Monday, January 08, 2007

Two Months In Print: From the Book Exchanges Or Not?

The stalls may be bustling with Spanish language editions of Dan Brown sitting alongside The Art of War and Das Kapital, but the best you'll manage is to scan through a daily tabloid and come away with a faint understanding . Well thats the experience of an Spanish speaker in South America. This gives a weighted importance to book exchanges in hostels. Far from being bursting, divergent little caves of taste and interest, invariably they included two shelves of semi-erotic romance novels, spy-fiction in abundance and multiple out of date travel guides. Here's some books I got around to reading on my travels. You can judge what came from the exchanges and what came from ruthlessly rooting around markets yourself. In the spirit of 60 Seconds On Film here's some reviews. Rueeq had a similar idea and reviewed some of what she read, doubling up on some of the ones below and others.

Primitive People, Francine Prose This is exactly the sort of book that old adage on judging by the cover warns you against. A forceful, blurb bends you towards this supposedly, acerbic anthropological satire of American, middle class suburbia. This is Wisteria Lane as seen through the eyes of Simone, a Hatian migrant economically conscripted as "care giver" to the permanently crisis prone divorced Rosemary.

The authors finger is on the trigger when it comes to characterizing the shallowness of the upper middle classes, simultaneously wrapped in dilemmas about their own status, then flaunting it or trying to off-set it through New Age philosophy or exploring the artist within. Cringe inducing incidents provide the backbone of the humor, and then like one Desperate Housewives voice over too many it all becomes a little too tedious to bother finishing.

Death in the Andes, Mario Vargas Llosa
Llosa is a writer to make your spine tingle. In this delicate combination of love story and detective noir he crafts a modern horror relying in equal dose on the natural spookiness of the Peruvian mountains and the violence of Sendero Luminoso. The Senderistas become confused and intertwined with demons of the hills in this clash of rural/urban and furoe into the persistence of pagan belief among Andean peasants. The plot unfolds around a coastal city Civil Guard Corporal Lituma, who lands a rural out-post investigating the mysterious death of several laborers on a road-works.

It's a series of narratives within narratives, on one hand Lituma's lovelorn side kick interrupts the textual flow with flashbacks to his own romance with a former prostitute. On the other hand Lituma, tortures himself with imaginings of the bawdy drunken debauchery foisted on road laborers by Dona Adriana and her husband the mystic Dionisio who run a shanty roadside canteen. The ancient and modern collapse into each other, leading to a violent and iconically charged ending that immediately brings the Wickerman to mind.

From Gangland to Promised Land, John Pridmore
Remember those secondary school afternoons when some lunatic with a history of drug addiction, mental breakdowns and violence held your class rapt with tales of his visitations from God? Yes well John Pridmore is one of these retreat running men. In Carlow one particular wild haired, former seventies rocker, a skillful story teller who noodled Zeplein on acoustic and warninged of their dalliance with satanic rites and the consequences on young minds. Pridmore never had such occult rock ambitions, instead he was a simple minded East-end bouncer with a short fuse. Pridmore successfully cultivates a soap opera hard-man on the downward spiral image, concoctions of drugs, women and lad culture take their toll and he first obsesses over some slight on his pub pride and then batters some kid near to death.

Mid way through his court case he of course turns to God, replacing a set of voices in his head with just the one. Amble on through a series of adventures in the poverty industry, where Holy John used his tough boy exterior to break down walls between youth and social workers and its all pretty much wrapped up until celebrity status strikes through the Youth 2000 campaign. There are some truly disturbing moments described as he sails through school retreats. One such class weighed heavy due to the presence of visibly upset and distant girl. In private Pridmore advanced towards her and told her the reason for her state of mind,as God had put it to him - serial childhood sexual abuse. If you want a picture of the mentallers still being dragged into our schools to shore up the moral fiber of our teenagers in religion classes, here's your start. You couldn't even begin to make this bollox up.


Fortress of Solitude, Jonathon Lethem One of the more brilliant novels to fall into my hands recently, but this loses its glittering attraction towards the end by eschewing explorations of the 1970's Brooklyn tagging and hip-hop culture for the personal trauma of growing up white in a black neighborhood. Though disappointed by the ultimate direction of this novel, it'd be foolish not to recognize how Lethem has made the area of racial tensions and its contribution to pop culture his particular area for mining anecdotal recalls from the very recent modern.

He builds up a plot around the shared mutual love of DC Comics, hip hop and robbing spray paint between two boys, one white, one black. That these two kids would take such dramatically different paths in life is an testament to the strength of racial separation in the states today, despite the mainstream acceptance of predominantly black cultures. Brooklyn breathes all over this book, you can be of no doubt that Lethem was inhaling its air as he produced the detailed accounts of building gentrifaction beginning with the '60's counter culture and then how crack first began to take hold in the projects.




History of Argentina in the 20th Century, Luis Alberto Romero Going by the Evita Museum and others in Buenos Aires, after the dictatorship came to power - it without reason dug up the first lady of the Peronista movement's corpse. The gaps between what most national history museums tell you and the reality of a country's politics is the reason you rush out and buy a book like this to fill in the blanks yourself. Romero has produced a book that does extraordinarily well on the undergraduate circle, its constant status as an instant reprint has led to more recent updates to cover the dramatic neo-liberal restructuring under Carlos Menem and the more recent uprisings from 2001 on.

Basically its a dry, academic history of Argentinian presidencies and their economic polices, the complexity of social movements are really only explored when they pierce out of and briefly push aside state hegemony as in the late 1960's and again in the late '80's and 2001. Though for an account of the social movements readers are best pushed off to reading the contemporary accounts the author himself will likely end up relying on for future updates. Romero successfully manages to give the new comer a grounding in the emergence of Argentina as a distinctly European South American city, his coverage of the Juan and Evita Peron movement, which in itself stands as a good basis for moving on to other periods while the corruption within the ruling elites is pleasantly left wide open for consumption.


Wild Swans, Jung Chang
This piece of history from below has probably sat on most book shelves since the mid-1990's, when it first had accolade after accolade thrown on it for its emotional detailing of the lives of three daughters of China. Its brick shaped size has put many off, but don't be afraid. What Chang has managed to do is create a highly engrossing account of three periods in Chinese history, from the period of war lords and Japanese occupation, right through to the civil war between the nationalist Kuomintang and the communists and then the most dramatic period of all under the stewardship of Mao and the cultural revolution.

At its best Wild Swans details the effect different forms of political hegemony had on the internal life world of the Chang family. The most astute renderings are the descriptions of the lives of women during the three periods, from the concubine existence of her grandmother and her struggle against it to her own mothers development as a communist as a slap in the face to the reactionary feudal system and its prescriptions on women. Wild Swans is a fantastic entry point to Chinese history, but the author's bleeding heart eventually becomes tiresome as you realize the gap between her parents sufferings and her own privileges.



My Century, Gunter Grass
There's a name that rings familiar, you associate it with terms like "intellectual tour de-force" or the obscurities of German left-wing writers. A lot is riding on it when you come across one of his books for the first time. My Century is an unusual novel, it rolls through what Eric Hobsbawn called "the century of extremes" in a series of personal tales told by 100 different voices for 100 different years. The years of the Great War are recalled by the hunched over authors of several war classics from a perch of four decades later, while the twenties and thirties are marked by the social crisis of German society between the struggling forces of Communism and the fascist response to working class organization.

Overall as this landslide of voices tumble down around you Grass presents a multi-faceted, overview of the complex questions that feed into the construction of contemporary German national identity which dominates the novel from the 1960's on and emerges strongly again in the era of re-unifaction. To be honest, that Grass received the 1999 Noble Prize for literature for this novel says more about the pre-millennial love for count downs than his writing talent.

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