Monday, January 20, 2020

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez was reread for me. First published in 1967, this novel has become very famous. This book is probably the most widely known example of the writing style  known as magical realism. During this go around I found the novel  to be very deserving of all the accolades that it has received over the years. I read the English translation by Gregory Rabassa. This may be the only English translation of this book as it was approved by the author.

This novel is a multigenerational story of the Buendía family who live in the fictional town of Macondo. The narrative of the tale actually runs for more than 100 years. Some sources indicate that the events of the novel run from 1790 to 1940. This seems about right. It is a bit difficult to write about the novel as it is filled with so many characters from the many generations. One aspect of the book that can be confusing is that many character names are repeated, or are similar, down through the generations. I found that having a list of character names and descriptions handy while reading.  This fits in with the book’s theme of things repeating themselves over the course of time. Much of the book is also episodic making it challenging to describe a coherent plot. 

Macondo  is founded in a South American wilderness by José Arcadio Buendía and his wife Úrsula Iguarán. Ursula is the most important character of the book. She lives to be approximately 130 years old and is present for most of the narrative. She is both enterprising and energetic in the early years. She is a moral center for the family as she is often trying to move people and events into moving the right way. The family begins to fall apart when she dies.

Melquíades is a gypsy who has a lot of technological and spiritual knowledge. He lives with the Buendía’s and leaves behind an enormous volume of prophecies that, because they are in code, no one can decipher after he dies. 

Amaranta is Ursula’s daughter who spurns several men throughout her life and becomes bitter over time. 

Colonel Aureliano Buendia, who is Ursula’s son, is a rebel commander who initiates a seemingly endless series of wars against the government. 

Remedios The Beauty grows up to be breathtakingly beautiful. She develops a personality that is removed from the world and it completely detached from life’s imperfections and the evils of the universe. 

Aureliano II is one of the last of the Buendía line. He attains great knowledge.  He also devotes much of his life to deciphering Melquíades prophecies which he finally does at the book’s end.

This style of magical realism here is characterized by a relatively traditional plot that is filled with seemingly supernatural or magical occurrences. The characters in the story take these occurrences as normal. The occurrences just happen within the narrative are not treated as  extraordinary in any way. These amazing events are not few and far between. Rather, they come at the reader very quickly, sometimes on every page. These occurrences range from Remedios The Beauty ascending to heaven on the wings of angels to a disease that creates insomnia for all of the  residents of Macondo to a rainstorm that lasts for over four years. Remedios's ascension is described, 

she said, “I never felt better.” She had just finished saying it when Fernanda felt a delicate wind of light pull the sheets out of her hands and open them up wide. Amaranta felt a mysterious trembling in the lace on her petticoats and she tried to grasp the sheet so that she would not fall down at the instant in which Remedios the Beauty began to rise. Ursula, almost blind at the time, was the only person who was sufficiently calm to identify the nature of that determined wind and she left the sheets to the mercy of the light as she watched Remedios the Beauty waving good-bye in the midst of the flapping sheets that rose up with her, abandoning with her the environment of beetles and dahlias and passing through the air with her as four o’clock in the afternoon came to an end, and they were lost forever with her in the upper atmosphere where not even the highest-flying birds of memory could reach her.

The above passage is characteristic of much of the book. Though this is a translation, it seems so well written. The ascension is marvelously described, it seems absurd yet the characters are not amazed by it. The beetles and dahlias that are mentioned seem to be stand ins for the everyday doings of the world that most people experience. 

A lot of these amazing events are described in some detail and they sometimes seem to be symbolic of real life issues historical events. A fair amount of this symbolism went seemed to go over my head but I picked up some of it. 

While the style of the books seems to be playful, tragic things sometimes happen to characters and at time the brutality of the world is illustrated in executions and other forms of cruelty. One gets the feeling that Márquez is trying to comment upon the entire spectrum of life including the good and bad aspects of it all. 

There are several themes coursing through this work. As the book’s title suggests, solitude is explored. Almost every character is isolated from others in some way, some try to break out of this isolation with varying degrees of success. For instance, Aureliano II starts life out as a scholarly hermit, but he eventually gets out into the world develops a meaningful relationship. However, complications and tragedy ensue.  Amaranta spurns suiters her entire life and ends up bitter and resentful. It seems that Márquez is playing with this theme and exploring it in its many permutations. It is interesting that through much of its history, Macondo is isolated from the rest of the world. 

Repeating history also seems to be an important theme. Similar events seem to happen over and over the years. This includes the tendency for several characters to almost commit incest. Other people, often separated by generations, become rebels and run afoul of the government. As noted earlier, characters with similar names abound in this book through the generations. 

There is also a political theme. Throughout the story, the conservative authorities are shown to be brutal and corrupt. However, while the liberal rebels sometimes start out with good intentions, they are shown to descend into the same corruption and brutality engaged in by the government. This slippage characterizes the life of Colonel Aureliano Buendia. American imperialism is also examined and is shown to be harmful. As exemplified by both the plot and themes the Buendia family and Macondo are microcosms of the world at large.

This is an extraordinary book. The magical realism bursts from nearly every page and it is both creative and entertaining. This novel is alternately fun, serious and tragic. Though this style is at times strange, it does not get in the way of complex character development. Though generally episodic, the story is also creative and holds a reader’s attention. I am glad that I reread this, it is a book that deserves its reputation as a modern - day classic. 

Saturday, January 11, 2020

My Antonia by Willa Cather

My Antonia by Willa Cather is the third book in author’s The Great Plains Trilogy. I found that this was another near brilliant novel that had complex characters and magnificently described landscapes. Though Song of the Lark was my favorite book of the three, I thought that this novel was almost as good. These books are called a trilogy but there no connection between the plots or characters.

This story is told in first person by Jim Burden. Jim is a New York lawyer. The vast majority of the book is supposedly a manuscript written by Jim detailing his youth growing up in and around Black Hawk, Nebraska in the late 1800s.  Jim is living with his grandparents who are initially famers living outside of Blackhawk but who eventually retire and go live in the town. Jim is intelligent and thoughtful. He befriends a Bohemian immigrant girl named Antonia Shimerda. Like the women characters in the other Cather books that I have read, Antonia is high spirited and shows a degree of physical toughness. She does heavy farm work including heading cattle and seems to enjoy doing so. She is also intelligent and tends to be very optimistic. 

The book chronicles the early life of both Jim and Antonia. We initially see them as children. As they move through adolescence the story portrays how they make friends with and socialize with their peers. The story takes Jim through his collage years and through some rough times for Antonia. The young woman becomes pregnant from the man who she is supposed to marry who runs off on her. Later Antonia marries someone else. Throughout the story there is a little romantic tension between Jim and Antonia but they never pair off together. The book ends twenty years into the future when Jim and Antonia renew their friendship. 

Both Antonia and Jim are very well - crafted characters. The story is also populated by interesting minor characters that range from colorful farmhands and malicious businessmen. Jim is a great storyteller and he likes to integrate all these diverse personalities into the narrative that centers upon himself and Antonia. Throughout the tale he observes that even though he has not seen these people in years, their memories continue to influence him.

The issue that is still debated by critics and regular readers of this book is the real nature of the relationship between Antonia and Jim. A few times in the narrative they seem to edge towards a romantic connection but then back off. During Jim’s collage years it seems that he would actually ask Antonia to marry him. Instead, he realizes that he is becoming a cosmopolitan person who will spend his life in the big cities, Antonia is very much tied to the land of rural Nebraska. 

When Jim and Antonia reestablish contact years later he tells her.

‘Do you know, Antonia, since I’ve been away, I think of you more often than of anyone else in this part of the world. I’d have liked to have you for a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister— anything that a woman can be to a man. The idea of you is a part of my mind; you influence my likes and dislikes, all my tastes, hundreds of times when I don’t realize it. You really are a part of me.’

Like Thea Kronborg in Song of the Lark, Jim becomes a person who goes beyond small town plains life. As noted above, also like Thea, at several points he mentions that throughout this time he is reminded of his younger days on the plains. He takes rural and small - town Nebraska with him wherever he goes.  Throughout the book Antonia is tied to the land. Thus, it is no surprise that thoughts of Antonia have also stayed with him. 

Throughout the story Jim is a very passive person. He is not passionate. He is not the kind of character one would find in an emotional love story. He never feels an intense love for Antonia. Yet he feels a lifelong connection with her, even after he has not seen her for years. As mentioned above, at several points in the book he does seem like he will try to initiate a relationship with Antonia but he just does not do it. At the end he seems very satisfied with just the reestablished friendship. He shows no jealousy towards Antonia’s husband who he genuinely befriends. 

Despite this, I think that Cather meant this to represent a missed opportunity. A clue to what she was trying to get at comes fairly early on the book. A young Jim and Antonia are told a story by a dying Ukrainian. The story seems to be implausible in a realistic book of this type. The story goes as follows: After the nuptial celebrations, a wedding party is traveling home on multiple sleighs through the Ukrainian countryside. The party is heading back to their native village when wolves descend on the sleighs. In an effort to fend off the wolves the bride and groom are thrown off one of the sleighs and to their deaths to lighten the load and allow the others to escape.  A Google search shows that there is no consensus as to what this story means in the context of this book.  However, some suggest that this tale is symbolic of Jim throwing away his chance to marry Antonia. This seems plausible to me. 

Like in O Pioneers! This work is filled with wonderfully crafted prose describing natural features and phenomena. In the below passage a thunderstorm that Jim and Antonia experience as children is described,

Antonia and I climbed up on the slanting roof of the chicken-house to watch the clouds. The thunder was loud and metallic, like the rattle of sheet iron, and the lightning broke in great zigzags across the heavens, making everything stand out and come close to us for a moment. Half the sky was chequered with black thunderheads, but all the west was luminous and clear: in the lightning flashes it looked like deep blue water, with the sheen of moonlight on it; and the mottled part of the sky was like marble pavement, like the quay of some splendid seacoast city, doomed to destruction. Great warm splashes of rain fell on our upturned faces. One black cloud, no bigger than a little boat, drifted out into the clear space unattended, and kept moving westward. All about us we could hear the felty beat of the raindrops on the soft dust of the farmyard.

It is not surprising that as Jim gets older and travels the world, he feels that the locale and experiences of his youth are always with him. As the above passage indicates, Antonia is connected to these experiences. 

This book is a great read. Though not a lot of dramatic things happen, both the characters and their interactions are fascinating. The descriptions of landscapes are sublime and meld very well into the story. I have just recently discovered Cather but look forward to reading a many more of her books. 

Thursday, January 2, 2020

8 Years Old!

Babbling Books is eight years old today! The term often used for these milestones is blogiversary. Time seems like it is passing so quickly. It feels like it was just yesterday that I started the blog. 

Every year I thank the blogging community. I think that it is very important to do so. What makes my blog worthwhile is the people who read it and who comment here. I want to that everyone who spends time at my site. I especially want to thank the people who leave comments. My commenters are fantastic. So that you everybody who reads and comments here. 

It is also the New Year. In the past, I have never been one to make resolutions or change directions at this time of year. If I wanted to change something, I usually would do so whenever I thought to do it. However, this New Year has gotten me to thinking. Over the past year I have been reading more than a few books that focused on current social issues and the debates that surround them. While this has not been a bad direction to go in, and I feel that I gained knowledge and insight from these books, reading time is very precious.  Personally, I place greater value reading books that will be applicable ten years from now, or even one hundred years from now, over books whose ideas have a shorter shelf life. I cannot read everything that I want to so I have to pick and choose. Thus, I will likely read and post about less of these current – issue works and instead concentrate more on books that I deem to be more centered upon universal themes. That does not mean that I will completely refrain from reading books on current topics. In fact, there is one in particular, that will be published in the coming months, that I want to read and will likely want to post about. However, I will likely read less of them. 

In addition, I would like to read more books. However, I have a busy life and limited time will make this goal a little more difficult to attain. In past years I have also set out to read more and have done so. I managed to succeed in this by being more efficient with my time and devoting more time to reading. Because of these past efforts I have already plucked a lot of low hanging fruit in terms of wasted time.  Thus it will now be more difficult to increase my reading time. With that, I will try to read at least a little more in  2020. Those are my bookish thoughts and goals for the coming year. 

I hope that everyone has a fruitful and enjoyable reading year in 2020. I am looking forward to further reading adventures myself. Happy reading everyone!

Monday, December 23, 2019

Self-Portrait in Black and White by Thomas Chatterton Williams

Published this year, Self-Portrait in Black and White by Thomas Chatterton Williams is a book that is getting a lot of attention with people who are interested in race and the social issues that surround the topic. I recently read Williams’s first book, Losing My Cool. My commentary on that work is here. Like Losing My Cool, this book is a memoir. This one picks off where the earlier work ended. In addition to being a memoir, this work lays out Williams’s thoughts and philosophy on race and related social issues. I found this to be a rational and thoughtful book. I read a fair number of opinion pieces and have read a few books on related topics. I think that Williams goes in a direction here that is not typical of a lot of other thinkers. I also think that this very important book. 

Losing My Cool was published over nine years ago. Since then, Williams has earned his PHD, moved to France and has married a French woman. The couple has had two children. It is significant in relation to the ideas presented here that Williams emphasizes his exposure to people of mixed race, ethnicity and cultures. The author is mixed race himself, his father is African American and his mother is a white American. His wife is French and is white. As per Williams, his children appear to be white. Many of his current friends and associates, including some ex - girlfriends represent an international group of people whose identities tend to be mixed. Williams weaves his experiences with this racial and ethnic diversity into his philosophy. 

William contends that the entire concept of race was created by racists and is invalid. Furthermore, the idea of race has fueled both racism and questionable anti – racist philosophies. The author ultimately calls for the abolition of the entire concept of race. He writes,

I am not renouncing my blackness and going on about my day; I am rejecting the legitimacy of the entire racial construct in which blackness functions as one orienting pole. 

Along the way, Williams address racism in America and throughout the world. He delves into the issue both historically and currently. He is also critical of the wave of identity politics that has been dominating the discourse lately. He sees this school of thought as perpetuating the problem. The author is critical of both the right and the left here. William digs deeply into philosophy. He talks a lot about group identity and culture. Culture is obviously a very relevant issue to all this. The author is in no way calling for the abolition of culture. He writes,

The intellectual and cultural discoveries that sustained us are ours forever. But the “dreadful deceit” that would call these things racial is just that, a lie that can never be made noble.

Williams ultimately calls for individuals to renounce race like he has done. 

It is my hope that as many people as possible, of all skin tones and hair textures , will come to turn away from the racial delusion .

There is a lot more here. For instance, Williams talks about the need for people of different races to try to understand the perspectives of people who are from different backgrounds and points to how much of the current discourse coming from both sides on race is all part of the same problem. He writes,

Working toward opposing conclusions, racists and many anti-racists alike eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories, all the while feeding off of and legitimizing each other, while any of us searching for gray areas and common ground get devoured twice. Both sides mystify racial identity, interpreting it as something fixed and determinative, and almost supernatural in scope. This way of thinking about human difference is seductive for many reasons but it has failed us.

Due to the fact that Williams is exposed to so many mixed - race people, one can see how this helped him formulate the philosophy that race is an illusion. 

My take is that Williams is on the correct track. Both in America and elsewhere humanity must move beyond race. This is obviously the way to move beyond racism as well as the extreme identity politics comping out of the left However, I am not sure that this will be accomplished by the founding of a philosophical movement or by people actually renouncing their race. Instead, I think this moving beyond race is already happening and will continue to happen more naturally. 

I also agree with most of Williams's social criticism.  There is still racism and it must be condemned and opposed. There is also a school of thought, that labels itself as anti - racist, that is now engaging in all sorts of illiberal race essentialism and stereotyping of people. I have called this trend postmodernism in some of my previous posts. 

This is very important and thought-provoking book. All too many philosophies on race and racism these days fit too neatly in conservative, or far - left identity - based rhetoric. Williams illustrates a path here that rejects dogma coming from both directions. His arguments are rational and ethical. Williams goes into a lot of detail and down some interesting paths that I cannot cover in their entirety here. Though I do not agree with all of Williams points, I think that he is on to some very important truths here. Even if one does not agree with Williams, he is a bold a lively thinker who is worth reading.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The Turn of the Screw is Henry James’s famous gothic tale. Though a well - known book this is the first time that I have read it.  I found this novella to be an odd but superbly crafted story. The only other book that I have read by James is The Portrait of a Lady. Though there were some similarities, especially with regards to James’s prose style, this book was very different in terms of plot and character development.  Though unusual in some ways, I found that this was a creative tale that was well worth the read. 

The story is framed as a manuscript. An unknown narrator is reading a first - person account of the experiences of a young governess who is now deceased.  The narrator’s friend had purported to know the governess. The governess is a young woman who is hired by a man who has become responsible for his young niece and nephew after the death of their parents. The man wants nothing to do with the children and sends the governess out to a country estate to take charge of them.

The girl is named Flora and the boy is named Miles.  Mrs. Grose is the housekeeper who befriends the governess. Shortly after her arrival the governess begins to see apparitions. With the help of Mrs. Grose, she surmises that the ghosts are Mr. Quint, the uncle’s former valet and Miss Jessel, the children’s former governess. Before their deaths, the pair were carrying on an affair. The children can see them too and the governess is convinced that the spirits are trying to draw the children into a web of evil. As the story goes on the pair of spirits continue to show themselves and it becomes apparent that they are indeed drawing the children into something. Both the governess and Mrs. Grose become more and more desperate to protect the siblings. 

Like The Portrait of a Lady, James’s prose is complex here. His sentences are intricately constructed and contain a lot of dashes.  As this is a first - person narrative the dashes are used to create the effect of a stream of consciousness. With that, James can write some very effective prose. In what I think is one of the best passages in the book, the governess describes an early encounter with the apparition Quint. 

There came to me thus a bewilderment of vision of which, after these years, there is no living view that I can hope to give. An unknown man in a lonely place is a permitted object of fear to a young woman privately bred; and the figure that faced me was— a few more seconds assured me— as little anyone else I knew as it was the image that had been in my mind. I had not seen it in Harley Street— I had not seen it anywhere. The place, moreover, in the strangest way in the world, had, on the instant, and by the very fact of its appearance, become a solitude. To me at least, making my statement here with a deliberation with which I have never made it, the whole feeling of the moment returns. It was as if, while I took in— what I did take in— all the rest of the scene had been stricken with death. I can hear again, as I write, the intense hush in which the sounds of evening dropped. The rooks stopped cawing in the golden sky, and the friendly hour lost, for the minute, all its voice

The above is characteristic of the style of the story. It is both intricate and atmospheric. 

I read a little bit of the online commentary on this book. Throughout the years there has been a lot of debate about it. Some have argued that the governess is delusional and thus the supernatural aspects of the plot are in her head. I disagree with this assessment. Though Mrs. Grose does not see the ghosts, she confirms that too many things that the governess observes about them as being accurate. There is no way that the governess could have known these things. 

There are a lot of different theories floating around about this story. Regardless of the specific literary theories, this tale is obviously about repression. There is the sense that the relationship between the children and the ghosts is something that exists under the surface. When the governess and Mrs. Grose discuss it, they do so in whispers. There is something about all this that is unspeakable.

At one point Mrs. Grose describes Flora’s description of the ghosts

From that child— horrors! There!” she sighed with tragic relief. “On my honor, miss, she says things—!” But at this evocation she broke down; she dropped, with a sudden sob, upon my sofa and, as I had seen her do before, gave way to all the grief of it.

It seems that James talking about sexual repression here. The above quotation as well as other things in the story seem to support this strongly.  Several critics have gone further and suggested that the relationship between the ghosts and the children has all the earmarks of sexual abuse. This seems plausible but I am not one hundred percent certain that this is what James meant to portray.

This is not a cookie cutter type ghost story. James’s distinctive writing style, unusual plot twists and underlying themes make this unique.  This is an odd story, but in many ways a brilliant one.  Though I have read a limited number of books by this author, I think that this might make a good introduction to his work. This is the second James book that I have read and I will likely read more. 

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Losing My Cool by Thomas Chatterton Williams

This was a book that I read to prepare me for another book. Thomas Chatterton Williams’s recently published Self-Portrait in Black and White is being talked about a lot by folks who are interested in social issues centering upon race. I initially decided to read that book but I thought that his first book, Losing My Cool, first published in 2011, seemed like a prerequisite to reading the new work. Thus, I decided to read this book first. I thought this work was a fascinating account of the author’s early life that was also filled with insightful and important social commentary. 

This work is a memoir of the author’s life up until about the age of 23. It is also a scathing critique of what the author calls hip – hop culture. Williams paints a picture of this culture going far beyond rap music. He describes a world that is violent, anti – intellectual, anathema to normal and healthy relationships and incredibly harmful for those who participate in it.  Thus, the author argues that this culture has done great harm to both the American black community as a whole and to black individuals.

Williams’s father was black and his mother was white. He grew up in a middle class, mixed race, New Jersey community in the 1990s. He and his family viewed themselves as black.  During his teens and early twenties he was enmeshed in hip - hop culture.  Williams account of these years tells a story of a young man who excelled in school but who was pulled into a destructive and harmful youth culture.

The first part of the book describes what is was like for Williams when growing up. It was a moderately violent environment which the author found himself in. Crime was glorified. It was anti – intellectual world where the only acceptable culture was rap music and Black Entertainment Television. Young men and women entered into toxic and harmful relationships with one another that were characterized by each partner distrustful of the other and trying to assert a strange dominance over one another. Williams contends that this culture pushes young black people to embrace a terribly harmful but disingenuous persona that glorifies all of these self - destructive things. Counterbalancing this youth culture was Williams’s father, known as “Pappy”. The elder Williams was a fairly strict parent and highly principled man who is an intellectual and who revers books and learning.

Williams’s high grades got him into the highly prestigious Georgetown University. There he also found a hip - hop culture that he began to participate in. However, at this point he began to change. He started to appreciate culture beyond hip - hop, he began to embrace reading and started associating with people not immersed in self - destructive practices. He credits his father’s influence on his transformation. As this time some of his old friends began to be alienated from him due to these changes.  Williams eventually graduated Georgetown with a Bachelors in philosophy. He had changed a lot as he now embraced intellectualism and what I would call humanism. The book closes as Williams begins traveling to various places in France.

Toward the end of the book Williams writes a lot about society and philosophy. He brings thinkers such as Hegel to his observations. His criticism of hip - hop culture is withering. Williams goes on to talk about how too many young African Americans have embraced a group identity that is based this culture.  He argues that all this has lead to high levels of violence, incarceration and single parent families in the black community. He writes,

If you’re young and black today and lucky enough to get out and travel, see the world beyond your own little backyard, inevitably it is going to strike you that you have been lied to. You have been straight-up lied to, and not just in the most obvious way—not just by Robert L. Johnson and the propaganda organ of BET or by the spokesmen for stereotypes, the Busta Rhymeses and the Gucci Manes. It’s worse than that; the swindling has gone down far closer to home. You have been lied to by people you have known personally, people you have trusted, your friends and your neighbors, your older siblings and your classmates, your cousins and your lovers. Whether that lie is born of simple ignorance masquerading as arrogance—a seductive ignorance, yes, but still only ignorance—or, worse, actual malice, matters little at the moment of your realization. All that matters at that moment is the lie itself, this fiction that says that for you and your kind alone an authentic existence is a severely limited one. You have been lied to (and for how long?) and now you know that you have been lied to and you can’t deny it and you are naked.

One interesting argument that Williams makes that while white people listen to hip - hop and sometimes embrace some the trapping of the culture, they do so ironically. They ultimately do not take it seriously and thus do not fall into self - harmful patterns.  Williams says that African Americans generally take hip - hop culture seriously and actually modify their behavior based upon it. 

Williams does a lot more musing about group identity, how these group identities relate to our current times and how all this relates to his own life. Williams has a lot of opinions and this book is bursting with them. It is imposable to cover all the ideas that are presented here within one post. 

There are not a lot of harrowing passages in the book. While Williams describes an unhealthy cultural environment, he did not grow up in the worst areas. I should note that early in the book the author also tries to emulate the street language that he grew up with, the N- word is used throughout the text. This book is not for those who are easily offended.

I think as a cultural critic Williams is very often on target. The negative aspects of what Williams describes as hip – hop culture are convincingly laid out here. I think that this book illustrates a lot of truths but I have some additional thoughts on these issues. 

I think that over the years, other youth cultures have been almost or as bad as hip – hop culture. For instance, I grew up with folks who embraced a kind of anti – social, fairly violent, heavy metal rock culture. People who engaged in it were just as anti – social and violent as the people that Williams describes. Decades after they first fell into it,  I know of several folks whose lives have been plagued by substance abuse and prison. I think that hip - hop culture is worse then some other youth cultures only because it is so much more prevalent. 

One  criticism I have here is that Williams seems to ignore the many people of color who partake in the trappings of hip - hop culture but do not internalize its negative aspects. Williams describes many white folks talking hip – hop culture ironically.  I think that many black folks do too.  I deal with a lot of people in their twenties. These folks are whites, African Americans and other non – whites. Hip - hop and the at least the superficial trappings of the culture is fairly popular with these many of these young people. Most of the younger folks who I know, be they white, black or members of other groups, like the music and play with a little bit of the culture but are not negatively impacted by it. This is the same as folks who listen to and sometimes play with the hedonistic and anti – social aspects of some rock music culture but who nevertheless lead ethical and responsible lives. Conversely, I know of one young white person, who unfortunately has been drawn into some of the negative aspects of hip - hop culture.  Though personal experiences are not proof, I think my experiences in this case reflect the reality of a large group of people who are not negatively impacted by this culture. I believe that as time goes by, more and more people will embrace this culture ironically much as folks have done so with the negative aspect of rock music culture.  I emphasize that I think that Williams does zero - in on serious and real cultural issues here, he just does not give enough credit to blacks and other people of color who have avoided the worst aspects of this culture. 

I also think that some of Williams criticisms apply to pop culture in general. For instance, he laments the fact that he and his friends knew so much about hip – hop music but knew nothing about other black dominated artforms such as jazz and knew nothing about black history. He later expands this to decry participants of hip – hop culture for their lack of knowledge about and history and culture in general. However, I think that this is an issue faced by many young people steeped in a lot of popular culture, not just those involved in this lifestyle. 

Williams is lively and bold thinker. This book has come under a lot of criticism.  He expresses a lot of opinions on controversial issues here. Thus, despite the fact that I agree with him on the majority of his points, I think that it would be impossible to agree with him on everything.  Either way, I think that anyone interested or invested in these issues would get a lot out of this book. In addition, this is such an interesting memoir filled with fascinating events and people. I have read both of Williams’s books now. Thus, I will post my thoughts on Self Portrait in Black and White soon. 

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Insurrecto by Gina Apostol

Insurrecto by Gina Apostol was first published last year and has won multiple awards. Despite a few flaws, I found this to be an excellent book that incorporated many innovations and at times approached brilliance. Apostol touches upon colonialism, different perceptions of reality, the ways in which our personalities are constructed and more. She infuses all this with interesting and complex characters and plot threads. Apostol was born in The Philippines but now lives in America. She infuses a lot of American and The Philippine history and culture into this novel.

The plot of this book is difficult to describe because of its many layers. The story takes place in multiple time frames. Some of the timeframes exist within the book’s reality, other timeframes exist as film scripts that exist as part of the primary plot. The scripts are, in part, based on historical events but are, in part, fictional. The movie scripts also contain doppelganger characters that are kind of like fraternal twins existing between the realities. This all sounds confusing, but reading the book was not as confusing as all of this sounds. However, the threads were sometimes a little difficult to follow and I am glad that I read this book on a Kindle so that I was able to search for character and place names and go back and refresh myself. On one hand, this intertwining of realities often was interesting and innovative and fit into the novel’s theme perfectly. On the other hand, I did think that all this muddled book a little and that it marred some good character and plot development. 

The main plotline takes place in 2018. Two women set out on a trip across the Philippines from Manilla to Samar, in order to conduct research for a film. Chiara Brasi is the filmmaker and Magsalin is a translator and writer. Chiara is the daughter of the deceased art film maker Ludo Brasi. Ludo and Chiara are kind of stand - ins for Francis Ford Coppola and his daughter Sophia Coppola. Years earlier, Ludo made a Vietnam War film in Samar, a large island in The Philippines, called The Unintended. This all parallels Coppola’s Apocalypse Now which was also made in The Philippines. In the world of this novel, Coppola and Apocalypse Now also exist, but Ludo’s The Unintended is known as another, less commercially successful Vietnam War film. 

Magsalin is a woman born in The Philippines but who is now living in America who travels and lives in intellectual and cosmopolitan circles. She is hired by Chiara to assist her in the filmmaking. 

There are two scripts for Chiara’s film, one written by Chiara and one written by Magsalin. One script, or at least part of it, as is told throughout the course of the book, takes place in the 1970s and is about Chiara’s father Ludo, her mother Virginie, and his father’s mistress, a Filipino schoolteacher named Caz. Ludo’s suicide is a major point of the film.

The other script, takes place in 1901. It concerns events that occurred during The Philippine–American War. This conflict occurred after America seized the Philippines from Spain. Philippine rebels, fought the American military for years in an attempt to gain independence. During the conflict, an incident known as the Balangiga massacre occurred. During that time a unit of 48 Americans soldiers were ambushed and killed by villagers in the town of Balangiga in Samar. In the ensuring months the Americans retaliated and burned Philippine villages and killed thousands of innocent Filipinos. There is not a lot of controversy about these events, the United States Army official account acknowledges that atrocities occurred and multiple American officers were and court martialed and found guilty of committing war crimes. The movie script centers on the American unit and the Filipino villagers involved in the initial attack. 

The book is in some ways written in a postmodernist style. That is, cultural references, both highbrow and lowbrow are constantly being thrown at the reader. References to great literature, art, the Bible, etc., abound. The story is also infused with popular culture and history. References and commentary on topics such as Elvis Presley, Mohamed Ali, the war in Afghanistan, etc. abound. All this ties into the book’s themes. The rapid fire throwing all of these elements into the mix reminds of the novels of Thomas Pynchon or Salmon Rushdie. I generally like this style when done well and I thought that it was well done here. 

There is a lot going on in this book. There is a moderate amount of political and historical undertone. Events about the Philippine – American War and the Balangiga massacre are tied throughout the narrative to other American actions especially during the Vietnam War. The underlying message is that the United States has acted like an imperial power throughout history to the detriment of much of the world. This brings up a few issues. First, I think that if a literary work, and I think this book can claim literarily status, becomes too in -your - face political, it detracts from the work. On the other hand, I think that a moderate amount of political and social commentary do not mar a novel. In fact, some great fiction, dating back centuries, has incorporated this kind of underlying theme. I find that while this novel may skirt the line a little bit, Apostol keeps it subtle enough not to distract from her art.

The second issue is the politics themselves, I cannot tackle the entire broad subject of American foreign policy over the past one hundred and twenty years within this post. However, I will mention that I think that American actions on the world stage need to be examined and at times criticized. There have clearly been times, such as during the Philippine - American War, that American actions have been unconscionable and atrocities were committed. Likewise motives for American intervention throughout the world have not always been entirely pure. However, the United States and other democracies have also had an enormously positive impact upon the world. I believe that the positive effects have far outweighed the bad stuff. It is hard to pigeonhole the precise political beliefs that Apostol espouses as this is fiction, but I sense that Apostol’s message is a little too simplistic in reference to these issues. With all that, one gets the sense from this book that Apostol loves and is fascinated by American culture. It brims over in almost every page. In addition, Apostol does not demonize individual Americans, for instance American soldiers at Balangiga are flawed but generally humanized. 

I would describe the primary theme of the book as postmodernist. I should note that I have criticized postmodernism when it is applied to politics, ethics and social issues. The postmodernism here is more about commentary on the human experience. I actually like books that play with these concepts in this way. What I mean by postmodernism is that the novel is full of different and malleable points of view as symbolized by the two film scripts. Also the tendency for Apostol to throw out a plethora of cultural and historical references at every turn supports the postmodern themes. We are reminded on multiple occasions that there are conflicting historical claims about the Balangiga Massacre. Different characters living in different times seem to have doubles.

Chiara’s film is described as,

It will be set in 1901, or maybe 1972, or maybe 2018, in any case not quite her father’s ’ 68 — no one will be the wiser . There will be unapologetic uses of generic types, actors with duplicating roles. Anachronisms, false starts, scarlet clues , a noirish insistence on the pathetic pursuit of human truths will pervade its miserable ( quite thin ) plot , and while the mystery will seem unsolved , to some it will provide the satisfaction of unrelieved despair.

I think that the above quotation encapsulates very well the picture of life that this novel tries to build and is key to understanding the book’s themes. There may be as reality out there, but everyone perceives it differently. The reality is also often bewildering as it consists of so many different things. 

Apostol also seems to be suggesting that people are constructions of the kaleidoscope culture and experiences that they live through,

It is not an uncommon condition, this feeling of being constructed out of some ambient, floating parts of a worldwide emporium

This is a thought - provoking and enjoyable novel. I found almost every page to be interesting. I thought that it was a bit flawed as the characters and plot were often developing and headed toward interesting places but seemed to get sidetracked by the disjointed nature of the story. Nevertheless, I found this to be a satisfying read. It was also fun despite some of its tragic plot points, I would recommend book to anyone who likes modern literature.