VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Saturday (2005) by Ian McEwan


Book Review
Saturday (2005)
 by Ian McEwan

  Ian McEwan is an author who immediately challenges the "Early/Middle/Late" principle of 3 works for any author in the literary canon.  Saturday is the last of seven books he place in the first edition of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.  Since 1001 Books was published in 2006, he's published six more novels, one of which (On Chesil Beach, 2007) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.  He has yet another novel coming out this year, which would seem to indicate that there is no clear point at which to demarcate the periods of McEwan's writing except for the beginning. 

  As far as the beginning goes, The Cement Garden, 1978, which is his first published novel, makes a great choice.  None of his other early books clearly surpasses it, and it was published first, so pick that one.   The next question is, what is the cut-off point for mid-period Ian McEwan, and of course, here the difficulties begin.  At least setting the boundary between early and middle should be possible.

  I think the proper dividing line is Black Dogs (1992) and Enduring Love (1997).   Enduring Love is the first book that really explores his mid-period combination of the exquisite workings of fate with specialized medical and scientific knowledge wielded for good and/or evil by a troubled protagonist.   Picking a middle period representative is pretty easy, probably Atonement (2001), which is his best seller, his most famous and maybe his best book as well.  It's the cut off for the middle period where his continued productivity causes problems.

   It could be anywhere, really,  On Chesil Beach, his last book to be nominated for a major literary prize, makes a certain amount of sense, or the next book, Solar (2010).  The late period representative is impossible to determine.   Cutting out the other five books brings his 1001 Books total down to two, which seems about right for a truly representative canon.

   Saturday, then, is a cut. It is squarely inside his middle period, about a single day in the life of a neurosurgeon who has a chance encounter with a Huntington's disease suffering cockney gangster in a fender bender caused by Iraqi war protestors.  The liberal use of brain surgeon language makes Saturday an ideal Kindle read- being able to touch a particular term and bring up the Wikipedia page before progressing was invaluable in this case, and you can count on McEwan for a reasonable length for all of his books. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Kafka on the Shore (2002) by Haruki Murakami



Book Review
Kafka on the Shore (2002)
by Haruki Murakami

  I would argue that a good principle for the 1001 Books project is that no single author should have more than 3 titles on the list.   The theory being that no author has more than three great periods, and there is no need for one period to be represented by more than one title.  Presumably, if you read the canonical title representing "Middle Murakami" you can go out and find the non canonical books on your own.   For any author, the first period is either the "first novel" or "early work," typically shorter than the representative of the "middle" or "mature" period, where the works tend to be lengthier, more imaginative, recognized my major literary awards, etc. Finally there is the "late" work, something more experimental, or perhaps a work of non-fiction or a work more personal in nature than the early or middle representative work.

   Under that schema, Kafka on the Shore would be the best representative of "Middle Murakami."  It is not only ambitious in terms of length (650 pages) but it also represents a more in depth explorations of themes both fantastical and mundane from his earlier books.   At the same time, Kafka on the Shore isn't that long- not compared to the 1000+ page 1Q84, which is probably the other strong contestant for the "Middle Murakami" pick.   Murakami's success in translation  has importance for what it tells us about his audience- which has a suspicious resemblance to what heavy users of the internet also appreciate, namely cats, Japanese culture and magical realism.

  When I checked, the paperback edition of Kafka on the Shore was the second top selling product on his Amazon page, behind only the pre-sale for his forth coming book Killing Commendatore.  He's published multiple titles, fiction and non-fiction since Kafka on the Shore was published in Japanese in 2002 (English 2005.) 

   I decided on the Audiobook version- generally speaking, the closer you get to the present, the more likely the major releases have a high quality Audiobook edition, and Kafka on the Shore qualifies.   At 20 hours, it's a hefty commitment, but Murakami's translated prose sounds great read aloud, and nothing is so complicated that you might want to stop and look at the print.   Listening to a Murakami audio book is like hearing someone tell you a story around a campfire. 

Celestial Harmonies (2004) by Peter Esterhazy


Book Review
Celestial Harmonies (2004)
 by Peter Esterhazy

   This 850 page monster by the scion of one Hungary's most famous aristocratic families is one of those English translations which works better in the UK, where the Esterhazy family name holds some actual clout among the cultural elite, than the US, where most people think Hungary is what happens when you don't eat, and the pedigrees of ancient European royalty function best as punch lines. 

  To be sure, the Esterhazy family got a raw deal of it when the Communists took over Hungary, but they handled it with aplomb, at least as depicted in this book.  In true European fashion, Celestial Harmonies is divided into two 400 page parts.  The first part, written as numbered paragraphs, are various observations about different members of the Esterhazy family line, stretching back in time to the origins of the family.  He includes entire portions of other books- actual entire pages of The Dead Father by Donald Barthelme- which he acknowledges both before and after the main text.

  The second half of Celestial Harmonies is a more or less conventional work of biographical fiction about the experience of Esterhazy's father under Communism.  Compared to similar stores about people living through Russian, Chinese and Cambodian versions of this same transition, the Esterhazy's had an easy time of it and to his credit, Esterhazy doesn't try overmuch to enlist the sympathy of the reader for his poor dad. 

Monday, April 16, 2018

Tropic of Cancer (1934) by Henry Miller


Book Review
Tropic of Cancer (1934)
 by Henry Miller

   The publication date of 1934 is misleading.  Tropic of Cancer wasn't published in the United States or Great Britain until 1961 and after that it figured prominently in the obscenity law spawned litigation that helped redraw the rules of free speech in the United States to their modern, lenient standards  This puts Henry Miller in the same category with James Joyce, whose frank descriptions in Ulysses made it another trailblazer in American publishing jurisprudence. Since then the debate has been whether Miller deserves it, helped by the tremendous popularity the suddenly-au-courant book involved with the start of the1960's.  Tropic of Cancer is the Paris book, Tropic of Capicorn the New York book.

   And while Tropic of Cancer may have been judged "not obscene" by the it certainly is a dirty book.  That is kind of the point, the over all dirtiness, both sexual and in terms of hygiene, that seems to be the very point of Henry Miller, a kind of non-religious spiritual mortification of the spirit, the 20th century equivalent of a medieval flagellant. I was young when I read Tropic of Cancer for the first time- high school.   As a 41 year old, Miller's sexual obsession is less interesting that it was to my 16 year old self, for obvious reasons.

   I think in terms of literary merit, the jury is still out on  Henry Miller. He's still read, because of his proximity to the Beats and the importance of his depiction of 1930's Paris in the psyche of the American back packer.  On the other hand, he is never spoken in the same breath as the pioneering Modernists, and nor is he an iconic mid century figure like Samuel Beckett.  He's also surely lost some audience in recent decades to Charles Bukowski, who transported the Miller-ian obsessions of sex, loafing and cadging to the sunny climes of Southern California. 

What I Loved (2003) by Siri Hustvedt


Book Review
What I Loved (2003)
by Siri Hustvedt

  Another educated guess from the original editors of the 1001 Books edition from 2006.  This is Siri Hustvedt's only appearance on the 1001 Books list.  The boxes she ticks for inclusionary purposes are not strong: white, educated, American, artistic, cosmopolitan.  In fact, her list of credentials seem more appropriate to a 19th century writer than one writing at the beginning of the 21st.   The privilege meter does not go down when you add the not strictly relevant but still interesting fact that she is married to list super favorite Paul Auster, making them number one power couple of the 1001 Books list, unless J.M. Coetzee is partnered to someone on the list.

  What I Loved reflects this background: The perspective of comfortable artists and academics living in pre-911 New York City.  The friendship at the center of What I Loved is between an art history professor at Columbia University, and a hard-to-describe but succesful studio artist.  Hustvedt doesn't neglect the early years entirely, but narrator Leo Hertzberg is a comfortable academic from start to finish, with nary a hint of privation that isn't self-inflicted.

  The problems which consume Hertzberg and artist Bill Wechsler are stereotypical, cold women, messed up children, absence or presence of significant others. Much of the heart of the book involves Wechsler's son, Mark, who becomes an interesting case in the manifestation of mental illness as things grind to their (close to 500 pages later) conclusion.  As an exercise in white privilege, it is an extraordinary book, perhaps a last gasp, or a companion piece to Auster's own considerable contribution.  The decision of a woman writing a book from the perspective of a man shouldn't itself be particularly novel, but it is, particularly a book that looks so closely at issues of male personality and is basically centered around the troubles of being a father.

  Judge from the principles of inclusion and diversity, Hustvedt is either an also ran or waiting for a chance to displace an Author like Joyce Carol Oates with a mid to late career masterpiece. 

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Heart of Darkness (1899) by Joseph Conrad

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The Francis Ford Coppola film, Apocalypse Now, is largely based on Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and the success of the film has done much to secure the status of Heart of Darkness as a canonical book. 
Book Review
Heart of Darkness (1899)
by Joseph Conrad

  I listened to Heart of Darkness as an audiobook narrated by Peter "Robocop" Weller.  Don't forget he also played William Burroughs in the movie version of Naked Lunch.  I've noticed that the older the underlying text, the more difficult the audiobook.  On the other hand, Heart of Darkness is a novella, not a full length novel, so that the audiobook version clocks in at under five hours.  Length, I've come to learn, is much more significant for an audiobook than it is for text, at least for me, because I read faster than the audiobooks run.

   Despite having five book in the 100 Books list, only one has appeared on this blog because I'd read all of them before this project had crystallized: Nostromo, The Secret Agent, Lord Jim.   There is no question in my mind that Joseph Conrad is one of those authors who has been done dirty by recent trends in North American academia.   As I've written on many occasions, I'm not adverse to the diversification of the canon- indeed, I think expansion and revision is the main point of a 21st century canon, but Conrad should be seen as an avatar of that process, rather than a last gasp of the "old white males" of the 19th century.

 Conrad took an audience that had been habituated to see the developing world as an "other" and made it possible for audiences to imagine them as real places, where morality should apply.   To get the point of decolonization, there needed to be an understanding of the reality of those places, both in terms of factual reporting and in the life of the Western mind.  There's no question that Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness as a cutting critique of Western Imperialism.  The fact that even his sympathetic characters have attitudes that squarely qualify as "racist" today were liberal in the context of Conrad's time. 

  And of course, one should not attribute the statements of Conrad's characters to the author himself. The horror that Kurtz envisions as he expires on the riverboat back to "civilization" is the intersection of the western thirst for ivory with the eagerness of locals to abet in their own destruction.  Ivory camps in the Congolese jungle was the earliest stage of the colonial exploitation of Africa.  The early days vibe of Heart of Darkness is also established by secondary images: The early description of a French warship literally firing into the African jungle, apropos of nothing, hitting nothing, accomplishing nothing, is just as evocative as the later meat of the story.
  

Thursbitch (2003) by Alan Garner


Book Review
Thursbitch (2003)
by Alan Garner

  Thursbitch, the 2003 novel by Scottish author Alan Garner is yet another fine example of the randomness that infects the last decade or so of selections for the first edition of the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list.  The title refers to a real-life valley Scotland.  The book intertwines the story of a contemporary geologist and his companion, tromping through the Thursbitch of today and finding strange artifacts, which are likely connected to the other narrative stream- about Jack Turner, a "jagger" or driver of pony teams hauling salt out of the moorlands, living in the 18th century.  Turner is the priest of a mysterious pre-Christian Celtic cult, centered around bull worship. 

  Both narrators address the reader mainly through conversation.  There is little of the signaling or "neutral" description of place and emotion that a reader would expect.  The impact is one of disorientation, as if, of course, the 18th century Celtic cult that of which Garner gives us brief glimpses.  Thursbitch was the first title I've come across that was available only as an Ebook.  Even though Thursbitch isn't lengthy, the difficult combination of Scotch 18th century dialogue and overall lack of signaling or explanation by the author made it a particularly poor choice as an Ebook.  Thursbitch is the kind of book you want to read in print or not at all.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Light of Day (2003) by Graham Swift


Book Review
The Light of Day (2003)
by Graham Swift

  Curious that the editors of 1001 Books would omit Graham Swift's Booker Prize winning novel, Last Orders and include The Light of Day, which is a sort of detective novel by way of the tradition of English kitchen sink style realism, about an ex cop, who resigned in disgrace, being hired by a woman to investigate an affair between her husband and a Bosnian refugee who has been living in their post suburban home.

   The plot is typical genre stuff, but the execution, both in terms of the non linear plot and the emphasis on the interior life of George the private investigator, makes The Light of Day a clearly literary rather than genre effort.   Has Graham Swift really made it in the United States? Several of his books have been made into films, but not in a really big, Hollywood, way.   He hasn't had any break through best selling books. His best books are experimental fiction. All signs point to no. 

Steppenwolf (1927) by Herman Hesse


Book Review
Steppenwolf (1927)
by Herman Hesse

  German author Heman Hesse has two core titles on the 1001 Books list, this book and Siddhartha (1922).  He also has two non-core titles, both of which were on the first list and removed in 2008.  I read all four Hesse books in high school.  Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1980's and 1990's, his paperbacks were readily available, cheap and plentiful, a consequence of his popularity among college students in the area and status as a counter-cultural icon, decades ahead of his time.   I read Steppenwolf in 9th or 10th grade, undoubtedly the best time to read a book that is, at best, a pile of romantic clap-trap.

  Steppenwolf has been so influential on the generation of cultural sophisticates from the 1960's onward that it is possible to understand the book merely on the basis of the tropes or cliches it has generated in popular culture.  Not the least of those is the rock band, of the same name, which had multiple "good time" party rock hits in the late 1960's.  Less obviously, there is every style or ideological manifestation of "the sixties" all of which seem to be expressed by Hesse, writing in German, in 1927, about what was to come. The line though, between Hesse in 1927 and the Summer of Love, in 1968 is not direct, since it was in fact those same group who "re-discovered" Hesse and brought him back from obscurity.

 It's not fair to separate them, the artist revived and the audience which participates in the revival. I haven't made a study of it, but just based on my personal experience, San Francisco and the environs were positively flooded with Hess paperback in the decades after the 1960's, meaning a vast number of people must have been reading these newly reissued, sometimes retranslated, editions.  The Hesse revival phenomenon is an excellent example of the rarely observed direct revival, where a forgotten writer is almost wholly exhumed and revived.  Such events fly in the face of the capital industrial complex, since they reduce the amount of audience attention for new products, and open up the possibility of profitable intellectual property which is owned by no one (public domain titles).

  This time, I listened to an audiobook recording, narrated by Peter "Robocop" Weller. It was terrible! Something I've noticed about audiobook is that the older the underlying text, the less amenable it is audiobook adaptation. Prove me wrong, Los Angeles Public Library Overdrive App. 

Memoirs of a Geisha (1997) by Arthur Golden

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Zhang Ziyi played Chiyo Sakamoto (Geisha name Sayuri Nitta) in the Rob Marshall directed movie version of Memoirs of a Geisha.
Book Review
Memoirs of a Geisha (1997)
by Arthur Golden

  Is there a bigger one hit wonder in 20th century literature than Arthur Golden?  He published Memoirs of Geisha in 1997, and as far as I can tell, hasn't done anything else. The only blemish on the status of Memoirs of a Geisha as an enduring classic is a less-than-fully-succesful but still pretty decent movie version, which managed to cast every Asian actress of note in the lead roles, and be directed by Rob Marshall, in the same movie.  Honestly the way Hollywood works I wouldn't have been surprised to see Scarlett Johansson in the cast listing.

  In 2018, the very existence of a book written by a white American purporting to the Memoirs of a Geisha, even one as well written as this book, borders on cultural appropriation.  This queasy feeling is reinforced by a lawsuit by one of his primary sources for interviews when Memoirs of a Geisha was translated into Japanese. Perhaps the most charitable way to look at Memoirs is as a loving act of homage to a poorly documented time period, but then again, Memoirs is not particularly kind to Japanese society. Little Chiyo Sakamoto is essentially sold into slavery by her father, a poor fisherman with a drinking problem. Her sister is sold directly into a house of prostitution, the prettier Chiyo is apprenticed as a Geisha.

  As Chiyo-then-Sayuri observes during the course of the book, Geisha are neither prostitutes nor mistresses but the succesful ones are largely within the category of "kept women" in terms of their relationship with a primary benefactor who supports her various endeavors, which include yearly dance performances, and endless rounds of entertaining at the various tea houses in town.

  Part of the appeal of Memoirs of a Geisha is the status of the Gion district of Kyoto as the last stronghold of "traditional" geisha culture, uninfluenced by Western modes of dress, style and culture.  Only after the traumatic events of World War II do Americans emerge as peripheral characters, and only at the end of the book does Sayuri make her way to America, presumably the basis for the many comparisons to Western culture that pervade her recollections.  

  One difference between this book and a hypothetical book written by a Japanese author is of course the frequency of those comparisons.  While Japanese literature may be influenced by Western literature, the characters rarely, if ever have cause to comment or interact with the West.  It's probably that added level of context, which, ultimately, is only likely to be introduced by a non-Japanese author that was perhaps the key to the widespread success Memoirs of a Geisha saw in the marketplace.

  

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