining reading, but there is also much discussion of the actual works that were written while the exiles were in residence.  Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann gets particularly lengthy treatment- which is useful for a difficult to understand book, but not really what I was looking for in terms of the social history angle.

  This book also has the aforementioned list of addresses and a professional grade bibliography for anyone interested in the subject. 

The Winshaw Legacy: or, What a Carve Up! (1992) by Jonathan Coe


Book Review
The Winshaw Legacy: or, What a Carve Up! (1992)
 by Jonathan Coe

  The Winshaw Legacy is one of the more specifically English books on a 1001 Books that is well stocked with representatives of all eras of English literature.  It is, thankfully, a comedy, about a fictional family that embodies the worst excesses of Thatcherite England and their entanglement with the novelist who, in a moment of weakness, takes a paid gig at a vanity press to write the history of the Winshaw family.

   By "comedy" I mean satire, and by satire I mean dark satire.  Coe does an excellent job of integrating reportage style material about subjects like the sales of arms in the Middle East, and the dismantling of the National Health System.   These portions are often more convincing then the in-book plight of the characters who, at times, seem like they exist merely to fulfill the needs of satire.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Heather Blazing (1992) by Colm Tóibín.


Book Review
The Heather Blazing  (1992)
 by Colm Tóibín

  1992 might be the single busiest year for the 1001 Books Project- 16 titles.  To put that in perspective, the entire 18th century- 1700-1800- only has 53 entries on the list.   So in other words, the century that invented the novel has 50 listings, and 1992 has 16.   That is as clear as an example of "presentism," or favoring the present at the expense of the past, as you are likely to see in any canon forming exercise.  The first version of 1001 Books was published in 2006, meaning that 1992 was roughly 10 years before 1001 Books was put together, and 10 years prior is probably the point at which experts start losing confidence about their canonical picks.

  The major literary trends in 1992 are meta-fiction and regional fiction.   1992 had Irish fiction, Scottish Fiction, English Fiction, Spanish Fiction, American Fiction, African American Fiction, LGBT Fiction, French Fiction, German Fiction. A movie version is almost required.   The Heather Blazing represents one aspect of the growth of regional fiction- retelling the stories of privilege and inner turmoil which characterize English fiction in the early to mid 20th century, but from the perspective of non-English elites.  Here, the perspective is that of an Irish High Court Judge from a revolutionary Irish family.   The Heather Blazing is no doubt interesting and well written, but there can be no question that it's canonical status is based on it being about an IRISH High Court Judge.  

The Stone Diaries (1993) by Carol Shields


Book Review
The Stone Diaries (1993)
 by Carol Shields


   The Stone Diaries is a very subtlety existentialist fictional "auto biography" of a very "average" woman: born in the Canadian Mid-West, raised in the American Mid-West, returns to Ottowa to live as a stay-at-home Mom and raise three kids.  Survives her older husband, writes a gardening column for the local paper, retires to Florida, dies after a short illness.


   Daisy Goodwell Flett is touched by tragedy:  A Mother who dies in child birth, a first Husband who dies on their Parisian honeymoon by falling out a window.  She is not the stereotypical woman of literary fiction- she does not live in a city, does not struggle (except briefly) with neuroses, does not make a radical break from convention.   In fact, despite this being an "auto biography" about her life, we hardly learn anything about Daisy at all, except, perhaps, that she experiences a kind of life long alienation from her surroundings.   She is from the generation of women that did not directly experience "women's liberation" while benefiting from the pre-conditions which led to the feminist uprising of the late 1960's and 1970's.

  In the end, the reader is left questioning whether any of it matters at all.  It's the same kind of feeling you get from reading 20th century European philosophical novels.  Shields adopts distancing techniques which extend beyond the feelings of Ms. Flett.   Chapters skip entire decades, and some chapters are simply letters or newspaper articles, making The Stone Diaries a series of snapshots, from birth to death.


Thursday, September 07, 2017

Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992) by Alice Walker


Book Review
Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992)
by Alice Walker

  If you are uninformed about the wide spread reality of female genital mutilation or FGM, this is the book to get you up to speed.  FGM is widespread throughout Africa and the world of Islam, and is very common in parts of Africa without an Islamic presence.  FGM is sometimes (used to be?) called female circumcision, but, speaking as a circumcised male- there is no comparison.  FGM is more like cutting off a man's penis then cutting off his foreskin.

 Walker's tale is set among the fictional Olinka people- who also appear in the Color Purple.  Possessing the Secret of Joy is not a sequel to The Color Purple, but it is part of the same fictional universe with overlapping characters.  The Olinka are a fictional people, but in The Color People said they were located four days from the capital of Liberia, in West Africa, so that, at least, is where Possessing the Secret of Joy is set, a fictional West African nation.  

  Posseesing the Secret of Joy engages in the familiar modernist style of switching back and forth in time and between different characters.  There is a gradual unveiling of the plot with a murder at the center, but those considerations are actively outweighed by the gruesome horror reality of female genital mutilation.   I wasn't in any way ignorant of the horrors of FGM, except for thinking it was somehow largely a problem of Islam.  Trust, is not simply that.  FGM is a part of many non Islamic African cultures.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Book Review: Too Much To Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (2010)by Ann M. Blair

A Note Taking cabinet from the late Middle Ages.   Several of these were created for scholars to keep track of information- none remain.  The note taking cabinet is a pre-modern example of the intersection of information and "technology."  Here, the technology is the cabinet.
Book Review
Too Much To Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (2010)
by Ann M. Blair
Yale University Press

  Here are some of the problems with reading academic subjects like history or philosophy:

1.  Much of it is written for specialists, by specialists, and published in journals which are hard to get, even in the internet era.
2.   Published books are likely to lag a year or two behind the current discussion between specialists because it exists outside of the conference/journal specialist circuit.
3.   When those books are published, they are like to be more expensive than a work of fiction because usually they are printed by specialist, academic publishing houses who make fewer books.

 So, identifying the right book in an academic subject is tough- you want something that isn't just for specialist, or of interest to specialist, and on the other hand, you don't want crap. So much non-fiction- I'm thinking of genres like self-help or business tips, is just unadulterated garbage with nary a pretense towards merit.  You want an other with a light touch, one confident enough in the subject matter to write a book for general readers without sacrificing the accuracy inherent in academic non-fiction.

 The best way to judge is the publishing house- for subjects like history or philosophy, for example. Oxford University, Cambridge University, Harvard, Yale and then the second tier US Publishers- University of California, John Hopkins, Princeton, etc. Commercial publishers can be counted on to publish readable books, but whether they are well written and annotated is unpredictable.

  So, the first thing to note about Too Much To Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age is that is a hit, written by a tenured Professor of History at Harvard University- like right now- as I write this.  The best academic non-fiction writing is a kind of alchemy of knowledge- authors gather a million sources that you will never read and create a compelling 300-500 page book that totally revises your opinion about the subject.  Here, the opinion that she seeks to revise is the truism that a consequence of the information age is to feel overwhelmed by something called "information overload."

  This hypothesis, which is so much a part of conventional wisdom that I doubt you could find anyone to disagree with it if you were trying, is that we are currently overwhelmed by "too much information," typically with a reference to the sheer amount of some information related product- books, television shows, movies.   The idea is that only NOW can we "not keep up."

  This, Blair persuasively argues, is not, and never has been the case. In fact, the idea of "too much information" is as old as the book itself- and actually have been an opinion that came in to existence the same time as WRITING itself.   Blair coins (I think) a term, "info lust" to describe the attitude of certain groups towards the acquisition of knowledge.  Info lust is hardly a modern affliction.  Like the idea of information overload, Blair shows that as soon as there were manuscripts to acquire, people were greedy to possess them.

  In Blair's opinion, the advent of the printing press, while important, did not create any new attitudes towards information, information management and information acquisition, it merely amplified trends that were already present among the audience for printed matter.   Much of the meat of Blair's argument concerns the extensive steps that scholars and priests took in the high middle ages to organize the information that they needed.  This organization- the most common sort is alphabetical- is not something that simply "always was" - rather it was developed by scholars over time.

  A thousand years before people were searching on the internet, they were literally deciding that organizing information by alphabet and subject matter would be useful for readers.  Like all first rate scholars, Blair does not elaborate into what she thinks all this means, except for the major thesis that in no way is "information overload" something specific to the internet era.    I'm sure it's the kind of book that one would refer to over decades.

History of Bengali Literature (1960) by Sukumar Sen

Image result for bengal people map
The area of the Bengali people is in present day Bengladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal.

History of Bengali Literature (1960)
by Sukumar Sen
Published by Sahitya Akademi


   What do you know about the Bengali people?  Did you know they are the third largest ethnic group in the world (300 million) behind the Han Chinese and the Arabs?  They speak Bengali, the Eastern most Indo-European language.  They've produced one Nobel Prize for Literature winner, Rabindranath Tagore, in 1911- for poetry- but still.   In Classical times, Bengal was the center of a Hindu/Buddhist Empire, in the Middle Ages they were conquered by Turkish-Persian Muslims and spent centuries as the "Bengali sultanate" during which time many converted to Islam,

  Calcutta, the capital of Bengal, was also the head of the British Raj.  After independence, half of Bengal ended up as the Indian state of West Bengal, where they promptly elected Communists to run the government for half a century.  The Eastern Half- the Muslim portion- became first, East Pakistan and later declared independence, fought a brief war and became the independent nation of Bengladesh.  

    The Bengali people are unusual in terms of their relatively positive experience with being the victims of conquest and foreign invaders.  Their Muslim rulers were largely Sufis- the most tolerant of Islamic faiths, the British put their headquarters inside Bengal, and were instrumental in "de Persian-fying" the Bengali language after centuries of being forced to use Persian as the language of government.  The language of Bengali was historically viewed as a vernacular in comparison to Sanskrit, the literary language of India.  The comparison is similar to the relationship between Latin and English/French/German.

  The literature of Bengal can be broken into two major parts- what came before the British, and what came after.  The literature before the coming of the British is basically religious poetry and puppet shows. Bengal was the center of the "tantra" movement, but the tantrics weren't much for leaving written material around for posterity.   The poetry revolves around the mythological themes that are common to the Indian subcontinent, regardless of religion or ethnicity.

    In terms of literature as we know it, i.e. the novel, it came with the British Empire.  Calcutta quickly developed an educated middle and landowning class- families that had served the Sultanate and were largely pleased with the Justice obsessed British Empire.  The novel and contemporary literature developed alongside the nascent Nationalism movement.  The Tagore family- who produced the Nobel Prize winner- played an important role both in developing Nationalism and Bengali literature.

  By the early 20th century, Bengali literature was drifting in the more familiar currents of world literature, the last chapter describes a surfeit of early 20th century "realist" fiction concerned with the lives of everyday Bengali's and Sen also brieflly discusses a Bengali "modernist" movement.  My sense though is that little, if any of this literature has made it to the United States- to the point where the books listed simply had Bengali titles- no English translations (this book is written in English.)

  I can now rest easier knowing that I haven't missed anything the whole world knows about, unless you count Tagore's Nobel Prize Winning verse, and I don't.

The English Patient (1992) by Michael Ondaatje

Image result for the english patient ralph fiennes
Ray Fiennes was the title character in the successful movie version of The English Patient by Michale Ondaatje
Book Review
The English Patient (1992)
by Michael Ondaatje

  The English Patient is another potential canon selection which arrives as part of the very popular 90's literary genre "International Best-Seller," preferably with an Oscar Nominated (or Winning, in this case) film version and a prestigious international literary award (Booker Prize, 1992).   Ondaatje is a poster-child for an Author writing in this period: Lives in Canada, from Sri Lanka, writes in English, writes historical fiction with twists set in exotic or semi-exoctic locales.   The English Patient check all the boxes to the point where one it could call it either the best of this crop of would-be canon titles or a tedious, cynical exercise in commerce.

  The case for canonical status is aided by the huge success of the movie.  Who could doubt, circa 1992, that the difference between a good and bad movie version can be the difference between a book obtaining or not obtaining canonical status.  My hypothesis is that a successful movie version creates a kind of  psychic place holder in the mind of the public audience, ensuring that book versions stay on book shelves and in private collections.

  The elements of The English Patient are not particularly ground breaking: A man without a past, a Sikh sapper (Mine de-fuser), a nurse and a secret agent, all living in the same falling-down villa in the immediate aftermath of the Italian campaign of World War II.  Like many other works of literature which straddle critical and popular acclaim there is an element of surprise and intrigue that makes detailed discussion of the plot impossible.

  I guess now I can finally go see the movie version.the 

Hothouse (1962) by Brian Aldiss

Hothouse(Aldiss).jpg
Cover of the original Hothouse hard back, written by Brian Aldiss.
Book Review
Hothouse (1962)
by Brian Aldiss

  I get a decent amount of book recommendations from the Sunday New York Times obituary. It's a great place to hear about well known authors, recently deceased, who may be due for a critical reappraisal.  Since "death" is one of those rare events that triggers critical re-appraisals, a New York Times obituary tells me that this may be the time to read up on an Author I'd never heard of.   English sci-fi writer Brian Aldiss died last week, and he is a good example of a genre author who is canon within their specific genre but not outside it.  I'd often seen Aldiss' books. Particularly I remember that he was well represented in the science fiction portion of the public library in the Northern California suburb where I grew up.

  Hothouse is one of his hits, a Hugo Award Winner when it was published in 1962, it was most recently reprinted in 2015 as part of an Aldiss retrospective.  Hothouse is set in the far future- in the dying days of the Sun.  Plants have taken over the Earth, and humans have evolved into tiny, green, tree inhabiting creatures- something like a fairy or sprite from Celtic mythology.  Plants have evolved to replace most Animal types, and they all hate humans.  Originally published as a loosely connected series of novellas in pulp sci-fi magazines, Hothouse loosely follows one band of humans, veering out of the group half way through to follow one particular human who has formed a symbiotic relationship with a sentient morel.

  Like most sci fi books, the prose style is passable at best, instead, the reader is drawn in by the ideas expressed.  Here, the ideas are well considered, evoking H.G. Wells The Time Machine, Wyndham's the Day of the Triffid's and 1960's J.G. Ballard, while not quite surpassing any of them.

The Culture of Power and The Power of Culture (2002) by T.C.W. Blanning


Book Review
The Culture of Power and The Power of Culture (2002)
by T.C.W. Blanning

   T.C.W. Blanning was a Professor Modern European History at the University of Cambridge, which is just about as good as it gets.  Much of his writing focuses on the early part of the Modern period- starting in the 18th century, and stretching both back and forward a century in each direction.  His scholarship is informed by the important work of German philosopher Jurgen Habermas.  In fact, The Culture of Power and The Power of Culture is essentially a historical elaboration of Habrermas' philosophical concept known as the "public sphere."  Habermas theorized that it was the development of this public sphere that is the seminal accomplishment of modernity, and that so long as the public sphere remains unfinished, modernity has not been completed as a project.   Habermas came out of the "cultural Marxism" Frankfurt School, and his public sphere followed in the steps of Horkheimer's and Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment, which introduced the concept of the "culture industry" into the international philosophical lexicon.

  The adoption of Habermas' Public Sphere has been hampered by the difficulty of Habermas' writing style- difficult even in the original German, let alone in translation.  Blanning constructs the argument that there was shift in the 18th century from Representational Culture, epitomized in this book by Louis XIV and the Palace at Versailles to the rise of the Public Sphere, embodied by the creation, for the first time, of a a literate "public" for the consumption of art and cultural projects, notably books and music.

  Habermas uses the well known stories of artists and writers to illustrate this shift- neatly sidestepping the dead end of the Annales school emphasis on the lives of "normal people."   Artists were the "canary in the coal mine" for the rise of the Public Sphere. Throughout the 18th century, the pre-conditions for this shift spread throughout Western Europe- which in this book means England/Great Britain, France and greater "Germany," followed by actual Revolutions- the French Revolution, and the rise of Prussia in the East- both directly linked to the rise of the public sphere.

  It is a compelling explanation of the macro-political-cultural-historical events of the 18th century in Western Europe- a world where the USA was on the fringe, but an experience that none the less directly influenced events here in the United States.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Indigo (1992) by Marina Warner


Book Review
Indigo (1992)
by Marina Warner

  Historic meta fiction involving the retelling of Shakespeare's The Tempest, and set in between a fictional Caribbean island and 1950's and 60's London/Paris?  You can't get much more 1990's literature then that.  You don't need to be intimately familiar with the play to enjoy the book, but it's best if you are intimately familiar with the techniques of late 20th century metafiction.  It's not our history exactly- the Island, like the island in the Shakespeare play, is fictional.   The plot details are informed by advances in colonial studies.  The white planter class, despite being major characters, are not particularly sympathetic and Warner extends the antipathy towards them across the hundreds of years Indigo spans.

  I'm not positive that Warner accomplished anything in Indigo that Jean Rhys doesn't accomplish in Wide Saragasso Sea, but it does serve as another worthy entry on the shelf of historical metafiction with Caribbean locales. 

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Crow Road (1992) by Iain Banks


Book Review
The Crow Road (1992)
 by Iain Banks

  I quite like Iain Banks- a Scottish author who achieved success in genre science fiction and literary fiction without ever really making it in the United States.  The Crow Road is straight forward literary fiction, a very 1990's blend of a regional Britiish bildungsroman (Scotland) and airport-book-shop suspense.  It is a testament to Banks skill as an author that the whole thing comes together, and it reads much shorter than it's 500 pages led me to expect.  Partially, it's because Banks keeps the suspense angle hidden.  He also uses craft, utilizing the familiar post-modern techniques of flipping between, time, place and narrator to build the suspense plot without making the reader especially aware that a suspense plot is developing.

  He did a good enough job that I found myself asking, 200 pages in, if I was just reading a Scottish version of Less Than Zero or an upper class version of Trainspotting.  It certainly was nice to read a book written by a Scottish author about Scottish characters where those characters weren't desperate working-class losers.   The blend of bildungsroman and suspense leads to particularly satisfying resolution, but there is nothing here to make The Crow Road a break out hit for Banks. 

Written on the Body(1992) by Jeanette Winterson


Book Review
Written on the Body(1992)
 by Jeanette Winterson

  The 1990's were the break out period for LGBT literature. Specifically, points of views started to emerge in the 1980's and 1990's that expanded LGBT voices beyond wealthy white men and artistic bohemians.  Winterson is one such standard barrier, a working class, "out" at 16 lesbian who left her super religious home earlier and ended up studying at Oxford.   She burst onto the scene with her bildungsroman, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which I think is the first novel about a working class lesbian in the English mid-lands.  It sounds absurd- Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was published in 1985, but is actually in line with the state of law in the British isles.  Male homosexuality was only decriminalized in 1967 in England, and in places like Scotland it remained illegal until 1980.

   For my money, Written on the Body is preferable to Sexing the Cherry- her other mid-career 1001 Books representative. Sexing the Cherry is close to Kathy Acker territory in terms of its impenetrability . Written on the Body, on the other hand, is a conventional yuppie-love-heartbreak story with the twist that the gender of the protagonist is never revealed.  It is an interesting technical achievement, and like her lesbian coming of age tale, I'm not sure it's been done before.   So many English people, though, in the 1001 Books project. I guess English people from outside London are a different life experience, but the characters of Written on the Body are run of the mill sophisticated Londoners, so that aspect of Winterson's appeal is missing here. 

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Crime Fiction Canon: Edward Bunker, Richard Stark & Charle Willeford




Crime Fiction Canon:
Edward Bunker, Richard Stark & Charle Willeford

Reviewed
No Beast So Fierce ((1972) by Edward Bunker
Cockfighter  (1972)by Charles Willeford
I Was Looking for a Street (1968) by Charles Willeford
Point Blank (1963) by Richard Stark
The Outfit (1963) by Richard Stark


  A co-worker of my gf- he manages the Kills and PRIESTS, among others- lent me a selection of books from his crime fiction library.   It's important to be specific about the genre here- crime fiction arises out of detective fiction.  Essentially it works as the dark triplet of private investigator centered detective fiction and police centered detective fiction.   Stylistically, crime fiction is directly related to "hard boiled" Detective fiction as well as the cinematic language that was established by classic film noir after World War II.   Essentially all crime fiction was published as "pulp fiction"- a status it shares with other genre-canon representatives in science fiction and in detective fiction.

  The main difference between private investigator/police detective fiction and crime fiction is, of course, the nature of the protagonist.  Crime fiction is about criminals planning and executing crimes, with a side-order of hard boiled/existentialist philosophy.  There is a range- Parker, the protagonist of Richard Stark's Point Blank and The Outfit, expresses his personal philosophy entirely through his attitude towards crime.

  Parker is the proto-type of the "hard man" of Hollywood action films, cold, unfeeling, amoral.   Spells of liability are upset by moments like the one in Point Blank, where Parker accidentally murders an innocent, female officer worker because he wants to use her office to spy on a target.  She chokes to death on the gag Parker uses- he later realizes she was asthmatic, but was unable to tell him because of the gag, which also choked her to death.  Parker pauses a moment to rue the pointlessness of it all, but he's hardly troubled.

   The major action in both Point Blank and The Outfit is Parker's vendetta against the mafia-stand in (called The Outfit.)  Except for innocent bystanders like the woman in her office, Parker is entirely concerned with killing other criminals and Point Blank and The Outfit and it is a particularly memorable dynamic for crime fiction.

   Charles Willeford is an epochal figure, represented here by his 1972 masterpiece, Cockfighter and his depression era hobo biography, I Was Looking for a Street.   Willeford has a semi-canonical status as the favorite crime fiction writer of other crime fiction authors, and Cockfighter is an excellent example of his southern influenced take on crime fiction.  Cockfighter is filled with realistic details to the point where the reader is inclined to take it as a kind of semi-documentary of the south east Cockfighting scene circa the late 1960's.   This is a scene out of time- illegal in 40 states, but legal and sanctioned in the south east.  The action of Cockfighter is enough to make an animal-rights advocate sick, made more so by the grim-matter-of-fact Willeford prose style.

Image result for mr blue reservoir dogs
Edward Bunker as Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs
   Both I Was Looking for a Street and No Beast So Fierce by Edward Bunker both escape the narrow boundaries of "straight" crime fiction.  I Was Looking for a Street is a hobo memoir by the author Cockfighter.  It keeps the style of crime fiction and includes crimes, but youthful hobo type crimes.  I Was Looking for a Street is a uniquely hard boiled memoir, and Willeford's description of inter war Los Angeles is haunting.

   
   No Beast So Fierce by Edward Bunker would be my choice for a canonical title from this era of crime fiction.  No Beast So Fierce was written by San Quentin prison inmate Edward Bunker during the mid 1950's, but was considered unpublishable until the early 1970's.   This two decade delay in publication is a good explanation for why it remains a "cult" book in 2017.  There is a strong argument for canonical status.  First, there is the actual merit of the work, which surpasses the "executing a heist" mode of storytelling for a deeper look at a man trying to make a go of it after release from prison.  Second, there is it's post-publication history as a stylistic reference point for several generations of Hollywood action films.   Bunker memorably portrayed Mr. Blue in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs.  He was also the inspiration for the Jon Voight character in Heat, and the central heist of Heat bears a strong resemblance to the denouement of No Beast So Fierce.  Finally there is the author himself, who acted in multiple films besides Reservoir Dogs up until his death.

   No Beast So Fierce has a solid case for canon status and the rest make for pleasant, easy reading on a summer day.

Blog Archive