Dedicated to classics and hits.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles (2016) by John Mack Faragher

Book Review
Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles (2016)
by John Mack Faragher
WW Norton & Company

John Mack Faragher is one of America's foremost popular-academic historians, serving as a history Professor at Yale University, and also writing top shelf narrative history on subjects ranging from the explosion of the Arcadians (today's Cajuns) from Canada and a biography of Daniel Boone.  Faragher is more than a synthesizer of academic history journals, if Eternity Street is any indication (and I'm sure it is) he (and his research assistants) are also doing original research based on primary records.  Here, Faragher draws heavily on the written court records of 19th century Los Angeles.  In doing so he has written an extraordinary work of popular history and illuminated a little known but important time in California, and by extension American, history.

  Even if you know California history, Los Angeles in the 19th century is a bit of a blur.  You could be well conversant in the subject and forgiven for knowing, essentially, nothing about the 19th century history of Los Angeles, let alone even the broad outlines of the development of Spanish/Mexican Southern California.   Faragher's narrative, which extends back fully into the mid 19th century, is a rich depiction of a violent border community, with a combustible mix of domesticated and wild Native Americans, a land owning class of "gentes con razon" (people of reason) and an underclass of "gentes sin razon" (people without reason) that contained Spanish/Mexicans, both types of Native peoples, African-Americans (free), mixed race Mexican/Indians and increasing numbers of Anglos, most of whom came from the South, but who also contained an important minority of Boston based traders, some of whom became Mexican citizens and married into the existing land owning class, others of whom maintained their American citizenship and resisted integration.

  Although the path that the history takes is of course familiar to anyone on the planet, the details of that path are what concerns Faragher, particularly the difficulty of establishing the rule of law as we understand it in the United States, a process that was not fully complete for decades after California became a state.  The meat of Faragher's narrative concerns issues with lynch mobs and vigilante violence, and the difficulty that the state had establishing control of that behavior.

  In this way Faragher is plugged in to larger trends in American history outside the history of the West- books that point out the incredible comparative lawlessness of post-Civil War America.  Faragher makes it clear that yes, mid 19th century Los Angeles was an incredibly lawless place, with a per capita murder rate that ranks it among the most violent societies of all time.  He documents examples with court records, from testimony and coverage of the press.  Frequently the stories end with the perpetrators being dragged out of their cells and lynched just outside of downtown.

  I could go on for pages about it- and the other subjects.  Faragher is from Southern California- he went to UC Riverside for undergraduate, and Eternity Street is a rich and valuable contribution to the history of this area.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Love's Work: A Reckoning with Life (1995) by Gillian Rose

Book Review
Love's Work: A Reckoning with Life (1995)
by Gillian Rose

  Gilliam Rose was a serious philosopher- English- of Jewish heritage.  She played an important role in English language discussion of Continental philosophical figures like Theodor Adorno, Marcuse and Derrida. The was also diagnosed, at a young age, with ovarian cancer, and she died from it.  Love's Work is a slim book about her experience.  It is, of course, philosophical but also incredibly sad and moving, and clearly a work of literature with canonical value even though it is nothing like a novel or really any other book that the editors chose to include in the 1001 Books list.   While I enjoyed it- particularly her matter-of-fact description of having a "stoma" after a cancer related colon surgery.  I'll spare the uninterested the details of what, exactly, a "stoma" is, but if you know, you also know that it is probably one of the most disturbing things that can happen to a human.

  Death is not something most people chose to think about- thoughts about death that last for long periods or that become overwhelming are a frequent sign of mental illness in the healthy, and as Rose points out in calm detail, there are many, many, many ways that a human diagnosed with cancer faces a frightening ordeal when seeking treatment.


The Reader (1995) by Berhnard Schlink

Image result for kate winslet the reader
Kate Winslet received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Hanna Schmitz in his movie version of The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
The Reader (1995)
by Berhnard Schlink

  The front of Bernhard Schlink's 1995 novel The Reader has "Oprah's Book Club" written above the title and "#1 National Bestseller."  It sold half a million copies inside Germany, made the New York Times Best Seller list in the United States(the first German language book to top the New York Times best seller list, says the wikipedia page), and spawned a  moderately well-received Stephen Daldry directed, Kate Winslet starring film version that received five Oscar nominations.  The Reader is a clear member of the "international best seller" genre of literature from the 1980's onward.

  The Reader covers the familiar (to anyone who stays apace of German language fiction that gets translated into English and released in the US and UK) psychological territory of German struggling to cope with the aftermath of World War II, and their roles before, during and after that conflict.  It would, frankly, be a little shocking to read a German language book from this period that doesn't- especially one that has been translated into English for an English language audience.

  The crux of The Reader is the relationship between 15 year old narrator Michael Berg and Hanna Schmitz, a 36 year old woman who, when Berg meets her, is working as a conductor on the public transit system in a moderately sized West German city.   Hanna has no husband, no children, no friends. The first portion of The Reader, dealing with Berg and Schmitz's technically illicit love affair is handled explicitly but delicately. 

  Next it is revealed that Schmitz has been accused of being a guard at Auschwitz and a smaller satellite camp- or rather, was- Berg narrates the trial portion from the present, as he remembers past events.  The title refers to the fact that an important part of Berg and Schmitz' relationship was that she would have him read to her.  Later, witnesses testify that as a Nazi guard, Schmitz would pick out weak inmate on the verge of being weeded out and sent to the death chambers and have them read to her, in the same way that Berg read to her as a boy.

  Schlink provides a satisfying resolution that was obviously a huge part of the success of The Reader in it's translated form.  I would say that the very commercial success it enjoyed taints in terms of long term canonical status.  BUT if you are actually into Holocaust literature The Reader is a five star must, that definitely earns a place on the Holocaust lit shelf of your collection.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017 by Jesmyn Ward

Book Review
Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017)
 by Jesmyn Ward

    The 2017 National Book Award ceremony is next week, November 15th (Watch it live on Facebook!)  Sing, Unburied, Sing is the last of the five nominees, and the only one of the five books I actually bought. Jesmyn Ward is the only one of the five nominees with a prior win, in 2011, for her novel Salvage the Bones.  The National Book Award isn't big on repeat winners- unless I'm missing something it looks like Saul Bellow (3 times) is the only repeat winner.

  To recap, the other four nominees are Dark at the Crossing by Eliot Ackerman, The Leavers by Lisa Ko, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and Her Body and Other Stories by Carmen Machado.  Only Her Body and Other Stories (short story collection) isn't a novel.  The National Book Award has given out multiple awards for short story collections, so this isn't a disqualification for actually winning, but it is for me.   Both Pachinko and Dark at the Crossing are written by American authors, but neither book has much to do with America itself.  Pachinko has nothing to do with the United States at all, except for the nationality of the author.  Dark at the Crossing features an Iraqi-American protagonist, but the book takes place on the border of Turkey and Syria.

  Looking back at the list of recent winners, only Europe Central, by William T. Vollmann stands out as a book whose only connection to the USA is via the nationality of the author.  I would say that lack of sufficient connection to the United States via the setting or characters is a reason not to give the prize to those nominees.  That leaves Her Body, The Leavers and Sing, Unburied, Sing.  It's pretty hard to fathom- considering the lack of repeat winners in the past history of the National Book Award- to imagine that Ward will break that trend.  The Leavers is what remains.  Before I wrote this post, I would have said my two favorites were The Leaver and Sing, Unburied, Sing.

  Sing, Unburied, Sing is wild: Set in the under-class of rural Mississippi in the present day.  There are a collection of narrators- a young interracial boy with a black Mom and a white Dad.  The child is the primary narrator, but he is joined by the voice of the Mom, the voice of the black/Native American Grandfather and, this being 2017, a ghost or two.  In fact, ghost narrators seem to be very in vogue in the upper echelons of literary culture at the moment- see Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, which just won the 2017 Booker Prize in the UK.

  Ward ranks high both in terms of her descriptive realism and her inventive technique.  It's not exactly magical realism, but the spirit world is omnipresent.  The Leavers, on the other hand, is a conventional bildungsroman about an ethnically Chinese boy who is adopted by white American parents.   That is a most conventional set up- only the novelty of the viewpoint, particularly the chapters written from the perspective of the Mom elevate The Leavers into the orbit of a potential prize winner.  So The Leavers- that would be my pick/guess.

The Master of Petersburg (1994) by J.M. Coetzee

Book Review
The Master of Petersburg (1994)
 by J.M. Coetzee

  So very many J.M. Coetzee novels in the 1001 Books project.  It's like they ran out of ideas in 1988 and just decided to pitch a dozen Coetzee titles into the mix.  I mean, sure, the Booker winners, OK, I get it.  And throw in another books a decade- what is that- five titles?  The 1001 Books project has like, a dozen Coetzee books in the first edition.

  The Master of Petersburg uses Dostoyevsky as his narrator and main character, returning to Russia during his German exile to investigate the circumstances behind the untimely death of his estranged step son.   As it turns out, his son has fallen in with a rag tag bunch of (real life, historically based) Nihilists and he bounces between them and the Czarist investigators, who suspect his son of being involved with said nihilists.   The version I read was an American paperback edition released after his 2003 Booker Win- in line with the idea that The Master of Petersburg is a second-tier Coetzee novel, which still makes it good enough to be in the 1001 Books project.

The End of the Story (1995) by Lydia Davis

Book Review
The End of the Story (1995)
 by Lydia Davis

  Lydia Davis is mostly known as the creator and master of "flash fiction;" stories that are one or two sentences in length.  Here is an example:

The Outing
An outburst of anger near the road, a refusal to speak on the path, a silence in the pine woods, a silence across the old railroad bridge, an attempt to be friendly in the water, a refusal to end the argument on the flat stones, a cry of anger on the steep bank of dirt, a weeping among the bushes.

    Davis was also married very briefly to Paul Auster, and is also a well known translator of French fiction, including Proust.  She's been a finalist for the National Book Award (2007) and she won the Man Booker International Prize in 2013- kind of a lifetime achievement award for otherwise non-qualifying (American) authors.  All that said, The End of the Story was a drag- a middle class white woman tale of woe- about an academic who is trying to recall an affair with a much younger man.  Literally everything about The End of the Story is sad, presumably on purpose, but I think the melding of the European style philosophical novel with the anomie of educated white women in the late 20th century is a disastrous formula for literature. 

    At this point, I could go half a decade without reading another European style philosophical novel/post modern novel written by a white, educated American.  There simply isn't a lot of interest there, from a literary viewpoint, that hasn't been done a million times before.  Add into the mix the emergence of a mulitiplicty of non white/educated/American voices within the space of the novel, and it just makes book like The End of the Story feel like a waste of time.  Sad educated white woman, maybe read a Toni Morrison novel and tell me about sad then.

  Also, flash fiction sounds dumb to me.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Her Body and Other Parties (2017) by Carmen Maria Machado

Book Review
Her Body and Other Parties (2017)
by Carmen Maria Machado

  Her Body and Other Parties was a surprise nominee for the National Book Award this year.  The debut short-story collection by Carmen Maria Machado was published by a small, regional press in Minneapolis with support from the Minnesota state government and Target Corporation.   Beyond that, Her Body and Other Parties is edgy and dark, many of the individual stories containing elements like unreliable narrators, post-apocalyptic back drops, participation by super natural forces in every day life- you know, spooky shit.

 So in that regard, the commercial angle seems pretty clear cut- there is potential interest from genres like speculative fiction, LGBT fiction (Machado is a lesbian, as are almost all of her narrators) and then there is also the literary pedigree of Donald Barthelme and the post-modern short story- or George Saunders, to use a more recent example.

  Does Her Body and Other Parties read like a National Book Award winner? No.   But just the nomination has to be a career maker for Machado, and I'm sure she'll get a deal with more books.  It's just, for me, a collection of shot stories will always lose out to a novel, that the only reason I don't see it as a potential winner.  But the National Book Award does give out the fiction award to short story collections frequently, so that bias doesn't apply to them. 

The Folding Star (1994) by Alan Hollinghurst

Book Review
The Folding Star (1994)
 by Alan Hollinghurst

  It bears repeating that when it comes to embraces LGBT culture, the United Kingdom has lagged behind other English language countries like the United States.  The "normalization" of gay male life in the British isles had to wait until well into the 20th century.  Alan Hollinghurst is the premiere contemporary novelist representing the viewpoint of a "normal" gay man from England living in the late 20th century.  His career has been representative of a serious literary author who hasn't had a break out cross-over hit.  He's not well known in the United States.  He did win a Booker in 2004, for The Line of Beauty, which is thematically similar to The Folding Star, in that it covers the experiences of a young gay man with a middle class background who grew up in England.  A major difference between the two is that prize-winning The Line of Beauty takes place inside England and The Folding Star takes place in Flanders.

  In Flanders, he falls for a variety of guys, a Moroccan street hustler type, his young tutee (he is making a living tutoring students in English.),  a Dutch hustler who makes his living with dirty videos and phone sex.  There is a healthy portion of unflinchingly depicted gay sex, perfectly normal, with no moral overtones.  The sex though is just an aspect of the author's realism, refreshing, coming as it does during the great hey-day of post-modern lit. No narrative tricks, difficult to follow plot or multiplicity of voices.  Hollinghurst does a good job of integrating his fictional present with accurate historical details about the role of the local community in World War II. 

  Flanders is the capital of the northern part of Belgium, which is Dutch speaking and has historical ties to the very idea of "greater Germany" that Hitler was so insightful to exploit.  It's an area where questions of 20th century ethnic identity are very much at issue, and perhaps Hollinghurst is trying to draw a comparison to contingent ideas about gay rights evolving over time.  

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Whatever (1994) by Michel Houellebecq

Book Review
Whatever (1994)
by Michel Houellebecq

  A major difference between literary culture in the United Kingdom vs. the United States: the two biggest English language audiences, is the relationship with French literature.  In the United States, French literature is essentially only known in translation, because the audience for French originals is limited to native French speakers and academics.  In the United Kingdom, the roots of English/French bilingualism go back a thousand years.  Many of the aristocratic families of England had roots and branches inside France, and England had a more direct relationship with French culture in the 17th and 18th centuries, when it was preferred to English in the halls of power throughout Europe.

  Thus in England there is a small but important audience for French originals.  Translations are just as important for reaching a wider audience, but it is the difference between a small and no audience for French originals.  So in a project like 1001 Books- squarely based in London, there is a higher awareness of French authors, and this leads to a bigger audience for French fiction than in the United States, even though the US market is much larger.

  Michel Houellebecq who is barely known in the United States, but a quasi-celebrity in the United Kingdom.  He's known for courting controversy with his fiction- his most recent book, Submission, is a work of speculative fiction where France has become a Muslim majority and falls under Islamic "Shariah" law.

  Whatever was Houellebecq's first novel- one can read it as an updating of The Stranger, or a French version of The Catcher in the Rye.  The protagonist and narrator is a young software engineer, dispatched to the provinces in a multi-week training assignment.  He is filled with ennui.  Given the time period, you can see Whatever as a French version of Douglas Coupland/Generation X era young adult angst.

  To his credit, Whatever is the first book inside the 1001 Books project to really convincingly portray the nascent "computer" culture of the 1990's (and forever after.)  

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994) by Haruki Murakami

Book Review
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994)
by Haruki Murakami

  Haruki Murakami was 15 years into his career as a novelist, including translation into English, when The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle cemented his status as a purveyor of international best-seller literature.  The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was a hit both domestically, where it served the purpose of answering his (then) numerous critics that his fiction wasn't authentic; and internationally, where the 1997 one-volume translation became an "instant" best-seller and beloved companion to a generation of casual readers of literary fiction.    In fact, Haruki Murakami is arguably a household name in houses where people read literary fiction.

  And amazingly I've never picked up a Haruki Murakami book, despite the fact that I could "tell you" that he is a fan of jazz, cats and magical realism, all of which figure prominently in this and other books. But one incorrect assumption I made is that his fiction was "soft" or, perhaps "genteel," when in fact   b has some of the most horrific depictions of 20th century war-time atrocities I've ever read, in addition to the jazz and cats.

  The prose isn't dense, but the ideas are. The speculative fiction/magical realism elements are so tightly described that it seems more appropriate to emphasis the realism of the "magical realism" formula in the context of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.  The translation allows for ambiguities, and as you make your way through this book, which was originally a set of three, shorter books in Japan, you realize that part of Murakami's genius is the way he lets ambiguity grow within the context of his story.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Leavers (2017) by Lisa Ko

Book Review
The Leavers (2017)
 by Lisa Ko

   This strikes me as a worthy winner of the 2017 National Book Award, the third of the finalist I've read after Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and Dark at the Crossing by Eliot Ackerman.  The Leavers is a bildungsroman about a young Chinese-American named Deming/Daniel, and his Mom, an illegal immigrant and pregnant teen, who is surprised when she can't get an abortion for her 7 month fetus. Fine, she says, I'll have him.  Despite The Leavers being a fairly conventional coming of age tale about the son, it is the chapters written from the Mother's perspective that stay with you.

  When Mom disappears without explanation, Deming is adopted by a well-meaning pair of childless college professors in New York City, renamed Daniel Wilkinson, and expected to "do well" by going to college, etc.  He screws this up and finds himself in China.  The denouement of The Leavers concerns the circumstances surrounding Mom's mysterious departure, although anyone with even a passing familiarity with how things work for illegal immigrants in the United States could probably guess on the first try.

  The Leavers is a firmly realistic novel- no touches of magical realism or speculative fiction here.  Ko and her editors have wielded a heavy hand- The Leavers barely covers 300 pages, and the prose is not tense- as close to the popular authors of "chick lit" as it is to "serious" literary fiction.  But I found The Leavers to be very serious, and while perhaps it isn't the most well-written book of the year, it was the most effective in terms of it's ability to create empathy for its subjects. 

  This leaves only two more books from the list of 2017 nominess for the National Book Award- Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward and Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Machado.    Thus far, I'm for The Leavers to win.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Mr. Vertigo (1994) by Paul Auster

Book Review
Mr. Vertigo (1994)
by Paul Auster

  Man, Paul Auster just never stops churning out books combining existentialism, whimsy and memorable characters.  Mr. Vertigo is the first Auster joint I've seen that is set in the past- his current book 4 3 2 1 has portions that are set in the past, and this book has a narrator "looking back" from the present, but most of it takes place in the late 20's and early 30's. Walter Rawley is a motherless street urchin living in St. Louis.  He randomly meets Master Yehudi, the son of a Hungarian Rabbi, who promises Rawley that he can teach him to fly.  Yehudi and Rawley decamp to an isolated farm in Kansas, and a coming of age story ensues.

 Again, as you might expect from a Paul Auster novel, Mr. Vertigo is the least whimsical book to revolve around magic that one could possibly imagine.  Like all of his books before 4 3 2 1, Mr. Vertigo is short- under 300 pages.  It makes for a comically compressed third act, basically all of Rawley's life between the late 1930's and the present, covered in the course of 50 pages.   It practically invites the reader to skim, knowing that not much can happen in what remains of the book.

 Like other books from this portion of the 1001 Books list, Mr. Vertigo is, at best, a marginal selection. Sure, it's fun- a fun read for an afternoon sitting in an airport departure lobby, but the whole enterprise seems truncated.  I think I've made this observation before, but it often feels like Auster isn't trying particularly hard. I don't have a problem with it, but it seems like a consideration that would impact his canonical status, and the extent to which is represented within said canon.  I mean one Auster novel a decade, that makes sense to me. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

How Late It Was, How Late (1994) by James Kelman

Book Review
How Late It Was, How Late (1994)
 by James Kelman

   No Scottish author has ever won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but James Kelman is the Scottish writer most likely to be mentioned in connection with the potential to win that award.  He famously, and controversially, won the Booker Prize for How Late It Was, How Late- the awards ceremony was marked by one of the judges cursing, calling the book crap and storming off the stage.

  In a way, it's hard to believe that a book written in Scots working class (Glaswegian) dialect could even be controversial in 1994, but the controversy is a reminder of the differences between English/British literary culture and that culture in other places like the US, France, Germany and Japan.  In other words, in 1994, the Brits were still a bit prudish.  Still, it's hard to argue with the implied criticism of a Booker Judge storming out of the Award ceremony:  Beauty is not much in evidence in How Late It Was, How Late, about Sammy, a petty criminal from Glasgow who wakes up blind after picking a drunken fight with a gang of policemen.

  How Late It Was, How Late is written in a modified stream-of-consciousness style, modified in that the action is broken up over seven days and by the character sleeping or being unconscious.  The Scottish tradition of literature involving an unreliable narrator goes clear back to the 19th century:  See, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), by James Hogg.  The obvious genius of How Late It Was, How Late is in his melding of the stream-of-consciousness style- certainly not one in favor in the mid 1990's, with his prior interest in working class/under class consciousness and then introducing the sensory deprivation of blindness and it's concomitant impact on the stream of consciousness style and working class consciousness of the protagonist.

 Which again is not to say that How Late It Was, How Late, tries for beauty.  I mean it is beautiful as a work of art, but the subject matter- Sammy's blindness and semi-successful efforts to cope.  Honestly, it's not hard- given the combination of viewpoint, skill and social concern, to imagine a world where Kelman does win a Nobel Prize for Literature.  Except perhaps that he is from an unfashionable part of the world and for the very controversy that attended him winning the Booker Prize- he's resolutely anti-bourgeois and the Nobel Prize for Literature is nothing but bourgeois in their sensibility. 

Dark at the Crossing (2017) by Eliot Ackerman

Book Review
Dark at the Crossing (2017)
by Eliot Ackerman

  Dark at the Crossing is the second shortlist selection for the 2017 National Book Award.  Author Eliot Ackerman is an ex... Marine? Dark at the Crossing is a straight forward take on identity and the viciousness of war in the early 21st century.   I can't get over the fact at Ackerman, who presumably is not an Iraqi-American who obtained his American citizenship by serving as an interpreter to US Special Forces operating in Iraq, wrote a book whose protagonist is that.  In other words, Ackerman, the white, military(!) author has written a book about a character: The Iraqi American (or Afghani) national who has, in some sense, turned his back on his homeland, and, in a certain sense, collaborate with the enemy (of his own people.)

  This is a fascinating situation for someone to face- the figure of the Iraqi-American interpreter/collaborator is not unfamiliar in fiction and non-fiction, and it seems to me that this character- of whose Ackerman's protagonist is an example, has the potential for canonical greatness.  But certainly that tale won't be written by an American Marine.   It's possible that we won't get any novels from direct participants, but it's also possible that great art requires distance from the fog of current events, and that the events of the past decade(s) will inspire a generation of "post-war" novelists in the same manner the aftermath of World War II inspired a generation of French writers. In 2017, we are still in it, and so spectator-participants like Ackerman may be all that's on offer.

  Dark at the Crossing is the first book to deal directly with the events of the Syrian Civil War, but it's the third book (American War by Omar El Akkad and Exit West by Mohsin Hamed.)  Both American War and Exit West are firmly in the realm of speculative fiction- American War is a post-apocalyptic scenario, and Exit West is built around the idea that doors between poor and rich regions of Earth start popping up overnight.  Haris Abadi- Ackerman's protagonist arguably qualifies as an anti-hero.  I've seen capsule summaries state that Abadi travels to the Turkish-Syrian border to "fight for the Islamist against the Syrian regime;" but that mis-states and simplifies the motives of Abadi, who travels based on wanting to join the Free Syrian Army, a US backed, secular (or at least not crazy Islamist) and only later changes his mind.

  Aside from whether Dark at the Crossing should win the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction (I would say not) there is the separate consideration of whether Ackerman has such a win- or a Booker Win, or a Pulitzer Prize, in his make-up.  There, surely the answer is yes.  The idea of a military veteran writing credible literary fiction is a mouth-watering prospect.  For example, the market for "military history" is almost equal to the demand for all other forms of history put together- The Civil War, World War II, Vietnam- these are subjects with a built in audience in places like airports.   You see flashes of this potential in his American characters.

  An intuitive reader can sense, simply from the length of the book (barely 200 pages). and the pace of the narrative (Chapter One: Abadi is robbed of all of his money), that things are not going to end well, ultimately you are just hoping for an ambiguous ending.  You would think that Ackerman has been told that his ticket to the best seller list is a military bildungsroman, and you can see by Dark at the Crossing that he is resisting that fate.   He deserves credit for forgoing the easy money of the best-seller list. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

Pereira Maintains (1993) by Antonio Tabucchi

Book Review
Pereira Maintains (1993)
 by Antonio Tabucchi

   If I was to make a list of Italian language writers of fiction with a significant English language audience, it would be Umberto Eco and end of list.  Tabucchi is, at least, another Italian language author who made it into the 1001 Books list, but I wasn't entirely sold on Pereira Maintains, set in Portugal during the Salazar dictatorship era.  Pereira Maintains is squarely within the tradition of the European philosophical novel, where the protagonist quietly struggles with one or several issues of conscience.  Here it is the involvement by older, single, newspaper editor Pereira with a younger writer, a radical, who has become enmeshed with the anti-Salazar opposition inside Portugal and the ongoing Spanish civil war outside it.

  The title refers to the major stylistic feature of Tabucchi's writing- almost every thought by the protagonist Pereira appears after the introduction, "Pereira maintains..." as if it was appearing in a newspaper article and the narrator was interviewing Pereira after the events of the novel.  At barely 200 pages, you don't get a long time to like or dislike the book, blink and it is over.  FWIW there is a resolution, often lacking in other European philosophical novels of this sort.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Pachinko (2017) by Min Jin Lee

Book Review
Pachinko (2017)
by Min Jin Lee
Grant Central Publishing (Hatchette)

  The 2017 National (US) Book Awards Ceremony is November 15th, so I'm a little late on tackling the short list for fiction.  I'm not a huge fan of the National Book Award.  First off, they give out the Fiction Prize to short story collections.  That is their prerogative, of course, but the short story is an inferior form of writing, compared to the novel.  Second, the National Book Award is super bougie.  The gave the prize to Thomas Pynchon for Gravity's Rainbow, he refused to accept it, and I think they've been scared of the avant garde since that point.  The National Book Award winners for fiction list is also studded with average books written by great authors- "OH, X wrote a book this year, let's give it to him."  I'm sure they aren't happy that the Booker Prize was extended to American authors, because I'm sure the National Book Award won't be taken Canadian, let alone English writers anytime in the near future.

  For me, the novel is the premier modern art form, bar none, because of the way new voices can introduce a wide audience to novel perspectives.  In the past half century, literature has seen the emergence of African, Latin American, Asian, Gay/Lesbian, Trans, Working Class and of course, female voices - although the novel has always had women authors- into the consciousness of the English reading public- a group that also embraces all those groups mentioned above.   If you are looking for a value on which to build an appreciation for art, and beauty isn't available, the ability to create empathy with persons different than yourself would be my choice.

  Inevitably, these voice initially emerge in one of two categories.  The first is the bildungsroman, or "coming of age" story, by far the most popular format for the novel going back centuries, it tells of the growing up of a specific narrator.  The second is the multi-generation "family" novel, charting the course of a single family over the course of (at least) three generations.  Neither format receives much respect from people on the cutting edge of literature, though both are obviously staples of the teaching of literature at all levels.  You can justify reading a contemporary bildungsroman or multi-generation family novel on the basis that it introduces you, the reader, to a previously unfamiliar perspective, but beyond that, it's mostly just a function of the craft skill of the author.

  I'm bringing this up in the context of the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction short-list because it has both a family novel- this book- and a bildungsroman- The Leavers by Lisa Ko, written by Asian-American women.   And, coincidentally, if I were to identify the groups that are still seeking their public recognition as a perspective recognized by the general, wide audience for english language literature, Asian women, and Asian American women, would be at the very top of the list.  Certainly, Amy Tan made some waves with The Joy Luck Club- published in the early 1990's, but canonical status, and big time prizes, have eluded her.

  Min Jin Lee is Korean-American, and Pachinko is the family saga of a group of Koreans who move to Japan in the early 20th century and then find themselves stuck there, for better or worse.  It is an immigrant story, and immediately recognizable as a member of that group of novels- typically the story of white-ethnic groups immigrating to the East Coast of North America in the 19th century.
Hyperbolic book jacket comparisons to Dickens and Tolstoy aside,  Pachinko most closely resembles early career Saul Bellow.    Since the situation of Korean immigrants in Japan is so unusual and unique, almost every page contains some insight into their existence that gives a thoughtful reader food for thought.  At the same time, there is nothing much beyond that narrative contained in Pachinko.   There isn't a single post-modernist trick in Pachinko, in terms of the style, it could have been written in the early 20th century.

   It stuck me as I plowed through its 500 pages in a single afternoon, that Packinko was certainly engaging- a real page turner, as they say.  It also struck me that Pachinko is EXACTLY the sort of book that wins a National Book Award for Fiction:  It's great, but not challenging, it has a novel, interesting perspective but the style of "classic" literature.  The last book by the same author was a best-seller.
  Next up is Dark Crossing by Eliot Ackerman.  I've got The Leavers (11)and Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing (152)in my Los Angeles Public Library queue but I don't know if it will clear before the award is handed out.  The Los Angeles Public Library doesn't even have a copy of Her Body and Other Parties: Stories by Carmen Maria Machado.  I'll probably just buy Sing, Unburied, Sing because I've actually seen it in stores, hope that The Leavers gets here in time and skip Her Body and Other Parties.

A History of the Peoples of Siberia; Russia's North Asian Colony 1581-1990 (1992) by James Forsyth

Image result for siberia settlement
The path of settlement in the Russian Far East

Book Review
A History of the Peoples of Siberia;
 Russia's North Asian Colony 1581-1990 (1992)
 by James Forsyth
Cambridge University Press

  The Russian settlement of Siberia, still called the "conquest" of Siberia in places like, I don't know, Wikipedia, is on any top 10 list of poorly understood historical events.  It's obscured, first, by the lack of first hand accounts by the People's of Siberia, who were largely illiterate nomads (though not all of them). Second, by the fact that the Russian Empire was a pretty shitty place and it didn't produce many settlers who were interested in documenting their experience.  Third, by the Communists, who had a vested interest in obscuring the excesses of the Empire and their own failures to further their goal of discrediting the mistreatment of Native People's by the United States.  You could probably add a fourth level to the post-Communist regime in Russia, strident nationalists that they are, any criticism of the type contained in A History of the Peoples of Siberia by Scottish Professor James Forsyth, is likely to evoke disbelief and condemnation by modern Russians.

   So the Russian settlement of Siberia is a big blank space in historical consciousness, by Forsyth does much to redress this with his excellent history, one that focuses on the experience of the Native People's who were settled over.  Forsyth methodically works his way through the various regions and peoples.  You've got Western Siberia (main area of settlement), Eastern Siberia and the Russian North east. 

  Much of the initial push was driven by the desire of Western European markets for Russian furs.  The Czar sent Coassacks into Siberia, and they forced native tribes to pay a kind of protection fee (or tax, if you will) in fur, due and payable every year.  This dynamic of Russians collecting furs from the native is the dominant motif in Eastern Russian/Siberian history from the very beginning all the up until AFTER World War II, where the Russian Communist government finally began to exploit the ample mineral resources of the area.   A secondary motif is the often forced migration of Russian peasants into Siberia to "Russify" the area.   Forsyth, with his focus on the impact of Russian intrusion on the lives of Native Peoples, has little to say about  these Russian settler.
Image result for yakutia
The Russian Republic of Sakha
  If there is a discovery to be made among the Native Peoples of Siberia it's the Yakuts, a Turkic speaking people who control a vast area of territory shown above- today known as the Russian Republic of Sakha.  The Sakha Republic is the largest sub-national territory in the world- as big as the Indian subcontinent, and the Yakuts are the only ethnic group that both held their own and expanded their territory.  For centuries, the language of the Yakuts was the colonial language among the less organized nomadic tribes of the region.  Their isolation off the main path of Russian peasant settlement, along with their possession of a written language and a native ruling class and intelligentsia meant that they were able to stay on top of the Russians all the way up to and past the Russian revolution.  Unfortunately their heroic Russian revolution generation of leaders, like many others, were liquidated during Stalin's purges during the 1930's.   In this, the Yakuts did no better or worse than any of the other groups who suffered under Stalin.

  Ultimately, there are many direct comparisons to be made between the Russian settlement of the Far East and the American settlement of the West, at least in terms of their treatment of Native Peoples.  Both events are shocking to the modern conscience, and even without Forsyth often observing that a direct comparison exists, you can see the similarity of the cultures in the pictures of the Peoples that are part of the book.  If anyone tells you the Russians did a better job with their Native population, they are incorrect.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

City Sister Silver (1994) by Jáchym Topol

Book Review
City Sister Silver (1994)
 by  Jáchym Topol

   500 pages, and written in a "new" form of informal Czech that mirrors Anglo-American novels written in the "language of the street,"  City Sister Silver presents a challenge for ANY reader, and, if like, basically everyone in the Western world, you are wholly unfamiliar with Czech culture outside of Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel, that challenge is all the greater.

  You have to admire the editors of the 1001 Books giving the Czech language five books on their first version of this list, where Chinese has ZERO and all of the languages of the Indian subcontinent have ZERO.  That is five books for a country with 10 million people, and zero books for China, with close to a billion.  What you are telling me is that the editors in charge of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die, putting together their list in 2005, 2006, couldn't think of a SINGLE Chinese language book to put on this list, but giving the Czech's give, including three by Milan Kundera, seemed perfectly appropriate.

  On top of the difficulties of translation and cultural specificity,   the narrative style of City Sister Silver is close to being stream-of-consciousness, with little or no set-up to tell the reader who is talking, what they are talking about and how it relates to other episodes in the novel.   At various points, Topol's translated prose evokes William Burroughs, the "cyber punk" of William Gibson, and early 20th century modernists like Joyce and Gertrude Stein.

  The plot, I couldn't even begin to describe, except to posit that the main character is a man named Potok, that he has a girlfriend named Cerna and that both live in a post-Communist Prague where Potok is involved in "bysnys" that ranges from arms trafficking in the third world to the manufacture of snuff films. It seems, based on the tone, that drugs must be involved, but I couldn't point to a passage which says that.   Some episodes: The recollection of the struggles of medieval Czech's, and the graphic description of the aforementioned Czech snuff film, stand out in the memory for their raw power, but I don't even know what to say after that, and I really question why this book was included.

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Buried Giant (2015) by Kazuo Ishiguro

Book Review
The Buried Giant (2015)
 by Kazuo Ishiguro

  The Buried Giant was Kazuo Ishiguro's first novel in a decade and I think that it is fair to observe that it was practically a flop in terms of the initial critical reception.  I'm not sure how it sold, but I'd imagine it didn't do that well.  Then he goes and wins the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature.  Boom. Instant revision.  The Nobel Prize for Literature is only given to active authors, and I would surmise that they like to give it to writers who are still at the top of their powers- if you follow the "inside baseball" type Nobel Prize for Literature information, you will learn that authors often have a Nobel Prize "window" that they age out of- basically, if you don't win it when you are on top, you will not win it as a "career achievement" award.

  I think it is perfectly acceptable to look at the last work published before the Nobe Prize for Literature is awarded and see it as the work that put a given author "over the top.'  So for Kazuo Ishiguro, that work is The Buried Giant, the same book that was, essentially, deemed a failure by critics not two years ago.  I remember being disappointed when I read those same reviews- at the time I still hadn't read any Ishiguro (and I still haven't read The Remains of the Day.)  I have read A Pale View of the Hills (1982) and An Artist of the Floating World (1986.)   

  The awarding of a Nobel Prize for Literature is unmistakably a canon making experience.  First, it secures canonical status for anyone who wins and already has a sale track record in the English language publishing industry.  Second, any author who exists outside that universe gets a fair shot, classic works translated into English for the first time, new works get immediate translation and a decent marketing budget.   Ishiguro is firmly in the former category- an English writer (of Japanese ancestry) writing in English, with multiple hits and hit movie versions of the hit books.

  For an author like Ishiguro the questions is whether one has to go back, revisit his non-canonical works and perhaps add additional books.  It also puts all future and present books in the "must read" category, as far as potential canon status goes.   Clearly a short-term reevaluation of The Buried Giant is in order. It's a work of fantasy, squarely set in the literary Arthurian world/universe that it shares with books like The Once and Future King by T.H. White and The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley.  Despite abandoning the contemporary/historical realism of his other books and embracing the fantasy milieu, everything about The Buried Giant is unmistakably the work of Kazuo Ishiguro.   Characters drift around in a (literal in this book) fog of amnesia, living in the aftermath of the Arthurian wars where King Arthur (Briton) defeated his Saxon rivals.

  I don't believe I'm spoiling anything by revealing that The Buried Giant is an allegory for the very 20th century problem of ethnic cleansing and internecine civil war.  Telling a potential reader that fact does nothing to defeat the magic of the story, which revolves around Axl and Beatrice, an older couple living in a Britonic community.  They want to visit their son, who lives several days away by foot (only mode of travel in that period).  On the way they get pulled into various adventures, featuring several recognizable legendary Arthurian characters.  And, you know, based on him winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, you'd have to say that critics were wrong about it being a boring waste of time.  I was quite engrossed by the story.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Trainspotting (1993) by Irvine Welsh

Image result for kelly macdonald trainspotting

Book Review
Trainspotting (1993)
 by Irvine Welsh

   Trainspotting is one book where the reader never need feel ashamed that he only read it after seeing the film.  IN FACT, Trainspotting the book wasn't even published in the United States until the movie version came out in 1996.  The book, like the movie, is known for it's affectionate, comedic look at a decidedly unaffectionate, uncomedic milieu, that of Scottish junkies and casuals during the AIDS era.

  I was a fan of the film- saw it three, four, five times?  Twice in the theater in the United States, once in the theater in London (the Prince Charles in SOHO), maybe twice on DVD.  The affection I felt for those lovable Scottish junkies in college has diminished over the years.  The book did not particularly impress me, specifically I've also been reading some James Kelman novels, and he does basically the same thing with much more swagger.

  The book is unsurprisingly rougher than the hit film.  In particular there is an omitted plot about the revenge one of the characters seeks against another street punk who infected his girlfriend with AIDS.  Much of the dialogue in the film is drawn directly from the book.  To me, there was little difference between the two.

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. 

Saturday, September 30, 2017

4 3 2 1 (2017) by Paul Auster

Book Review
4 3 2 1 (2017)
by Paul Auster

    Is Paul Auster a great American novelist?  Sure, that is a loaded question in 2017, does such a thing even exist in 2017?  Isn't the whole idea of the great American novelist and the great American novel itself problematic in so much as it invokes the specter of white male class and privilege? Up until the publication of 4 3 2 1 in January of this year, you could argue that Auster himself agreed that there was no point in writing the great American novel- simply judging by his books, which are typically short and elliptical, consciously eschewing the kind of length and solidity that typically coincide with books judged to have a shot at fulfilling the manifest destiny of the great American novel.

    If you look at Auster's career up to this point- what have you got?  Does he have an Audience- certainly, popular and critical.  He's had best sellers, all his books get the full review treatment and he's dabbled in successful films. On the other hand, he's near 30 years into his career as a well regarded novelist and he has yet to back a first level literary prize- No Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, no National Book Award (that seems pretty amazing considering some of the books which have won in the past 30 years).   He doesn't even appear in the long odds section of the Ladbrook's 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature betting table.

   He's also got a reputation for writing literary genre fiction and a thematic obsession with the vagaries of fate and existentialism- all traits that have helped secure book sales in the English speaking world, but neither of those characteristics have endeared him to the people who hand out major literary prizes. 

  And as I was saying earlier, before the publication of 4 3 2 1 you could say that Paul Auster hasn't won a major literary award because he isn't trying to win a major award.  He just didn't give a fuck, wasn't trying, and was content with his lot as a top selling "serious" author in late 20th and early 21st century America.  After all, that's not a bad place to be for a writer of serious fiction.

   But 4 3 2 1 changes that analysis, because here he has a written a book that begs to be considered for major literary prizes, and in fact, it has made the 2017 Booker Prize short-list.  The current Ladbrook's betting chart has him second to last place at 5/1.  The inclusion of 4 3 2 1 on the shortlist was itself the biggest surprise of the 2017 shortlist announcement.   It was a surprise because 4 3 2 1 hasn't been particularly well received by critics, and at a very solid 850 pages it is not a light read. It's hard to imagine any casual readers dipping into 4 3 2 1 unless they are die hard Auster fans or they've been told that this is "the" book of the season/year, or a contender for that status.   Before the Booker Shortlist announcement, I was of the opinion that 4 3 2 1 was a ridiculously self-indulgent flop by an author who has blown his chance at long-term canonical status.

  After reading 4 3 2 1, I want to hail it as a major work- partially because I read the damn 850 pages and saying it is a great book justifies the investment of time.  I think an aspect of this book which makes it difficult to judge is the unabashedly retro bildungsroman story of a non-religious  male Jew growing up in the New York City in the mid to late 20th century.   The meta fictional device that somewhat obscures the retro feel is that Auster tells four different versions of the same life, from birth through young adulthood.  Each version is different as it relates the narrator and his personal life, but the "outside world" remains the same in each version.  For example, the student unrest at Columbia around the time of the Vietnam War, and the Vietnam War itself, and all major historical events from the time period depicted remain true to "life."

  Any cursory survey of the reviews of 4 3 2 1 make it clear that the narrator is a stand in for Auster himself.  One important plot point, the sudden death of a friend at summer camp when he was a young adolescent- occurs both in the real life of Paul Auster and in 4 3 2 1.   Auster manages to spell the overwhelming white/maleness by making his narrator gay/bisexual in some of his timelines.  But still- 4 3 2 1 bears a strong resemblance to the work of Phillip Roth and Saul Bellow.  He's moved forward a few decades in time (from Saul Bellow, at least), but the story of a hyper-literate Jewish American growing up in the New York area in the mid to late 20th century is one of the most traversed literary pathways of 20th century literature.

  4 3 2 1 is a book written to win literary prizes, so it's ultimate value is likely to be judged by it's ability to bring home said prizes.  At least a National Book Award.

Friday, September 29, 2017

On Love (1993) by Alain de Botton

Book Review
On Love (1993)
by Alain de Botton

  Alain de Botton is a oddity- a French style "public intellectual" of a type almost unknown in America for the past half century- a writer with opinions, based on philosophy, about how one might live in the modern world.   To a cynical eye, you might say he is a high falutin lifestyle guru- and the fact that his "Ted Talk" is on the first page of his Google search return is telling.  For those reasons, I like but don't love Botton. Even though I don't know anyone outside of my current partner who has one of his books on the shelve, I would be vaguely embarrassed to admit that I was a fan.

  That said, I find myself quietly nodding my head every two to three pages of any Botton written work I dig into.  His brand of philosophy leans heavy on classical Stoicism and his methods and style hearken back to the tradition of  Plato and Aristotle. Adapted for the 20th and 21st century literary marketplace, of course.  This background is clear even in On Love- his first, and basically (barring a sequel) only novel- and his biggest hit- a book that sold hundreds of thousands of copies across the world and gave him the audience for his true calling of life as a public intellectual/pop philosopher.

  On Love shows some of that philosophical heritage- writing a novel in numbered paragraphs strikes me as something only a classically trained philosopher would do (though that particular tradition dates to 19th century analytic philosophy.)  I'm sure On Love made the 1001 Books list simply because it is his only novel, not his best work.  For my money, that would be the Consolations of Philosophy, which I've kept on the shelf for two decades.  The idea of prostituting philosophy for the marketplace is controversial.  Really the only people in this country who care about philosophy are academics, so Botton took this leap of popularizing philosophy, but I think he deserved to be acclaimed, not criticized.  Better Botton than nothing at all, that's what I say.

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