VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016) by Madeline Thien

Image result for madeleine thien
Canadian author Madeline Thien made it the Booker Prize short-list in 2016 with Do Not Say We Have Nothing, her epic family drama about the cultural revolution.
Book Review
Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016)
by Madeline Thien

  Do Not Say We Have Nothing was the break-out novel for Canadian author Madeline Thien. Specifically, when it made it to the Booker Prizer short-list,  This was followed almost immediately by the release of her 2011 novel, Dogs at the Perimeter, in the United States, in 2017.    Dogs at the Perimeter covered the impact of the Khmer Rouge on survivors,  Do Not Say We Have Nothing covers similar psychic territory, but on a grander scale, tackling China and the impact of it's cultural revolution and the events at Tienanmen square.

  I'm convinced that the cultural revolution is THE literary event of 20th century China.  What makes it so interesting is that so many people who were caught up in the process of arrest and re-education returned to power, from the top down, including Deng Xioaping, who has to be seen as the hero of 20th century Chinese history.  Do Not Say We Have Nothing is the kind of sweeping, multi-generational work of historical fiction that is content to simply narrate some amazing personal histories without showy post-modern narrative techniques.   That makes her Booker Prize short-list even more surprising- the only "angle" on Do Not Say We Have Nothing is that it is about China, with a light over-lay of contemporary Canada. 

  While there are dangers to embracing fiction as history, it's also a great starting point (fiction) for getting a general sense of historical events.  Especially if you are talking about reading about history outside of school- you don't really need history books themselves per se, it's just a question of finding the right fiction.   Do Not Say We Have Nothing is not a short book- I read it on my Galaxy phone Kindle app, via the ability to borrow Ebooks through the Los Angeles Public Library system.  Most major US library systems have signed up for that.  You can also get almost every new Audiobook, as well.  They only have a few copies of each title but unless it's brand new demand is low for literary fiction.

 I'd actually consider buying a copy of this book if I saw it in a store, like a hardback edition.  It would look good on a book shelf I'm sure. Impressive- at 450 pages- a drag reading on my phone- it actually tells you that the book takes a normal reader almost nine hours.  I managed it in half that but that still is a long time to be reading on your phone.  But reading on your phone opens up time to read when you can't reasonably pull out a book- and is also good if you have the television on and lighting is low.

The Heart of Redness (2000) by Zakes Mda


Book Review
The Heart of Redness (2000)
 by Zakes Mda

    Zakes Mda is the kind of author I had in mind when I started reading all 1001 Books from the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list.  He is South African. I'd go so far as to say that he is little known inside the United States, with a higher profile in the UK.  He's won some awards in the UK, particularly for this very book, which is about the amaXhosa people of South Africa and their past and present.  Mda's narrative switches between the awakening of Camagu, a Westernized amaXhosa who has recently returned from 30 years of life in the United States to find his way in post-liberation South Africa.

  Disappointments in the city related to his status as a returnee ("Where were you when we danced the freedom dance?" is the line that Camagu uses as short-hand fr his failure to land a job) lead him to the township of Qolorha-by-Sea, the point of origin for the Nongqawuse movement- a milenarian cult that led to the slaughter of large amounts of cattle by the amaXhosa in preparation for the imminent arrival of an earthly paradise.  Camagu arrives in the late 20th century to find the people still split between "Believers" and "Unbelievers."

  This disagreements are pushed to the fore when investors from Johannesburg arrive with plans to turn the unspoiled coast into a casino-resort.  Meanwhile, Camagu finds love with Qukeswa, daughter of the leader of the Believers (those who still hold with the prophetess from the 19th century).  Prominent in the local community is Dalton, the son of an English military officer, who speaks the local language better than many locals. 

  While Mda's prose style can be clunky, there is no missing the sophistication of his portrayal of this familiar debate of the development of special natural places.  He links past to present in unpredictable ways and he avoids all of the prat-falls that accompany a century of white western Europeans writing about what dark-skinned people think.

  

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Human Stain (2000) by Philip Roth


Book Review
The Human Stain (2000)
 by Philip Roth

    The most amazing aspect of Philip Roth's career, aside from the fact of his never winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, is his late period productivity.  Within the first edition of the 1001 Books list, he is represented by Portnoy's Complaint (1969), his breakthrough.  From 1972 the editors decided to include The Breast.  Then, bam, it's the 1990's, and Roth has Operation Shylock (1993), Sabbath's Theatre (1995), American Pastoral (1997), this book and The Plot Against America (2004).  He lost four of those titles in the first revision.  It makes sense in that almost every author who is represented by four or more titles in the first list loses half of those en route to the second, no doubt to allow more diverse voices into the canon making exercise.  Replacing four Philip Roth novels between editions makes sense, the first list represents a kind of "before," and then subsequent revisions represent reactions to that first list.

  The Human Stain, along Portnoy's Complaint are his two books that are considered "core" i.e. never removed, titles from the whole run of 1001 Books revisions.   That would make The Human Stain Roth's best book, since Portnoy's Complaint is his first.  "Best and First" might be a maxim for would-be canon creators seeking to eliminate multiple works from the same creator.   The Human Stain is a "Nathan Zuckerman" novel, as is American Pastoral.  Nathan Zuckerman is the main narrator in this series of Roth books, a Roth-esque- though not actually "Philip Roth"- that's a different set of Philip Roth novels, represented in the first edition of the 1001 Books list with Operation Shylock.

  Zuckerman, in both The Human Stain and American Pastoral is a succesful writer living in semi-retirement in rural New York, in the vicinity of a small liberal arts college. He is single, no children, impotent and incontinent as the result of prostate cancer surgery.   In the Nathan Zuckerman novel he relates the stories of people he encounters.  In The Human Stain that person is Coleman Silk, the long-time Professor and Dean of nearby Athena College, recently retired in the aftermath of a "only in the 90's" struggle over Silk's use of the word "spook" to describe two perpetually absent African American students.

  His disgrace is followed shortly by the death of his much beloved wife.  Silk takes up with a local woman, an illiterate former run away who works at his former school as a janitor.  This relationship causes an uproar in the small community.  Silk, meanwhile is concealing a life time secret, and one known to any reader who knows anything of this book- he is black, born black, and has lived his life as a white man.

 More apparent in The Human Strain than in American Pastoral is the extraordinarily sophisticated use of Nathan Zuckerman as both a major character, narrator and WRITER of the text presented to the reader.  This last bit allows the insertion of entire chapters written from the perspective of characters besides Zuckerman- giving The Human Stain incredible depth, while also maintaining the strong narrative voice of Zuckerman himself.   Thus, Silk's secret- that he is African-American passing for white, is revealed first in a chapter from the final book written by Zuckerman about the events of The Human Stain- written from the perspective of Silk itself.  Later, close to the end of the book, Zuckerman the character hears from Silk's sister the narrative that allows him to write the earlier portion of the book from the perspective of Silk himself.

  The Human Stain also seems to be a kind of commentary on the career of Roth himself, by Roth, through Zuckerman.  It's hard not to compare the kind of politically correct insanity that results in a professor being persecuted for using the term "spook" in class seems linked to the the failure of the Nobel Prize committee to recognize Roth's achievement.

 Or, you know, maybe not. I'm sure Roth himself would laugh at that last observation.
 


  

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Dogs at the Perimeter (2012) by Madeline Thien


Book Review
Dogs at the Perimeter (2012)
by Madeline Thien
Published in the United States in 2017 by W.W. Norton

  Originally published in her native Canada and the UK, Dogs at the Perimeter finally got a US release in the fall of last year.  Presumably that had something to do with her 2016 novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, making it onto the Booker Prize short-list.  If South Asian writers were the hot thing in the 1990's and 2000's, it is hard to argue with the proposition that East Asian writers and themes are the hot thing for the present decade. Certainly there are subjects a plenty, at least including multiple genocide level type events in China and Cambodia.  Do Not Say We Have Nothing is about China, and Dogs at the Perimeter is about Cambodia.  Specifically, Dogs at the Perimeter is about the experience of the characters at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

  The protagonist is Janie, a native of Cambodia who managed to escape (only after the death of both of her parents) and relocate in Montreal, where she works as a scientist studying the brain.  Dogs at the Perimeter is worth reading simply because of the factual type description of living through the first years of the Khmer Rouge.  If you happen to be unfamiliar, basically the Khmer Rouge marched into the capital, Phnom Phen, and forcibly relocated the entire population, murdering everyone who either worked for the government or qualified as an "intellectual."  Janie's father, a freelance interpreter, apparently qualified under the latter category.

  Janie's description of the past is interspersed with her complicated life in the present, obviously suffering from PTSD and obsessed with finding her colleague, a fellow scientist who emigrated from Japan as a child with his family.  His brother disappeared during the 1970's while he was working as a Red Cross doctor in Cambodia.   What the reader learns is that there is always hope amongst the ruins, but that the impact of that destruction on the human mind can bar a return to the prelapsarian state. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

An Obedient Father (2000) Akhil Sharma


Book Review
An Obedient Father (2000)
 Akhil Sharma

  Speaking of Indian-themed novels from the end of the 20th century.  Another debut novel, no less.  Like Arundhati Roy, Sharma waited over a decade to write another book, Family Life, published in 2014.   You really risk...losing your audience...when you wait more than five years between putting out works like books, movies or albums that seek to balance serious and popular art.  Obviously for pure pop the audience attention span is shorter- the idea of a work a year has historically been considered optimum, although now a multi-market promotional cycle including publication and some kind of supporting touring appearances can run two or three years   The cycle takes different shapes for different art forms.

  Of course, the financial consequences of a "hit" in any of these cycles lasts far longer than the promotional cycle itself.  It can be decades, a lifetime of income.  I'm not saying that is the case here, Sharma.  Having a "hit" in the literary fiction world is something like getting Best New Music in Pitchfork:  You can parlay it into big money, but by itself it's not worth a lifetime of financial security.

  An Obedient Father is most notable for its depiction of the most memorable villain in Indian literary fiction, Ram Karan, a widower and "bag man" for a local Congress Party functionary.  The corruption in his job is mirrored by corruption in his private life, notably an incestuous dalliance with his now adult daughter, Anita, who is herself widowed and living in Karan's tiny flat with her own daughter, Asha.

  The events take place against the backdrop of the assassination of Rajiv Ghandi, the last representative of the Congress Party dynasty.  His death was a crucial turning point in the rise of the rightist Hindu fundamentalist party BJP.  This rise is mirrored in the plot of An Obedient Father, as Karan's mentor is induced to betray the Congress Party and run for office as a representative of the BJP.  Karan tries to navigate the rapids of politics while the consequences of his behavior with Anita, graphically depicted in the text of the book, come home to roost after twenty years of denial.

   The 1990's were a break out for Indian literature in the West, as well as the literature of South Asia.  Sharma is at the tail end of the initial post-Rushdie explosion, but he also represents an evolution, with a level of graphic detail absent from earlier books. Sharma's India stinks, metaphorically and actually, and it is hard not to be repelled by this world.  Call it progress.

The God of Small Things (1997) by Arundhati Roy


Book Review
The God of Small Things  (1997)
 by Arundhati Roy

  The God of Small Things was THE break out international literary fiction hit of 1997-1998.  Roy won the Booker Prize- unusual for a debut novel and the first non-expatriate Indian author to win the award.  Plus, you know, she's a woman.   Last summer she finally published her follow-up, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which promptly failed to make the Booker short list.   I'm pretty sure the American release was a sales flop.  That makes her a candidate for the biggest one-hit wonder of late 20th century literature.  I have no problem with one hit wonders- better one hit than no hits at all, that is what I say.

  The God of Small Things is set in Kerala state in India.  It's a not unfamiliar locale for Indian novels, since the area has a hugely diverse population including ancient communities of Syrian Christians, Jews and Portuguese.   This makes it an inviting location for ambitious Indian authors looking for a draw for non-Indian readers, and The God of Small Things makes good on that promise by describing the Syrian Christian community. Like many novels set in India, I find myself going to Wikipedia just to confirm the truth of these exotic "Western" religious communities inside India.

  The plot, which zigs and zags back and forth across time, is not particularly inventive, with it's theme of forbidden love in cast conscious India, but Roy's execution is dazzling, and her characters multi-dimensional.  The theme of twins, so prominent in fiction across the developing world, is important here and of course, as for almost every novel set in India, India itself is a major draw.  I have to say...reading fiction about India makes me very much NOT to want to visit the place, which I think is unusual, but perhaps a testament to the realism of the authors who emerged in the 80's and 90's.


Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Pastoralia (2000) by George Saunders


Book Review
Pastoralia (2000)
by George Saunders

   Pastoralia is a collection of short stories from Booker Prize winning novelist George Saunders.  Now that the question of "but can he write a novel?" has been definitely answered in the affirmative, short story collections like Pastoralia no longer have to shoulder the burden of Saunders reputation.   The title story, about a man living inside a "human zoo" is the clear stand out, the other stories traverse similar thematic territory- humans disconnected and alienated from their surroundings, often carrying on internal monologues that ignore the outside world.


Spring Flowers, Spring Frost (2002) by Ismail Kadare


Book Review
Spring Flowers,  Spring Frost (2002)
 by Ismail Kadare

 Ismail Kadare is Albania's contribution to the world literary canon, one of a small group of Balkan-area novelists to penetrate the English language market for literary fiction.  Most of Kadare's books were originally written in Albanian, and simultaneously published in Albanian and French, and the English language push has come via translations of the French editions.

Mark Gurabardhi is the protagonist- a young artist living in post-Communist Albania. He has an up and down relationship with his artist model, she is vexed by her familial entanglement in the revival of the medieval "blood laws" AKA "the kanun" of Albania. Kadare alternates the main narrative with chapters that are more allegorical in nature, including the "real" story of a young woman forced to marry a snake. 

  It's all very European turn-of-the-21st century-literary fiction, ennui/mild depression, under employment, rootlessness and a loss of purpose, you know, European literary fiction.  The Albanian locale isn't quite as distinctive as it was in his books written prior to the collapse of Communism, now his Albania reads like Eastern Europe with blood feuds. I'm writing as a fan of Albania from way back, and I acknowledge that Kadare is extremely prolific.  I wonder if this is the book to include in the 1001 Books project alongside Broken April (1978). 

Monday, February 12, 2018

Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind (2007) by Colin Renfrew


Book Review
Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind (2007)
by Colin Renfrew

  There was a point in time, maybe eight or nine years ago, when I seriously considered doing a version of this blog that focused on history instead of literature, something like an attempt to cover all the history in a set number of books, but I abandoned the idea, because it's just too much- particularly before I figured out the library request system and starting picking up books for free- buying state of the art history books from academic presses is likely to cost you thousands of dollars a year, subscribing to academic journals is just as much, or it requires a trip to a specialty library.  Writing about history books isn't very fun.   Ultimately, much of a what a wider audience considers "interesting" in terms of history subjects are 1) wars 2) presidents.  If you are interested in world history, good luck!

  But I like to dip in and out, particularly when it comes to ancient civilizations and current thinking about the development of modern consciousness in that context.  Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind is particularly rare in that it is a general interest title that addresses that very subject, published by the Modern Library and under 200 pages long- a readable synthesis of work into the area up till about 2005-2006. 

  Of course, since then the major development in this area has been the development of LIDAR- ground searching laser technology- which has revealed gigantic cityscapes in the densest jungle, and vastly expanding our level of knowledge which have lagged in understanding.  Renfrew spends much of Prehistory recounting the history of the study of Prehistory, making the very obvious point that the study of prehistory has been dramtically shaped by colonialism and an over-emphasis on theory developed based on findings made in Western Europe, with Franc playing a particularly important role.

  For Renfrew, it's the intersection of radioactive dating technology and the emerging science of genetic pre history which draws his greatest attention in the chapters that cover current developments in this area.  He makes the emphatic point that one subject that genetics has settled is that, genetically speaking, all humanity is genetically very, very, similar, in that we all descend from a small group that left Africa sixty thousand years ago.  Thus, differences between human populations can not be explained genetically, especially in terms of "superior" or "inferior" genetics for particular groups.  The difference we observe- skin color- for example, represents a very recent, minor, difference.

  Renfrew, writing with his general audience in mind, makes it clear that a real "comparative prehistory" is still being formulated.  The study of prehistory from an archaeological perspective carries the clear influence of "area studies" with a particular intrusion from ideas surrounding nationalism or the aforementioned colonialism.  The expansion of interest in hithero under explored areas like Amazonia, South East Asia and Central America is to be applauded.

 The development of LIDAR technology has proved most important in those areas that are precisely those most neglected- Amazonia, South East Aisa and Central America- all areas with "jungle" type land cover making exploration from the ground impossible.   The major problem that Renfrew leaves unresolves is the contrast between peoples that have All Powerful leaders who create massive monumental architecture and those that create those same structures without putting forward a dynastic leader.  The Egyptian Pyramids vs. Stonehenge, for example. 

The Emigrants (1992) by W. G. Sebald


Book Review
The Emigrants (1992)
 by W. G. Sebald

   I was reading a book review last week when the reviewer called the book, "Sebaldian" referring to a combining of text and photos, narrative and non fiction, with a recognizably melancholic weltanschauung.    Sebald's Emigrants are Germans, most of them grappling with the after effects of World War II, a good portion of them commit suicide at the end of their chapter.

  It's remarkable that Sebald has established an international English language audience- not exactly contemporaneous, the 1992 publication date is from the German language version, the English translation followed in 1996.  If you don't know it can be hard to tell that you are reading a book that has been translated from another language- many of the locations are in the United Kingdom, and other than the characters all being from Germany, there is nothing particularly "German" about the proceeding.  I mean, wrestling with the consequences of the Holocaust- not exclusively a German subject, but something that German authors tend to obsess over. 

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