VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Mabel Normand: The Life and Career of a Hollywood Madcap (2016) by Timothy Dean Lefler


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Mabel Normand was a silent era films star, famous for her performances in Mack Sennet's early comedies. 
Book Review
Mabel Normand: The Life and Career of a Hollywood Madcap
by Timothy Dean Lefler
Published 2016 by McFarland

  What happens to art and artists after the art or artist ceases to maintain an audience?  It’s a very valid question when it comes to the level of interest in the stars and films of the silent film era.  If I had to pick a single example of an art form that had an absolutely huge fan base in its heyday, and now has literally no popular audience, it would be the silent film.  Based on my formulation of the question, the first necessary observation is that the popular artists and films are no longer written about or discussed.   They pass into a shadowy second life, often rich with the proceeds of their work but no longer famous. 

  Today, in 2018, the figure who best represents this scenario is the character of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard by Billy Wilder. Desmond was at least partially based on Mabel Normand, a comedienne/actress who starred in many early comedies from the Mack Sennett studios and went on to develop an incredible reputations as a cocaine addict, be implicated in one murder and another shooting and died of tuberculosis in her 30’s.

  She also cultivated a reputation for bookishness.  It’s impossible to read a single page about Desmond without someone (often herself) mentioning Freud and Nietzsche, and that she had read both authors. Timothy Lefler, the author of Mabel Normand: The Life and Career of a Hollywood Madcap seems like a capable “super fan” type, he acknowledges some of the darkness surrounding Normand (because how can you not) but steers away from speculation, let alone any independent research.

  Cocaine was actually legal in the United States until 1915, meaning that Normand would have enjoyed a legal habit until well after she became famous.  If you read widely about silent-era Hollywood, the depiction of the drug culture is muted.  I’m not sure if there is any deep work about the nuts and bolts of it, but it seems clear that Normand was in the middle of it.


  She was exonerated in her most famous escapade, as the last person to see famous Hollywood film director William Desmond Taylor before he was murdered.  Taylor was well known for trying to help Normand kick her habit, but the sources there are as self-serving and unreliable as any about Old Hollywood.   There is no doubt in my mind that the secret history of silent-era Hollywood is a creative gold mine.  You’ve got sex, drugs, historical fiction and the culture of celebrity. 

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Enduring Love (1997) by Ian McEwan


Book Review
Enduring Love (1997)
 by Ian McEwan

  The problem with writing about the books of Ian McEwan is that he specializes in the third act twist, and any casual discussion risks ruining the pleasure the reader might derive from McEwan's expertise in plotting.  Enduring Love, about two strangers, both men, whose lives become intertwined after they jointly witness a horrific ballooning accident, falls squarely into this description.   Joe Rose, 47, a failed physicist and successful writer of "pop science" non fiction, is having a quiet picnic in the countryside with his Keats-scholar girlfriend when they see a hot-air balloon with a small child in the basket, threatening to escape the grasp of the operator.

   Rose, along with several other men in the area, try to stop the balloon from flying away.  One of the would-be good Samaritans continues to hold onto the rope while all the others, including Rose, let go.  The man who remains holding onto the rope plummets to his death from a great height shortly thereafter.  In the aftermath, one of the other witnesses, a sad loner named Jed Parry becomes obsessed with Rose and this obsession drives the rest of the book. 

  The third act twist, when it comes, is as satisfying as any. Reading McEwan is always a pleasure.  His achievement is to write books steeped in dread and bad feeling that are easy and fun to read.  His successful combination of literary function and the pleasures of genre fiction mark all of his books.

The Elementary Particles (1998) by Michel Houellebecq


Book Review
The Elementary Particles (1998)
 by Michel Houellebecq

   French author Michel Houellebecq is the reigning bad boy of French literature.  His most recent novel, Submission, was an exercise in speculative fiction which imagined a France that has willingly capitulated to a vocal Muslim minority.  It led to howls of protest from certain quarters of the literary establishment, but such howls are par for the course for Houellebecq, a pattern he established with the success of The Elementary Particles (called Atomised in the UK edition), his second novel, and the work that established him as one of the only writers from France in the 1990's who got his books translated into English, and read by audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.

   It is easier to describe The Elementary Particles than to say what, exactly it is about.   Two half brothers are essentially abandoned by their mother, a pleasure seeking 1960's era hippie type, with money, who is only interested in herself (after this book was published, Houellebecq's actual mother made a huge stink about how she was nothing like the mother in The Elementary Particles.  One son, Bruno, becomes a pleasure obsessed sybarite, with the whole of his being focused on obtaining sexual pleasure.  Michel, the other son, becomes a scientist, whose research leads to the extinction of the human race in favor of a sexless successor race.
 
  The ending makes the rest of the book sound super science fictiony, but that is not the case.  Rather, The Elementary Particles reads like a depiction of the anomie of contemporary existence among the educated classes of France, with a science fiction ending tacked on to the back.   The Elementary Particles was controversial in France for the frank depiction of sex.  That said, the sex is so empty and ultimately meaningless that it makes The Elementary Particles the opposite of pornography.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

My Absolute Darling (2017) by Gabriel Tallent


Book Review
My Absolute Darling (2017)
 by Gabriel Tallent

   This debut novel from Northern California born author Gabriel Tallent packs an emotional wallop- the kind of wallop that endears an author to a critical audience and potentially alienates the broader popular audience (we're talking about the popular audience for literary fiction here, not the broader "reading public.")  It's the kind of book that gets people talking, and piques the interest of potential audience members because of the strength of reaction that it evokes from those that have read it.  In short, My Absolute Darling has all the makings of a career establishing hit.  At the same time, the subject matter is NC-17 and explicitly deals with sexual subjects that are still, vaguely, beyond the pale of polite discourse.

   Julia "Turtle" Alveston is the only daughter of Martin Alveston, a Mendocino county recluse.  Martin mixes a love of automated weapons with a healthy distrust for authority figures.  He is also indisputably mentally ill, in ways that become apparent almost from jump street. Mom is nowhere to be found, allegedly having disappeared "diving for abalone."  People actually do die that way, but it seems clear that it is equally likely that Martin killed Mom and covered up with the abalone story.

  Turtle is torn between a real love for her father, who has his good moments, and an almost feverish desire to escape, tempered by her knowledge that "Daddy" as she calls him, would not take her departure well.  Further discussion of the plot risks spoilers, but I found the location detail (the wild Mendocino coast) richly observed, as well as the detail about what it actually means to be a wacko survivalist, or at least the child of one.  Rest be assured, Turtle knows her way around a firearm, and she is also chock full of survival skills... of all types.  Ultimately it becomes clear that Turtle is the only real survivalist in the family but the ride to get that point is so harrowing that it might turn off the weak of heart among potential audience member.s

Monday, January 15, 2018

Tipping the Velvet (1998) by Sarah Waters


Book Review
Tipping the Velvet (1998)
by Sarah Waters

  The auspicious first novel by Welsh author Sarah Waters, Tipping the Velvet introduced her successful formula of blending historical fiction with LGBT issues.   Tipping the Velvet was a clever idea: a picaresque novel, typically associated with 18th century literature, taking place at the turn of 20th century, written on the cusp of the 21st century.  In doing so, she solves one of the reoccurring problems with literature in the late 20th century.  When new groups emerge with new voices, they run up against the deep pessimism of serious literature.  "Happy endings" in the realm of literary fiction are few and far between.  In fact, the mere depiction of a conventional resolution in serious fiction can be reason enough for an audience to reject that book.

   At the same time, Authors seeking to establish a new viewpoint in literary fiction don't want to create characters consumed with hatred and self-loathing.  Frequently, the solution is to start with early struggles and end with some kind of resolution involving the stable maintenance of the particular situation being depicted.  By utilizing the picaresque format, which typically features a narrator who exists outside of conventional moral behavior, she neatly sidesteps the self-hatred that infects most 20th century literature.   Nan, the show girl turned prostitute turned kept woman turned content housewife to a union organizer, is the real picaresque article- no pretense of moral growth here, as a reader would expect in a bildungsroman.  The picaresque format also frees her from looking the tragic aspects of 19th century lesbian life in London in the face.  After all, picaresque is pre-realism, so an educated reader, recognizing that format, will release Waters from 20th century expectations about characters and their moral activity.

  The most important fact to recognize about Tipping the Velvet is that it is readable and entertaining, long but not overlong, challenging but not difficult.  By focusing on her depiction of lesbian life in London in 1890's, she is returning to an era which was rich with incident but poorly depicted because of conventional morality of the Edwardian era.
   

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Everything You Need (1999) by A.L. Kennedy


Book Review
Everything You Need (1999)
by A.L. Kennedy

  A.L. Kennedy (female) is another writer from the explosion of Scottish literature, or at least, the international audience for Scottish literature.   It seems to me that Scotland was a close-in beneficiary of the movement to embrace "post-colonial" literature.  It also benefited from being the culture nearest to English/American audiences: foreign, but not too foreign.  For the writers who eschewed titles in Scottish dialect, the difference can seem negligible.

  Everything You Need is largely set on Foal Island, a bleak location with a dark history, but located off the coast of Wales, not Scotland.   Nathan Staples has taken up semi-permanent residence at a writers fellowship, where he muses on his failures and generally mucks about.  Staples is what you call a "commercially successful" writer- descriptions of his work  make him sound vaguely Stephen Kingish, or to find a more Scottish example, Iain Banks.   His life is thrown into disorder when the daughter who was taken from him, and in fact does not know of his existence.

 It's all very sharply observed, and holds a particular appeal for anyone with pretensions of being a "writer."  On the other hand, it's 500 plus pages of a tirelessly self involved writer locked largely inside his head.  There is some startling incident to liven up the melancholy plot, and the character of his long-time publisher introduces an element of darkness deeper than the darkness implicit in the idea of a commercially successful writer mentoring the daughter who doesn't know he is her father, but everything stays largely predictable. 

The Romantics: A Novel (1999) by Pankaj Mishra


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Allahabad, in Uttar Pradesh in India- the most populous Indian state.

Book Review
The Romantics: A Novel (1999)
by Pankaj Mishra

   As far as canon eligibility/inclusion goes for first-time novelists, it is OK to write a book that everyone has read before, as long as you write it from a novel perspective.   The bildungsroman (coming of age story) and multi-perspective realist novel have been re-written since the early 19th century and each generation brings new perspectives:  that of middle and lower economic voices, German voices, Russian voices, European voices, then Latin American voices, African voices, female voices, LGBTQ voices, Asian voices.  In the late 1990's, voices from South Asia began to proliferate.  Pankaj Mishra is part of that 1990's wave of South Asian voices.

  Mishra's voice is that the post-independence dispossessed Brahmin, rich in cultural heritage and tradition, but suddenly economically dispossessed by post-independence economic dispossession.  At least that is the perspective of his narrator in The Romantics, which is  as traditionally a bildungsroman as any book written in the past 300 years.   Unlike writers like Rushdie and Naipaul, Mishra is not a part of the South Asian diaspora of the mid to late 20th century.  His European characters, of which there are many in The Romantics, are the foreigners.

  Samar, the narrator/protagonist, arrives in Allahabad, locaton of the local university for the Indian province (State? Department?) of Uttar Pradesh.  Uttar Pradesh is in the interior Hindu heartland of India, and an important location for the British colonial enterprise.   Samar goes to Allahbad to study at the famous colonial era university, now in a serious state of decline.   Because of the strong cross-over between Hindu culture and British presence, Allahabad also draws a share of Western seekers, and this is the group that Samar engages.

  The time period, and the portrayal of University life in India in the 1970's and 80's (and the 90's?) dovetails with the depiction in A Fine Balance by Rohinton Misty.  A Fine Balance and The Romantics complement each other, with thematic overlaps but enough serious difference to make both books worthwhile.

   

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Intimacy (1998) by Hanif Kureshi


Book Review
Intimacy (1998)
by Hanif Kureshi

   Kureshi writes about a middle aged writer (of television and film scripts) who decides to leave his wife and two children,  He spends their last night together brooding over the decision, examining his motives.  Intimacy is not a novel about divorce, rather it is a novella about the act of walking out on a wife and children.   Certainly, the vagaries of straight men and their issues with the loss of excitement and adventure in the context of "marriage and children;" is a well trodden path in contemporary literary fiction. I would also think that, within the audience for literary fiction the number of audience members who have personally experienced something similar to the experience of the narrator/leaver in Intimacy is close to 100%. 

   Kureshi was born in England to Pakistani parents, and this experience makes him an English writer of British fiction or a British writer of English fiction- take your pick.  There is nothing particularly South Asian about Intimacy's narrator except his background and physical description. He's more easily described as an international member of the "creative professional" caste that congregates in places like Los Angeles, New York and London (the setting of Intimacy).

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Home Fires (2017) by Kamila Shamsie


Book Review
Home Fires (2017)
 by Kamila Shamsie


   If I have a regret about this project, it's that my living circumstances over the past half decade haven't allowed me to BUY many of the books I've read.  If being an audience member is an aesthetic act, the primary action available to the conscious reader is to BUY the books involved.  Instead, I've checked out over 90% of them from the library.   During that time I've sold a house in San Diego, rented a condo, occupied an apartment in Los Angeles with my boo, moved with her to a house in another part of Los Angeles, moved out of the condo in San Diego and now, finally, purchased a home in Los Angeles (Atwater village, come and say hi!)  I've been careful not to accumulate possessions this entire time- basically since 2013 or so.  Thus, while I've been reading plenty, I haven't been supporting the authors.  That's less important for the older titles, but now that I am firmly in the world of contemporary fiction, I believe that participating as an aesthetic audience member requires BUYING not checking out, the books involved.

   Home Fires is the recent novel by Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie.  It was longlisted for the Booker Prize last year, and I selected it because the perspective of a FEMALE author from South Asia is one that I am interested in exploring.  Home Fires is Shamsie's take on Antigone, the ancient Greek play by Sophocles.  In Antigone, a teenage girl is forced to choose between obeying the laws of her Kingdom and her religion when her brother betrays his King and is ordered to be left unburied, a grave violation of Greek religious law.

  This scenario is transported to the present day, where a pair of adult sisters is forced to deal with the choice of the twin of the younger brother to become a jihadi, serving in the Islamic state media division.   The older sister, Isma, leaves London for Cambridge to pursue her PHD in sociology. While there she meets Eamonn, the only son of a Pakistani-English politician with a reputation for calling out his own people. Eamonn forms a connection with Isma, but he returns to England and promptly falls for Aneeka, the younger sister of Isma and twin of jihadi Pervaiz.  Shamsie switches between perspectives, including Eamonn's politician father in the mix.

  As tension builds, the reader is thrust into the perspective of English citizens of Pakistani decent, who feel crushed between the pressures of English disapproval,  Muslim comraderie and their own desires and ambitions. 

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Timbuktu (1999) by Paul Auster


Book Review
Timbuktu (1999)
 by Paul Auster

  Timbuktu is the book Paul Auster wrote from the POV of a dog,  Mr. Bones, the faithful companion of a colorful hobo who calls himself Willy G. Christmas, despite being the child of Jewish holocaust survivors.  Like every Auster novel except 4 3 2 1, Timbuktu is read and done in a blink- under 150 pages, I believe.   Timbuktu is one of the first books I've read with a major homeless character portrayed in a complex and sympathetic way.  Christmas is no stereotypical hobo.  During the course of Timbuktu it is revealed that he was once a promising Columbia University undergraduate, a roommate, in fact, of a writer named Paul Auster.  Experimentation with drugs leads to a psychotic break and a life time of wandering, interspersed with winters spent at the home of his long-suffering mother. 

   It is hard to imagine this as a canonical title- any canon- since Auster is so prolific and already well represented due to his combination of Americanness, commercial viability and critical success.   No surprise that Timbuktu was dropped from the 2008 revision of 1001 Books.

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