Note from the Blogger

These mini-reviews are intended to be short recommendations, not full blown literary reviews. Please feel free to add your own comments. To get an email alert when a new review is posted, enter your Email address in the box on the right. -- Tim Drake

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Barkskins (2016) By Annie Proulx

The novel Barkskins by Annie Proulx is epic by every definition of the term.  It checks in at 716 pages, not counting the family trees; it spans three centuries of history, and its geographic spread ranges from the Netherlands and France, to New France (Canada), New England (US), with side trips to London, Australia, New Zealand, China and the Amazon.  Topics include U.S. history, Canadian history (quite distinct from U.S. History), Native history, the timber industry, managed forestry, land ethos, and ecological disruption, the role of women in society and business, the friction between adopted children and biological children, and the place of non-Cabot & Lodges in New England society.  Oh, and the Great Chicago Fire.

Take a breath.  And let me point out, it is a great read.

A plot summary, grossly brief, is that Barkskins is the interlocking family histories of the Dutch-French Duquet “Duke” family, and the Sel family which is an intermarriage of a French indentured-immigrant Rene Sel and Mari, a Mi’kmaw Indian. The Dukes found a lumber dynasty that generations of the Sels are impacted by.   Barkskins – by the way – is a term applied to anyone in the timber/logging industry.

Proulx is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Shipping News, a book that I did not particularly like.  She is also an accomplished short story writer whose work includes the highly regarded Brokeback Mountain – which if my memory serves me runs about 60 pages.  What really clinches Proulx place as a versatile writer is that she has proven quite proficient writing about “male” topics – Barkskins is about the timber/logging industry, while Brokeback is set in the sheep ranching industry, both of which are wholly male.  The lead character of The Shipping News, Quoyle, is also a man.  This is not to say that Proulx cannot write about women – let me tell you that when Barkskins is made into a movie (when, not if) the competition in Hollywood for the role of Lavinia is going to be intense.

The environmental subtext of the book is all encompassing; it would be wrong to call it a “sub plot” because it is there, on every page.  The book begins in the late 1600’s with the unfettered harvesting of timber and clearing of land on the east coast of North America, because it seems unlimited; the consequences of that unregulated clearcutting of the forests impacts every generation thereafter.   Near the end, the owners of the Duke Company begin to convert to the concept of forest management, though they do so to protect their investment, not the environment.  

Recommendation:  Set aside some time, this is an important book and great read.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Old Filth (2004) By Jane Gardam

While American readers can (normally) understand the notion of imperialism -- admit it or not, we are stellar practitioners of it -- we don’t readily acknowledge the notion of empire building.  We view global dominance as something that just happened because we are good guys, not something that was built.  The British Empire on the other hand didn’t just happen, it was built.  The process usually (always?) began with the military, but colonial administration was the crowning achievement – pun intended.

“The Empire on which the sun never sets” required a colossal bureaucracy to run it; that bureaucracy is often referred to as the “Raj,” a term originally coined to describe the British rule of India, but its application eventually grew to cover the administration of the entire global empire, from Hong Kong to Singapore, Ceylon, India, Rhodesia, South Africa and more.

Old Filth, is a by-product of the Raj.  The title is the nickname of a colonial barrister stationed in the then British colony of Hong Kong.  The moniker stands for “failed-in-London-try-Hong Kong.”  The book is part of an entire genre of British literature often called “children of the Raj.”

Written by Jane Gardam, it is a biography of a fictional Sir Edward Feathers, a Brit who was born in China, where his father was part of the colonial administration.  Eddy, as was the case with most foreign born children of Raj bureaucrats, was sent back to England (Wales actually, because it was cheaper) for his education.  He was sent to a boarding school, along with other Raj children, at a very young age because his mother had died during his birth.

Gardam’s fascinating tale is about how this virtual orphan, with a father far more interested in the Empire than in his own son, managed the English education system, and qualifies for Oxford.  But, as he is set to enter Oxford, Britain is becoming the next target in World War II, with German planes bombing the country, at first, uncontested.  What happens next makes for a great read. 

In time, Eddy will graduate from Oxford, tire of England, and relocate to Malaysia in pursuit of his father, lost when the Japanese captured Singapore where his father had fled to “because it was invincible.”  Eddy goes on to establish a legendary reputation as a foreign-service barrister in Hong Kong, before retiring back to England.  Much of the book is told in flashback. 

Recommendation:  I canceled appointments to devote more time to reading this book, that’s how much I enjoyed it.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

George Ade (1964) By Lee Coyle; and George Ade Anthology (6 book volume)

Hidden in plain sight.  Interestingly enough, the sign above marking the George Ade Plaza on the east bound Indiana Toll Road (I-90) is in Portage, IN, the town where I grew up. As a kid did I ever ask who is George Ade? Well, no, not once. Several weeks ago I received an email about a house for sale in Brook, IN (about halfway between Chicago and Lafayette, IN) -- I almost bought a weekend home in that vicinity ten years ago, and have been receiving occasional For Sale listings ever since. Anyway, I went online to see what I could find out about the town.  I had been to Brook before but really couldn't remember much about the place.  In the Wikipedia post it gave the population as 980 (roughly the size of the Chicago high rise I live in) and it mentioned that George Ade's country estate, Hazelden (pictured below), is in Brook.  There was that name again!

My curiosity won ...  Turns out the life of George Ade very much plays to my Indiana childhood, and to my adult life in Chicago. He was born (in 1866, the year after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated) and raised in Kentland, IN -- farmland just south of "the Calumet Region" which in the later half of the 19th century was also farmland. After graduating from high school, he "went away" to that new college just opened up in Lafayette: Purdue University.  In 1924, as an alumnus, he made a major contribution toward the construction of Purdue's football stadium ... he's the second half of Ross-Ade Stadium, home of the Boilermakers.

While at Purdue he was the editor of the its student newspaper.  He had a job at the Morning Star, a mouthpiece for the local Republican party, but left it for a relatively more profitable position at the Lafayette Call, in part because at the Call he got free press passes to performances at the Grand Opera House in downtown Lafayette.

In 1890 he moved to Chicago and with help from his college buddy John T. McCutcheon, got a job with the Chicago Record covering small time breaking news stories.  This time period was the hey day of Chicago journalism with nearly a dozens daily newspapers competing for the next big headline; it was the newspaper era immortalized by the play, then movie The Front Page. McCutcheon, who was originally from South Raub, IN, would find fame as a newspaper cartoonist -- in later years his work would win the Chicago Tribune its first Pulitzer Prize.  He too has a Toll Road Plaza named after him (the west bound Plaza in Portage) -- tollway plazas are apparently the Hoosier equivalent of a Pulitzer.

Working at the Chicago Record, Ade was promoted and given his own column, titled: Stories of the Street, and of the Town.  He built the column into what became a Chicago journalism staple, stories about the common man on the street -- a later master of this would be the famed Mike Royko, whose fictional Slats Grobnik represented the thoughts of everyday neighborhood guys.  While Ade did not have a regular character like Grobnik, what he did have was a mastery of street slang, and an ear for finding humor -- editors initially skoffed at the slang, until they realized the public loved it.  Ade and McCutcheon would frequently "hit the town" in all-night partying and prowling that provided endless inspiration for their respective careers.  The two would later collaborate on several book projects, and do the "grand tour" of Europe together.

Ade's first works published as books were actually collections or longer versions of his newspaper columns.  He showed an astounding ability to capture different cultural backgrounds, with his Stories of Chicago covering the city's ethnic smorgasborg; Ade's Fables about life in small Midwestern towns, and People You Should Know, among other titles -- six of which have been reprinted recently in George Ade Anthology. These works cover such topics as an around the world trip taken by a successful couple who had never been outside of their small Indiana town before; a story about marrying right, and the downside of penny-pinching (death before you can enjoy life).  One of the better known, and still funny, fables is: The Culture Factory, a several page essay about frat life on a college campus (it appears in People You Should Know).

His fame and fortune however, came not from his books, but from his musical comedies. In 1904 George Ade had three plays running simultaneously on Broadway: The County Chairman; The College Widow, and The Sho-gun (set in Korea, it is a revision of his earlier play The Sultan of Sulu, set in the Philippines).  I cannot find any collection of all of his plays, and it appears that several of the manuscripts have been lost to time.  I've located The County Chairman in the archives of the non-circulating Special Collections section of Chicago's Harold Washington Library, and have an appointment to see it next weekend.

The County Chairman, set in fictional Antioch, is inspired from his experience working at the Lafayette Morning Star covering local politics.  The College Widow is as vintage Hoosier as one can get.  The book is about the football rivalry between fictional Billingham and Atwater Colleges -- by the author's own word, it is patterned after the real life rivalry between the Wabash Little Giants and the DePauw Tigers, now distinguished as the annual Monon Bell game.

Ade's only full length novel, The Slim Princess, is a humorist's version of the standard "the older sister must marry first" plot.  In Ade's telling the story is set in Bulgaria where "fat" is valued as a sign of beauty, creating a problem because the desirable scale-tipping younger sister can't get married because her older sister is "slim" and no one in their country wants her.  The "slim and older" sister is eventually married off to an American playboy.

Recommendation: I have to admit this little research project on George Ade was fun -- as a humorist his work stands the test of time (even if his name has faded away). The biography by Lee Coyle is written in the same vein, and is a great read, though only available second hand because it is out of print (my copy was "withdrawn from stock" from the Belfast Reference Library in Northern Ireland; through Amazon).  The more recent George Ade Anthology provides a good overview of his work, though it contains none of the biography -- it does include The Slim Princess.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

A Portait Of The Artist As A Young Man (1916) By James Joyce

As I continue toward my goal of finally conquering James Joyce’s classic Ulysses, I began by reading Dubliners several weeks ago, a collection of character studies.  Now, I’ve completed Joyce’s first full length book, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a semi-autobiographical text.

Joyce was born and raised in Ireland, yet chose to flee to Paris after university.  In Portrait of the Artist, the title character is Joyce’s alter ego, Stephen Dedalus.  His coming of age crisis, if one wants to classify it as such, is masterful writing, completely intense, and not at all an easy read, even at a relatively short 224 pages.  The Norton Critical Edition that I read included nearly 400 pages of notes – most of which I passed over.

Without the notes however, one needs a fairly strong knowledge of: Irish history, the Catholic catechism, and Church structure vis-à-vis diocesan and orders (in this case, both Franciscan and Jesuit).  After one chapter of A Portrait, I had to stop and do a review of Irish history, building on a solid basis that I had not realized I had acquired just by living in Chicago, occasionally referred to as Ireland’s County Cook.

The chapters of the book relating to Stephen’s early childhood delve heavily into Irish political history, as discussed at a family dinner party.  The heated discussion laid bare the divide between those who viewed the institution of the Church, as the guarantor of the Irish people, and those who viewed the diocesan structure as selling out to the colonizers. 

When Stephen enters university however, is when his personal dilemmas materialize, and he’s faced with questions of sexual awakening morality.  He has pre-marital sex, which delights him, but then plunges him into the depths of guilt, compounded by priests and a theology that forbids this.  The strongest section of the book details Stephen’s confession, which occurs as he is being urged by his teachers to consider the priesthood, a temptation to most males born in the Church.  His post-confession personal homily is some 40 pages long, intense, and decisive.  He will never be able to live up to the standards of a priest, because he does not believe in those standards.

Some of Joyce’s best narrative is the dialogue between Stephen and his university classmates as they question everything, and then question the answer – an at times vicious circle of academic arrogance and pomposity, as these overly educated people wield their education for sport.  Joyce captures this academic subculture perfectly.

In the end, Stephen prepares to depart Ireland, not out of repudiation, for Joyce will make his life work chronicling the country and its society; but out of a need to find a neutral space where he can think about the world, not respond to it.

Because I have attempted to read Ulysses before (actually, I’ve tried several times), I know that page one of the book will re-introduce Stephen Dedalus to readers.  Now, I think, I’m better prepared for that challenge.   

Recommendation:  James Joyce is a genius writer, but he is not light reading.  Prepare to devote the needed time and thought if you pick up any of his works.

Monday, December 12, 2016

My Grandmother: An Armenian-Turkish Memoir (Turkish 2004, English 2008) By Fethiye Cetin

Sometimes basic history is not what people want to hear, it upsets the status quo.  But, how does one present the history of genocide without doing it in accusation form, as if “upsetting” the status quo should even be a consideration?  Fethiye Cetin manages this challenge in a brief, very personal, and very powerful, book titled My Grandmother: An Armenian-Turkish Memoir.  She does not restate the horrifying statistics of the genocide itself, but the facts are just beneath the surface throughout her book, visible to all who care to focus their eyes. Her goal is to tell the story, and get on with the reality of today.

The genocide of 1.5 million Armenians in eastern Turkey during World War I by the fading Ottoman Empire remains a hot topic even today, and the official response is denial – not that people died, but that it should be termed a genocide.  As a response, it is an attempt to distinguish between war-related mass murder, and an attempt to destroy and eliminate a culture.  By detailing not only what happened, but also what came after, Cetin debunks the denial.

What comes after in the case of her Grandmother, is the memory of what happened, suppressed by the day-to-day necessity of what came next.

As the Ottoman Empire was under attack on all borders, an out of control attempt was made to unify the country by making it “pure” – ironic when one considers that one of the major markers of the Empire's power was its diversity, though not necessarily its equality.  Cosmopolitan is the term one could use to describe the Empire, perhaps more so than any time since Alexander.  Unlike Alexander however, they didn’t quite understand the concept of assimilating cultures, they tried to eliminate them instead.

In the case of the Armenians, some 2 million of them in the northeastern corner of today’s Turkey, assimilation was not a consideration even though they were Ottoman citizens.  As Christians they were suspect, potential/likely/probable allies of the Empire’s many enemies.  The result was a campaign to systematically eliminate them.  At first the able bodied men of Armenian villages were rounded up, and then mysteriously disappeared.  Then the remaining citizens were to be relocated to present-day Syria.  Their property and possessions were seized and “redistributed.”  During the forced long march across the country, anyone unable to keep up – those in poor health, seniors, small children -- were left behind and then slaughtered on the roadside when the main body of marchers were out of sight.  Along the way, men who needed a strong woman as a servant or concubine picked out their preference.  When the group arrived, dramatically reduced in number, those who survived were assigned.  The adult women became servants, the children were adopted, all were forced to convert Islam.  It was cultural genocide by any definition, though not at all unusual in the annals of history. 

Cetin’s Grandmother was one of those children.  She grew up as the adopted child in a then Ottoman, now Turkish household.  She was raised in the Islamic faith.  Everything before her adopted family life became a distant and very suppressed memory.  It was not until she was an adult preparing to go away to college that Cetin discovered that her Grandmother’s name was not what she thought it was; and so began her investigation of what happened to her Grandmother’s extended family. It is a story of discovering a nightmare the world would like to ignore, while looking for a family history.

It is important to note that this book, while presenting the facts about the final days of the Ottoman Empire, is not an attack on Islam or modern Turkey.  It does however, with commanding moral authority, recognize that history is what it was, regardless of what those who deny it might want you to believe. 

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Silent House (Turkish 1983, English 2012) By Orhan Pamuk

I’m normally a stickler about reading things in their written sequence, but this was not possible with Silent House by Orhan Pamuk.  Written in 1983, it is the third book by this prolific and award-laden Turkish writer.  The book wasn't translated into English until 2012 after many of his later works had already been translated, including: The White Castle, My Name is Red, and the Museum of Innocence, and the now classic Snow.  His first two books have yet to be translated into English; his most recent book, A Strangeness in My Mind, I reviewed last November.

Pamuk’s works are intimate stories told on top of fascinating bits of Turkish geography and history. Silent House was no different.  It is set in Cennethisar, a resort village south and east of Istanbul, on the Asian side of the Bosphorous. The time span is near 1980, with the country on the verge of a coup, one that would lead to no end of personal troubles for Pamuk. The story profiles the urban & western faction of the population, the old elite if you will; and the rural & mostly poor faction, with an eastern/conservative world view.  Their differences are a key backdrop in seemingly all modern Turkish literature and film.

The story tells of the annual visit of three adult siblings to their aged grandmother's home. Their parents had died years ago; a visit to the cemetery is one of the early chapters of the book.  The siblings, two brothers and a sister, are residents of Istanbul and western in outlook.  They are personally stressed by the country’s political uncertainty, and the possibility the country’s religious majority will assert control.  Change the calendar by 40 years -- in either direction -- and you have the same political uncertainty.  The grandmother is an anchor to a past that no longer exists.

The personal history of the family provides some wickedly sharp tales. Their stories, told collectively, are a representative stand-in of a country having a nervous breakdown.  Each of them will have first person narrative chapters in the book, as does Recep, the grandmother’s live-in loyal/hated housekeeper, caregiver and cook.  Recep is a dwarf, which provides an interesting subplot.  He is also apparently the illegitimate child of the long deceased grandfather.  A psychological analysis of the entire family and some of their friends would find some serious issues, not all of them comic in nature.

Interestingly, one of the siblings is a historian who spends much of his one week vacation visiting the dusty basement of the town’s civic building, reading decades-old records of property transfers and court actions, viewing them as a way to piece together the everyday life of the locals -- perhaps realizing that years from now future historians will view his life in the same way. He states “I would have gladly agreed to spend my whole life in that cool basement if only three square meals could be brought at appropriate intervals, as well as a pack of cigarettes and in the evening a little raki left by the door.”  Novelists, like Orhan Pamuk, are like that -- one could consider that scene an early conceptual draft of his future book Museum of Innocence.  

Recommendation:  You bet.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Story of Ireland (2011) By Neil Hegarty; and The MacMillan Atlas of Irish History (1997) Edited by Sean Duffy

I did not pick up The Story of Ireland: A History of the Irish People by Neil Hegarty as a pleasure read, I found it to use as a stepping stone to a larger project, but it is a pleasurable read.

I’ve blogged before about my goal of conquering James Joyce’s Ulysses, a book that I’ve started, and abandoned, several times.  I find myself ill equipped to tackle it.  A few months ago I began taking the incremental approach to it by reading and reviewing Joyce’s early book of short stories Dubliners.  Satisfied, I then took the next step, attempting A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; but, by the end of the first chapter realized I needed a primer on the history of Ireland before I could quite grasp the elusive asides in A Portrait.  Hence, my latest reads.

In searching for a book on Irish history, the selection process alone was time-consuming. It seems everyone, and their brother/sister, has written a book on Irish history.  Inevitably, these books are in reality about their family history, interesting, but not what I was looking for.  What I wanted was a readable history of the island, except not a thesis.  I found 80% of that with Hegarty’s book, which is almost entirely text.  I found the other 20% with a phenomenal little book titled The MacMillan Atlas of Irish History edited by Sean Duffy and consisting primarily of maps.  These two books weren’t written together, but they complement each other perfectly.

The histories do an admirable job of outlining the complexities of a people born of the influence of endless invasions from the outside world, yet also often insulated from it. One witnesses Celtic and Viking interactions (most of the cities on the coast that we know of today, including Dublin, are renamed Viking settlements) and, one also witnesses the countless back and forth migrations across the Irish Sea that resulted from subsequent invasions of England, by the Romans, the Normans, and the needs of British imperial expansion.

(And, as if talking politics is not dangerous enough, let me delve into religion…)

Then there is Ireland's religious history, which started not in the pews, but in the bedrooms of England – politics, disguised as theology.  It was played out in colonial economics then; and it lingers forever more, while continuing to be sold to the outside world as religious differences, an aspect, not a cause.

For purposes of reading Joyce, this religious history is what I was looking for -- not the Catholic/Protestant divide of the north, but the internal Catholic division.  What I did not understand when beginning A Portrait was the many references to internal squabbles about “The” Church.  Ireland has a deeply Catholic people with an innate independence born of a monastic tradition.  Yet, it saw that monastic tradition stamped out by a politically corrupted Vatican-imposed diocesan structure that was more often than not in bed with the imperial overlords – an administrative structure accepted by some, but never to be trusted by all. This helps explain a great deal about the legendary skepticism found in many Irish Catholics worldwide vis-à-vis the Vatican. 

Recommendation:  I don’t know that I’ve ever spent as much time searching for the correct book on a subject. The time was well spent, The Story of Ireland by Neil Hegarty, coupled with The MacMillan Atlas of Irish History, is precisely what I was looking for, detailed, not dense.