VANISHED EMPIRES

Dedicated to classics and hits.

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. 

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