Dedicated to classics and hits.

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.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam (2013) by G.W. Bowersock

Image result for kingdom of himyar
The Yemeni-Arab Jewish Kingdom of Himyar
Book Review
The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam (2013)
Emblems of Antiquity Series by Oxford University Press
by G.W. Bowersock

I'm very interested in the history of the ancient (i.e. before Christ) world and the time after that until the emergence of Islam in the 700's.   The history of the ancient near east after Rome and before Islam is obscure on a number of levels.  First, the super powers of the time, Byzantium and the Sassinian (Persian) Empire, aren't themselves particularly well known in the West, and any kind of English language historical interest is essentially non-existent.

  The story that The Throne of Adulis: Red Sea Wars on the Eve of Islam, takes place on the fringe of that Byzantium/Sassanian opposition, in what is today Yemen and the horn of Africa.  The time period describe is the mid 6th century.  The players include a Greek-Ethiopian speaking Christian King who invaded an Arab-Jewish state who were oppressing their own Arab-Christian minority.   The fact that any of this places of things existed in this time and place might well come as a shock to anyone familiar with modern day Yemen and the horn of Africa.  In fact, scholarly consensus on the existence of the Arab-Jewish state located in modern day Yemen is itself a matter of some controversy.

   Bowersock treats this Arab-Jewish state as historical fact.  It was called the Kingdom of Himyar and the population- not just the rulers- converted to Judaism around 380 AD.   Other inhabitants of Himyar converted to Christianity at the same time.  The Jewish state was concentrated in the south, and the Christians in the north.  Meanwhile, what we would call the "Ethiopian" Kingd Com in Africa was Christian, but a different kind of Christian then the Byzantine's, so they had an awkward relationship.  The Jews of Himyar were a proxy for the Persians- the Persians being perceived as the historical "good guys" (vs. the Bad Guys of Rome and Byzantium).

   The point of this book is to assert the historical truth of the massacre of hundreds of Christians at the hands of the Jewish ruler of Himyar, Yusuf, in 522, which ultimately provided justification for the invasion of Arabia  by the Ethiopians in 525.  The point of this book is to point out that all this actually happened.  Bowersock stitches together the evidence from a variety of disparate and obscure sources- basically stuff that is just impossible to look at and often written in other languages.  Bowersock is also trying to make the point that this geo-political situation MUST have influence Muhammad and the development of Islam, which took place north, in the still pagan tribal areas of mid Arabia.

   

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Butcher Boy (1992) by Patrick McCabe


Book Review
The Butcher Boy (1992)
 by Patrick McCabe

  I remember watching the film version of this book in theaters.  It was frightening and surreal, about the turmoil surrounding a neglected/abused boy-man growing up in rural Ireland in the mid 1960's.  Francis "Francie" Brady is the narrator and main character, speaking to the audience in a modified stream of consciousness which drifts between reality and fantasy without so much as a how-do-you-do as to which is which.  Initially, the combination of stream-of-consciousness and Irish dialect is confusing, but as the book moves through it's 220 pages, Brady's narration style becomes familiar.

  The plot of The Butcher Boy is like the photo-negative of a bildungsroman/coming-of-age novel where the character, instead of growing up, becomes gradually less mature and eventually criminally insane.  There are legitimately shocking moments in The Butcher Boy, which, aside from terrorism in the north, would seem difficult to conjure given the milieu of rural 1960's Ireland, but critics have postulated that The Butcher Boy is "about" the struggles of Ireland to become psychically integrated in the aftermath of Irish independence.


  It should be said that The Butcher Boy makes for incredibly sad reading.  It also contains disturbing descriptions of violence and sexually motivated child abuse.

Black Water (1992) by Joyce Carol Oates


Book Review
Black Water (1992)
 by Joyce Carol Oates

  Black Water is Joyce Carol Oates' take on the Chappaquiddick incident involving the death of Mary Jo Kopechne at the (negligent) hands of Ted Kennedy.   Oates took several steps to fictionalize this well known event- she moves it from 1969 to the 1990's, the scene from Cape Code to the Booth Bay area of Maine and of course the characters have different names.  Black Water is a novella, expanded from what was originally a poem, and the prose reflects the poetic background.  Narrated entirely by the victim as she drowns, waiting for the Kennedy-figure to rescue her from the car,  Oates employs a familiar light touch.  Surely Black Water is a meditation on politics, gender and celebrity but obliquely, without rubbing the reader's face in the harsher edges of the events.

  Like many selections in the 1990's portion of the 1001 Books 2006 edition, I was left questioning if this was even one of Joyce Carol Oates best efforts, let alone worth including in the 1001 Books project.  I think Oates fits into the category of a writer whose best work lies outside the traditional novel, making it hard to find representative works to include in a project centered on the novel. 

Jazz (1992) by Toni Morrison


Book Review
Jazz (1992)
by Toni Morrison

   Every Toni Morrison novel on the 1001 Books list is a breath of fresh air.  It is genuinely refreshing to read books that aren't about wealthy white people and their sad problems.  Character in Toni Morrison's novels grapple with real life.   Her writing style has always been realist with a touch of magical realism, but Jazz is more experimental, as reflected by the title, which both refers to the popular style of music and the location- 1920's Harlem.  It also reflects the more experimental style, as Morrison flits between characters and time to tell a complete story in a fractured way.  Like JAZZ itself.

  The themes of Jazz are familiar for Morrison fans, but her shift in technique gives everything a fresh vibe.  As in other works of contemporary post-modern embracing fiction, there is a jig saw puzzle aspect to the plot that differentiates it from other books (even those by Morrison herself) concerned with the same subject matter.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Underground Railroad (2016) by Colson Whitehead


Book Review
The Underground Railroad (2016)
 by Colson Whitehead

   Published in August of last year, The Underground Railroad has done just about as well as a serious work of fiction could hope.  He won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and a 2016 National Book Award.  Last month, The Underground Railroad was long-listed the Man Booker Prize and it seems like a reasonable candidate for both the short list and the actual prize itself.   Now that the 1001 Books project is in the end stages, I'm trying to turn my attention to contemporary fiction so as to develop an actual critical voice.

   I'm a semi-fan of Whitehead.  I enjoyed his first novel, The Intituionist (1999), checked out until 2011, when he published his zombie book, Zone One (2011) and then put The Underground Railroad on my "to read" book back when it was published last year.  Whitehead's career tracks many of the themes that I follow here- the border between "genre" and "serious" fiction, for one, and the decisions that a would-be canonical author needs to make during the course of his or her career.

  Whitehead has several advantages that would weight towards his establishing canonical status within his lifetime.  There is his background (Harvard University), his publication track record (regular but not overly prolific) and his choice of themes: historical fiction, genre fiction and mixing those two things with African-American themes.   Whitehead is fashionable, relevant and politically correct, all at the same time.

  Prior to The Underground Railroad you could say that the only thing his would-be canonical status lacked was a world-beating hit.   The Intitutionist was a great first novel, but not very thematically interesting.   Zone One was a best-seller, but c'mon- a zombie book?  That's too genre for canonical status, even in 2017.

   The Underground Railroad, on the other hand,  has got it all.  It is thematically fashionable, blending speculative fiction with the African American experience during slavery.  It's only become more relevant since it was published last year.  Recent events in Charlottesville Virginia have brought the pre-Civil War south back into the news.  Like all of Whitehead's books, The Underground Railroad eschews the rough edges of post-modernism for an approach that aims to include as many readers as possible.  Call it the Oprah approach to canon.

  I found The Underground Railroad a satisfying read, and I am not surprised at all the acclaim.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Asphodel (1992) by H.D.


Book Review
Asphodel (1992)
 by H.D.

   Do not be fooled by the 1992 publication date- Asphodel was written in 1921.  The lengthy delay in publication was due to the author's explicit desire that it never be published.  The final manuscript that served as the basis for this publication had "Destroy" written across the top in red ink.  Asphodel is a fellow traveler with the experimental writers of high modernism.  She had a lengthy relationship with Ezra Pound- who is one of the main characters in this roman a clef.   H.D. (Hilda Doolittle in real life) was an important figure in modernist circles during the important years: the late teens and early twenties.  Her "rediscovery" serves as the inclusion of an important female voice in the high modernist canon.   Like many works of high modernism, Asphodel, though a roman a clef, and essentially, a combination of literary gossip and classically infused stream of consciousness, is at times impossible to follow.

  The reader gains an impression of various locations and people, but there is precious little action.  Most of the actual events of the book seem to be the narrator, sitting, lost in reflection.  That's a key difference between Asphodel and, say, Ulysses, which isn't stream of consciousness from the perspective of the author, but a fully developed novel. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Arcadia (1992) by Jim Crace


Book Review
Arcadia (1992)
 by Jim Crace


      If you want to check the current relevance of a particular novel in American culture, check the Wikipedia entry.  If it doesn't have a page, that's a 0.  If it has a page that shows copious annotations over time, that is a ten.  Arcadia, without a Wikipedia page, scores a zero on the Wikipedia test.  Crace is an English author who hasn't quite made it to the point where American audiences pay attention.   I'm not particularly surprised, but I quite enjoyed Arcadia, which I can say of many of the selected works from the early 1990's that made their way onto the 1001 Books list.  This was a weak time for literature, and the taint of the high profile "artsy" movie version of many of these books makes me questions whether the title has been selected for literary merit or because the movie just makes the book too popular to ignore.

   Crace starts with a fairly straight forward Horatio Alger tale about Victor, a street urchin turned millionaire, living in an unnamed city that resembles London or New York, contemplating his existence as he turns 80.  He is assisted in his endeavors, which include dominating the supply chain and real estate of the Salt Market, by Rook, a grocer-labor activist turned fixer.   Rook has taken to feathering his nest with cash bribes from vendors which he calls, "pitch fees."

  Crace moves backwards and forwards in time, telling the story of Victor's unusual childhood, while focusing mostly on Rook as he prepares for Victor's 80th birthday party.  Events are set into action when Rook is exposed as a bribe taker and terminated from his position.  Immediately after, Victor decides to replace the market with "Arcadia" which is familiar to many in the guise of what we might call a "food hall."

   We are kept well apprised of the economic and political ramifications of the decision, and the action unfolds against the familiar backdrop of urban real estate development.

Black dogs (1992) by Ian McEwan


Book Review
Black Dogs (1992)
by Ian McEwan

  I guess everything with Ian McEwan is pre-Amsterdam vs. post-Amsterdam, Amsterdam being McEwan's 1998 smash hit, Booker prize winner.  Black Dogs was his second novel to be short listed for the Booker Prize.   Like many prize winning/prestige novelists working in the mid to late 20th century, there is a clear career trend of starting with shorter novels and graduating to longer novels.  Being allowed greater length and complexity is a privelge of authors with established track records, in the same way that pop artists who sell millions of copies can release double records.   Black Dogs is still prior to that period in the career of McEwan- it's not quite on par with the early work that earned him the nom de plume Ian Macabre, but it's not a sweeping meta-fictional historic epic, either.

  Rather, Black Dogs is about a pair of relationships and how they impact the narrator, an orphan seeking to delve deeper into the failed marriage of his wife's parents.  The events take place against the back drop of the fall of the Berlin wall in Germany, giving Black Dogs a temporal quality it would have otherwise lacked. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Hideous Kinky (1992) by Esther Freud


Book Review
Hideous Kinky (1992)
 by Esther Freud

   As the 1990's progress in the 1001 Books project, I begin to ask myself, at what point, exactly, does one become exhausted with depictions of white privilege?   For sure, every book written before the 1960's gets a free pass.  By the 1970's, the questions were being asked, but there was a deficit in replacement literature.  In 1992, when Hideous Kinky was published, Toni Morrison was a couple a years away from winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, and I was asking myself if this semi-autobiographical depiction of the early childhood of Sigmund Freud grand daughter Esther Freud in the wilds of boho Morocco, was really worth the admittedly minimal effort it takes to read.

  What really came to mind while I read Hideous Kinky was the antics of Ab Fab protagonists Patsy and Edina.  The Esther's character's mother seems to be a younger version of Edina.  Since the novel is written from the point of the daughter, there are no references to Freud's favorite patronage.  She is depicted living month to month on a remittance from her (presumably estranged) husband.

  I suppose the point is that this is an outrageous example of comically neglectful parenting, albeit well meaning and ultimately harmless to the children.  Like many of the "international best seller/film coming soon" books from this period, Hideous Kinky places privileged white people in unusual locations.

Oscar and Lucinda (1988) by Peter Cary


Book Review
Oscar and Lucinda (1988)
by Peter Cary

   The idea of describing a work of "serious' literature as, "An international best seller..film loved my millions..." was essentially unheard of up through the mid 1980's, but the emergence of film producers like Merchant-Ivory Productions an the Weinsteins ensured that any half way decent work of "serious"literature with a prize winning pedigree would be a solid candidate for a movie.  Oscar and Lucinda won the 1988 Booker Prize, and the Ralph Fiennes/Cate Blanchett movie followed almost immediately.

Oscar and Lucinda, like many 1001 Books participants from this period in time, is a variation on "historical meta fiction,"  set in England and Australia in the early part of the 20th century.  The nutshell of the plot, "Defrocked clergy man an wealthy female social outcast build a glass church and transport it through the Australian outback;"  gives a decent idea of the plot, but doesn't adequately describe the "meta" part of the historical fiction description.   The main "meta" aspect is an uncanny obsession with human psychology on the part of the narrator, giving a depth to the described events that would otherwise be lacking.

Oscar and Lucinda is also "about" the Anglican church in England and Australia in the early 20th century, gambling an the social mores of frontier society in Australia.  Carey proves his Booker Prize winning merit in the final hundred pages of the 576 page book (it reads much shorter), which is a legit page turning ending, more like something you'd expect from genre fiction, but with a twist, of course.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (1991) by Jung Chang


Book Review
Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (1991)
 by Jung Chang

   The absence of titles from China on the first edition of the 1001 Books list is one of its greatest flaws.  Up to this point (the 1990's) the most memorable China-set novel on the 1001 Books list is Empire of the Sun, by J.G. Ballard, an Englishman.  At least Wild Swans is written by an author FROM China, even it was written in English, in England, after Jung Chang got out and never went back.  Although Wild Swans covers three generations, from the earliest part of the 20th century through the cultural revolution, the main attraction is Chang's description of the cultural revolution, details of which continue to be shrouded in mystery.

    Summarizing the cultural revolution isn't that difficult, basically, it was the largest country in the world turning into a Chinese version of Lord of the Flies.  Mao, worried about his power base, used children and teenagers to persecute his own officials, or "capitalist roaders" as they were called.  The victims of the cultural revolution were Mao's own loyal officials, the people in charge of implementing his revolution.  This came on top of his eradication of the capitalist/land owning class which preceded the cultural revolution.  Chang was the daughter of two upper level Chinese officials- both Mother and Father.

    She and her family aren't the most sympathetic types- but the chaos of early 20th century China makes the decision to enlist with the Communists seem like an easy choice to make.  After that- they were trapped.  Chang makes it clear how little even educated Chinese knew about the West in the 1960's and 1970's.  It is one hell of a wild ride.

Mao II (1991) by Don Delillo

Image result for mao II painting
Mao II print by Andy Warhol
Book Review
Mao II (1991)
by Don Delillo

  Before author Don Delillo entered into his brick-production period, he could write nimble little novels, and less nimble novels that were none the less under 300 pages.  Mao II, his tenth novel, shows him on the way to his "high Delillo" period of 100 page opening chapter set pieces set in baseball stadiums (Mao II opens with a Moonie "mass wedding" taking place in Yankee Stadium.");  but still not quite at the stage where his books are over 500 pages.

  Reclusive novelist Bill Gray is the center of Mao II.  Gray resembles a combination of J.D. Salinger (exclusiveness) and Ernest Hemingway (life style choices.)  Gray has been trying to finish his most recent book for decades, and his assistant, Scott, is worried because of what the completion and publication of his book will mean for their relationship, which can basically be expressed using the term "co dependency."

  After one hundred and fifty pages of hand wringing and existential angst, Gray gets roped into attempting to rescue a poet from a Marxist group of Lebanese rebels.   That's about it for the action.  Like many Delillo novels, it is the themes that the characters harp on in their quiet moments that provide the most lasting, memorable, moments.  Here, the effective theme is his prescient forecasting of a forthcoming "age of terror."  Spot on, that one. Good call.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Show Review: PRIESTS @ Ebell Club Highland Park


Image result for katie alice greer
PRIESTS Katie Alice Greer in a Merchandise music video.



Show Review:
PRIESTS
@ Ebell Club Highland Park
Los Angeles, CA.

  If you can watch a PRIESTS show and not feel nostalgia for a dissipated youth, then you have no heart or soul.  PRIESTS hail from the Washington DC area, and they, I think, would have to be one of the flagbearers for the post-punk sound commonly associated with Dischord.   It's a sound and era I'm well familiar with, having attended undergraduate at American University in Washington DC, the home of Dischord.   It is a DIY ethos, and one that greatly influenced my own involvement in the production and distribution of popular music.   I fear that while the ethos has very much shaped the anarchic chaos of post-Napster music business, the sound itself is more of a museum piece than a living, vital situation.  If you want an example, take a look at SAVAGES, a band that has more Facebook friends than monthly listeners on Spotify.  That is nuts.  So people like to SAY they like Savages, but they don't actually LISTEN to Savages, is what that statistic tells me.

  So the question is, can PRIESTS escape from that box? Maybe.  They are a tight band- hardly an overnight sensation with records going back to 2012.  They've hooked up with a highly reputable management company, which shows that they have some understanding of the larger game (although the manager they selected is very DIY friendly.  The live show was very good- lead singer Katie Alice Greer has Karen O type potential.  Less clear is whether they can/will settle down and, you know, write songs with melodies and bridges and stuff.  Not very punk, but kind of a deal breaker in terms of gaining wider acceptance.  Not that they care about that bullshit!  I know they don't!

    Look at the progression of Jen Clavin of Mika Miko and Bleached, from punk screamer to proto-blueswoman. I'd never been to the venue- the Ebell Club in Highland Park, nor heard of the promoter, "Sid the Cat" who had his own merch, including t shirts which said, "I hope people show up," which I thought was kind of amazing.   The Ebell Club is like an old (in terms of year established) club for old(in terms of age) women- mostly white from what I could see.  A take on the Moose Lodge, with a classier "classical" vibe.  The room was very warm and the sound was excellent, parking was easy, I would go back, and see another show by the same promoter.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Midnight Examiner (1989) by William Kotzwinkle


Book Review
Midnight Examiner (1989)
 by William Kotzwinkle

   It's hard to take seriously a writer whose greatest claim to fame is the novelization of the "E.T." movie, but that is the situation with Kotzwinkle, who hardly covers up the fact in his more traditional books- "writer of the best selling novel of 1982" his book jackets proclaim.   I double checked to make sure that it was a novelization, and that Kotzwinkle hadn't written the underlying story that the film was based upon.

  While it's not fair to call him "forgotten"- after all- he is still alive and has his own website, etc., it is fair to say that he is a surprise inclusion in the 1001 Books project.  Based on Midnight Examiner, I still can't explain it entirely- he writes firmly in the 1960's American tradition of "wowee zowee," that shows influence from comic books an pulp fiction.  Midnight Examiner is based on classic supermarket tabloids like Weekly World News, those that would simply fabricate a fantastic headline for the hell of it.

  As I read Midnight Examiner, it did occur to me that this era was relevant to our own era of "fake news," but I'm not sure anyone is around who is reading Kotzwinkle to care.  With his combination of quasi-serious fiction, genre fantasy/sci fi and popular novelizations of popular films, Kotzwinkle is kind of a real-life Kilgore Trout, the (fictional) muse of Kurt Vonnegut's many novels.

Typical (1991) by Padgett Powell


Book Review
Typical (1991)
by Padgett Powell

   Padgett Powell is typically known as a writer from the "new South" or Southern literary tradition.  This is a line of literature essentially established by William Faulkner en toto, and then echoed by excellent writers like Flannery O'Connor and Carson McCullers.  Traditionally, this school was called "Southern Gothic" to indicate a level of creepiness that seems to go hand-in-hand with all the writers mentioned above.

  Powell, on the other hand, is more of a surrealist/post-modernist in the Donald Barthelme tradition, and Typical, which was his first collection of short stories, bears little in common with the other writers from the South, call it "Southern post-modernism."   Many of the short stories contained in Typical have little to no plot or even incident, characters go unnamed, statements go unexplained, none of it really makes sense but all of the stories carry an unabashed southern vibe, which extends to the outre practice of a white author using the word "Nigger" in more than one of these stories.

  I would have liked to get more out of Typical, and I would consider returning to Powell and going deeper into his fiction, but Typical didn't do it for me.

Show Review: Chris Stapleton & Margo Price @ Amsoil Arena Duluth Minnesota



Show Review: Chris Stapleton & Margo Price
 @ Amsoil Arena
 Duluth Minnesota

  I circled this show on the calendar when it came out for two reasons:  It was the first show on the run of dates Margo Price is doing with Chris Stapleton and second, Amy has a college friend who lives in the magical, little-known part of the world called Bayfield, Wisconsin, gateway to the Apostle Islands.   The show was in Duluth, and Bayfield is about two hours away.  Also, it was in the first week of August, which is pretty much the only time I can imagine taking a chance on the weather of upper Minnesota and upper Wisconsin.

    Chris Stapleton is a man at the top of his game- dominating country music while existing largely outside the grosser aspects of it's public "bro-country" persona.  This is not to say that Stapleton is an outsider- he made his Nashville industry bones the old fashioned way: He wrote hits for assholes who didn't deserve them (not Adele).   He spent 14 years in the trenches before he got his shot and then he took it like a guy sitting in a deer blind 100  yards away takes down a prize buck with his sited hunting rifle.

  Although Stapleton himself was not in evidence back stage, you could see that he is a class act- mainly from the craft service buffet, created by an east-Nashvillian with an excellent reputation as a chef.  I also heard that he personally reached out prior to the tour to make sure that any concerns on behalf of the support act were taken care of.  If you know ANYTHING about how opening bands are treated on tour by the headliner, you will realize how rare it is that a headliner would do something like that.

  The Amsoil Arena is a college hockey arena for the local university, University of Minnesota, Duluth, who are a fixture at the NCAA "frozen four" college hockey tournament.  Like everything in built up parts of Minnesota, it was linked together by tunnels and sky-bridges to other buildings in the Duluth Cultural-Entertainment complex- we spent most of our night in the dressing room of another, smaller arena which must have preceded the current one.

   Margo Price's opening set was warmly received by the already full arena.  The show was not a sell out, but according to available information, an arena sell out at the Amsoil Arena in Duluth Minnesota is rare to non existent.   By comparison, the next show on the tour, at a casino complex outside of St. Louis, was a sell out at just under 20k.

  Margo had just released her new EP, Weakness, and I returned from the weekend to this article, castigating "all those responsible" for releasing the new EP.  (Saving Country Music: Quit Releasing Music Via the Short Form EP- with 49 comments)   So mis-guided, that particular take, which is critical of the "surprise EP"- and I just wanted to take the time to say that literally every argument in that post, while perhaps applicable to other artists, is not applicable to Margo Price.
  

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Regeneration (1991) by Pat Barker



Book Review
Regeneration (1991)
 by Pat Barker

  Pat Barker- female- fyi- English- won the Booker Prize, not for Regeneration, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize, but for a later book in her trilogy about World War I.  Regeneration was the first book in the Regeneration Trilogy.  Barker blends fact and fiction to tell the story of the treatment of English soldiers suffering from "shell shock" or post-traumatic stress disorder at two different hospitals.   Most of Regeneration takes place at Craiglockheart War Hospital, where Siegfred Sassoon- a real life war hero, poet and what we would call "contentiousness objector" has been confined after a public declaration against the war.  He is being treated by Doctor W. H. R. Rivers.

   Sassoon is a tricky case for Rivers- Rivers knows that Sassoon isn't "insane,"  but he can't be labeled sane without being considered a traitor and a coward.  It's a sticky wicket, and most of Regeneration involves resolving Sassoon's situation.  Then, in the last portion, Rivers moves to a different hospital, where he is exposed to the shock intensive methods of Dr. Yealland.

    It's easy to forget just how far we have come with the treatment of veterans with mental health disorders, and how far we have to go. Living in Southern California, and working in the world of criminal justice, I see how seriously the government takes the mental health of veterans.  It is no joke, seeing the impact of combat on soldiers, and this is the beginning of that story.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Downriver (1991) by Iain Sinclair

Image result for psychogeography
This diagram gives a rough depiction of the elements of pyschogeography.
Book Review
Downriver (1991)
 by Iain Sinclair

   Iain Sinclar is best known for his affiliation with the "pyscho-geography" movement.  Psychogeography is an off-shoot of the Guy Debord created Situationist International movement, which also played a big role in other 20th century subcultures, like, for example, Punk and pretty much any late 20th century art movement that includes surrealist or dadaist aspects.  The idea of psycho-geography is to look at the impact that place has on the development of individuals, and as it is expressed by authors like Iain Sinclair, it dovetails nicely with post-modernist trends in literature.

   Downriver takes place in a slightly askew version of Thatcherite London, in various locations "downriver," the city being London, the river being the Thames and the places being in East London and environs.   I couldn't piece together much of a plot- although I read elsewhere that it was supposed to be about a documentary film crew making a feature about "vanishing London" in the "Thatcher era."    The highlights are individual episodes- particularly the Isle of Doges, where the Vatican has taken over the East London Isle of Dogs, "largely for tax purposes," and a gang infiltrates the drainage system to witness a spectacularly evil ritual.

  William Gibson has called Sinclair his favorite author, and it is hard to not think of one while reading the other.  Sinclair's prose is dense and very geographically specific- I found myself making a Google Map of the locations he mentioned and looking at the actual places, and their spatial relationship to the other places in the book, as I went along.

  I would highly recommend Downriver- I know from looking at the page views of this blog that this is the sort of book the people who read this blog would be interested in reading.

Friday, July 28, 2017

American War (2017) by Omar El Akkad

Image result for american war akkad map
The United States circa 2075 from American War by Omar El Akkad



Book Review
American War (2017)
by Omar El Akkad

  American War was published in April.  I read a positive review in the New York Times and decided to buy a copy since it was serious dystopian literature.  I maintain a positive interest in the literature of dystopia, specifically in regards to the border between literature and genre fiction (mostly science fiction/speculative fiction).   Dystopia isn't just an interest of mine, it is perhaps the dominant genre in the non-serious Young Adult market.  The Hunger Games is of course a billion dollar multi-media world-wide empire and it's success has spawned, essentially it's own sub genre of young adult dystopian fiction, and we are right in the middle of that cultural moment.

  You can add on top of that the overlap with Zombie fiction, which has also flirted with literary status while maintaining a solidly genre profile over-all.  What makes American War such a sparkling literary (as supposed to genre) achievement is his ability to right a genuinely moving character into the center of the book, Sarat Chestnut.  Akkad, with his background in global conflicts of the past decade, compellingly paints a near future, post-global warming catastrophe, where the core Southern states of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi are engaged in protracted, low level conflict over a decades old ban of fossil fuel usage that bears a striking similarity to current conflicts in Middle East locales like Syria and Iraq.

  The details of his near-future are closer to Orwell and Aldous Huxley than Phillip K. Dick and other genre antecedents of dystopia- more literary, in other words.  For example, in the world of American War, the bedraggled citizens gather in an unused museum atrium to watch Uffcy- a decayed version of UFC fighting.   It's impossible to really get at what makes American War such a worth while read without spoiling important plot details, but generally speaking, his ability to case the southern states of the old Confederacy as being morally similar to the oppressed citizens of places like Syria and Iraq is key.  In the end, American War isn't really speculative fiction at all, it's comprised entirely out of present day facts, projected into the future.   Reality, it turns out, is scary enough.

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