Things Fall Together : Yaa Giasi – “Homegoing”

The greatest and most powerful novel yet written about Africa (Africa both as a multi-national continent, and as a monolithic concept to the Western eye) is still Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.” There is no more stark assessment of white misapprehension than the chilling final lines to that masterpiece.

BUT

Yaa Giasi’s “Homegoing” is a very, very sprightly offspring.

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Two half sisters from Ghana, Effia and Essi, are separated by life (half the family will suffer through the American experience, half will deal with colonial abuse.) We follow their descendants through six generations, divided in two continents (make that 14 perspectives) and in a series of short stories we go through all of the horrors that American slavery and European colonialism have wracked on Africa over the last three centuries while also making clear the native complicity. The language is precise and taut and perfectly evokes the settings for each little punch-to-the-gut scene, so much so that I was left wanting a lot more. We start with a rich world worth exploring, but the book becomes increasingly bent on moving on to the next characters just as we are becoming attached to the ones in each chapter, and the American side of things is much more cartoonish than the African side of things, which at least will engage lovers of history. The effect is not novelistic: there is no real accumulation of feeling. This feels like a collection of shorts stories threaded together into the more marketable shape of a “novel.” At times “Homegoing” almost runs the risk of turning into what Achebe warned against: African (and African-American) lives turned into briefly glimpsed  vignettes. It is a testament to Gyasi’s nascent talents that I was left unsatisfied, wishing  that I was given a James Michener whale of a tale. I really look forward to her next effort.

RATING: COOL! but I wanted MORE.

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Unreliance : Kazuo Ishiguro – “A Pale View of Hills” + “An Artist of the Floating World”

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ABOVE: The Japanese Hills Are Alive

Nobelist Kazuo Ishiguro is perhaps a luckier writer than he is a great writer. (Don’t fret, I’m punching up, so it’s okay.) The two books of his I really DO like, “The Remains of the Day” and “Never Let Me Go,” got turned into reasonably popular movies. I’ve also read “The Unconsoled” (baffling) and “When We Were Orphans” (boring) but don’t remember those much, and what I do recall thinking of “Nocturnes” is that it was as fraught with middle-brow pretense as the expression “fraught with middle-brow pretense.” This is to say that Kazuo’s Nobel Prize Award in 2017 was a conservative dialing back on whatever unorthodox decision-making process led to the feather-ruffling 2016 assertion that Bob Dylan was deserving of a Nobel prize in Literature. In fact, upon hearing that Kazuo Ishiguro had won the award, my first thought was: “They misspelled Haruki Murakami.”

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ABOVE: “My ploy of being pleasantly literary has paid off!”

Giving him a Nobel is overrating a very good writer who is rarely great. His body of work is small enough that he has not really embarrassed himself, but that’s exactly why Ishiguro doesn’t really thrill me: he plays it so safe that he rarely risks anything. The clones in “Never Let Me Go” are the edgiest of his concepts, but how many un-Nobelled sci-fi writers have dealt with the idea of cloning far more brilliantly, deeply, humanely, and even poetically? Anyway, I thought maybe I’d missed something along the way, and read both the 1982 debut, “A Pale View of Hills,” (which the author himself admits doesn’t quite work) and the follow-up “An Artist of the Falling World.” But reading them back to back either “reveals Ishiguro’s consistency” or “exposes Ishiguro’s repetitiveness.” Charity is all when it comes to criticism. Both novels rely on the same exact trick that he would use yet again in “Remains of the Day.” These are short, terse family dramas told by a first person narrator that sounds pretty much alike- even if one. All three novels tell a largely deflective story that centers on coping with post-war delusions. All three novels slowly reveal inconsistencies in the telling that let us know we are dealing with that rascally UNRELIABLE NARRATOR. Ishiguro loooooves this.

Should they give Nobels for over-relying on this newfangled technique that goes back at least as far as Cervantes in 1605?!?

Add to this that “An Artist of the Floating World” annoyed the “overbearing nerd” side of me. A section set in 1947 makes frequent references to the popular “Godzilla.” COME ON! “Godzilla” came out on 1954! That’s a pretty sloppy anachronism or…

WAIT…

Can we blame that mistake on the UNRELIABLE NARRATOR?!?

MIND BLOWN.

Know this: if you you ever catch any mistake on “The Pageaholic,” asume it is made on porpoise, as a techniqe to make you aware that book revues are unreliabull.

RATING: COOL! But no NOBEL Masterpieces.

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ABOVE: We All Float On

 

Tulip Fever : Alexandre Dumas – “The Black Tulip”

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Above: Naturaleza Muerta

(Re-read) “The Black Tulip” is an odd, yet oddly successful, offspring from the Dumas / Maquet era. The action doesn’t take place in France, but in Holland, 1672, during the Tulip Craze that kinda parallels the Pokemon  “gotta catch’em all” mentality.  The rarest of Pokemon  Tulips was the Black Tulip. After a brutal 3-chapter intro that tells us how William of Orange participated in the graphic lynching and skinning of brothers Cornelius and Johann de Witt, who had been been accused of “collusion” with Louis XIV, we switch to the gentle tale of Cornelius de Baerle, a godson to the De Witts. Cornelius is a horticulturist, does not care about politics. The problem with politics is that they tend to screw up the lives of good people who don’t care about politics. (By contrast, no such blame can be placed on literature.) Cornelius has figured out how to get a Black Tulip. A jealous competitor snitches on Cornelius, accuses him of being related to the De Witts, and sends Corny to prison, where he meets the lovely Rosa, daughter to the abusive jailer Gryphus.

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ABOVE: Pass the Dutch, already!

What follows is pure romance. They really don’t write them like that anymore. Every time Cornelius and Rosa meet, a guilty, coy hour of daily sexual tension follows. Cornelius’ lips come closer and closer to grazing Rosa’s flushing cheeks, and you hold your breath waiting for the miracle, when she allows a kiss to happen. Then you think: “Today’s version would be “4:00 o’clock! It’s Fuck time at the Sex Flower Dungeon!”

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ABOVE: “Go into the Dungeon, Boy! You Gonna Be Spanked!”

RATING: MASTERPIECE! This really is just a beautifully perfect Dumas romance.


P. S.:

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ABOVE: I Never Promised You a Tulip Garden

Also of relevance: Justin Chatwick’s “Tulip Fever” “Tulip Fever,” or “when that movie you taught was fine has a shockingly low 9% on Rotten Tomatoes.” This is a lush romance set in 1600s Holland, with great production design; wonderful, subtle acting by Alicia Vikander; a less subtle but very funny Christophe Waltz; and a twisty, witty script by Tom Stoppard (“Shakespeare in Love”). So why the negative reviews? Curious, I read a bunch of them. What I didn’t know is that this movie had been held from release for three years, that it was one of Harvey Weinstein’s last pet projects, and that in-the-know showbiz critics went to it KNOWING it had a negative pre-release buzz. Review after review was: “This is that HARVEY WEINSTEIN TULIP THING that was supposed to be terrible! It’s obviously not THAT terrible, but I heard it was supposed to be, so let me figure out why.” People weren’t reacting to the story IN the movie, but to the story AROUND the movie.

Criticism went from the fair (“too many soapy plot twists!” Well yeah, but some people like those) to the wildly subjective (“Alicia Vikander’s nude scenes weren’t sexy!” I sure beg to differ!) to the absurd: “There is nothing in the zeitgeist to peg this movie to” I guess “Tulip Fever” doesn’t sufficiently address #metoo or #blacklivesmatter BUT DOES IT HAVE TO? The idea that a movie’s existence is only justified when it is tagged to a trending hashtag should be repulsive. Sometimes the whole point of a movie is to help us ESCAPE from trending hasthags.

This isn’t a defense of TF, which won’t change your life but l do recommend to lovers of historical romances. Just a comment on how preconception alters perception. Had I KNOWN this movie had a bad contextual buzz, I might also have been looking for its flaws as desperately as any other critic. I didn’t know, and so I enjoyed it a lot.

 

No One Fights Like Gascons : Alexandre Dumas – “The 45 Guardsmen”

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ABOVE: The Three Musketeers have really let themselves go.

It’s easy to get attached to three or four musketeers; when we’re talking 45 of them, things get a little more challenging, which is why Alexandre Dumas’ “The 45” (often published in English as “The Forty-Five Guardsmen”) is by far the less popular entry in the Valois trilogy, even though it contains all the winning elements of the previous novels, ( “Queen Margot” and “La Dame de Monsoreau”.) Realistically, it’s a steep learning curve for the unconvinced or uninitiated: not counting all the returning royals and nobles from the saga (the Three Henrys, as well as Catherine de Medici and dear Queen Margot) we’re also introduced to over 20 principal characters in the first couple of chapters… and that’s before the 45 titular swashbucklers even show up! (Dumas himself points out that each of them have fascinating stories to tell, but ain’t nobody got time for THAT.)

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ABOVE: “FORTY-FIVE GUARDS?! In one night?! Well, I’m afraid the engagement is off, Monsieur.”

The 45 guardsmen were largely Gascons hired to protect Henry III, and so Dumas gets ample room to praise the bravado and braggadocio that he identifies as a trademarks of the natives of the Gascony, the French region that extends from below Bordeaux almost to Basque Country. It would almost be ethnic stereotyping, but he’s fond of Gascons, it’s clear, since he gave the place what’s easily its most famous fictional son: D’Artagnan.

Unfortunately, there’s no D’Artagnan here, since this all happens some 40 years before “Musketeer Times”, in the 1580s, toward the end of those Wars of Religion that saw the three Henrys, (Henry III, Henry of Lorraine, and Henry of Navarre) fight each other, presumably propelled by the creed that “there can be only one.” Meanwhile, in case one wasn’t confused enough, a FOURTH Henry, Henry de Joyeuse, starts stalking demonstrating his love for Diane de Meridor, the Lady of Monsoreau.

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ABOVE: Guess which of the Henrys this is!

 

Toward the second half of the narrative, both Diane and the returning Chicot the Jester try to elbow their way to the foreground of the narrative, but this is hard to do with so many other characters blocking their way.  The novel itself fails to push its way to the forefront of Dumas’ oeuvre. “The 45” is not recommendable as any kind of entry-point to the world of Dumas: it’s too busy with plot and intrigue (there’s at least four main storylines in here). It also feels unfinished; it’s reputed to be a bridge between “Monsoreau” and a never-written fourth book that would string together all the narrative strands of the Valois trilogy. For something like a satisfying wrap, you’ll have to follow Chicot to his cameo in Auguste Maquet’s “la Belle Gabrielle.”

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ABOVE: “Hmmm, I appreciate the rescue and all, but there’s no need to squeeze my boob that hard.”

RATING : GOOD ENOUGH forthe fans; a confused SHRUG for newcomers to the Valois books.

Monte Cristo on a Gondola: Michel Zevaco – “The Bridge of Sighs” and “The Lovers of Venice”

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“I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs; a palace and a prison on each hand.” -Lord Byron, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo” has inspired almost two centuries of pastiches. There’s several less-than-authorized sequels, (with titles like “The Countess of Monte Cristo,” “The Return of Monte Cristo,” “The Hand of the Dead,” “The Daughter/ Son/Wife of Monte Cristo”); there’s the respectful, duly-acknowledging homages, like Jules Verne’s “Mathias Sandorf,” Lorenzo Carcaterra’s “Sleepers,” Italo Calvino’s “The Count of Montecristo,” and, heck, Stephen King’s “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”;  there are the geographical re-settings (“An American Monte Cristo,” “An Irish Monte Cristo,” “The Prisoner of Algiers”); there’s the wilder re-imaginings, (the anime color-explosion that was “Gankutsuo,” or Park Chan-Wook’s “Old Boy,” or Alfred Bester’s Nebula-winning classic “The Stars My Destination”); there’s recent imitations from TV Land (both guilty-pleasures like “Revenge” and out-and-out pleasures like the currently-running “Taboo”) A truly exhaustive list would be exhausting, (and might even include my undeserving name upon it.)

Michel Zevaco’s duology “The Bridge of Sighs” and “The Lovers of Venice,” like the crowd-pleasing bat, is equally at home among mammals and birds: among rip-offs, homages, wild re-imaginings, and geographical re-settings.

Making “The Captain” look subtle in its Dumasian-ness, “The Bridge of Sighs” and “The Lovers of Venice” follows Roland Candiano, a promising young man who is about to marry his betrothed, Leonore, when his petty, jealous frenemies have him falsely accused of conspiracy and sent to walk the famous, lattice-windowed Ponte Dei Suspiri which connects the Dogi’s palace with the Prisons, (hence all the loud sighing).

After years in solitary, Roland finally escapes in an action packed scene that has him a-historically punch a hole on the Bridge of Sighs and drop from it to the Rio di Palazzo below. Up to that moment, Zevaco has merely done a “Find and Replace” job on “The Count of Montecristo,” (Roland for Edmond, Leonore for Mercedes, Venice for Marseilles, etc etc) with the difference that where Dumas is expansive, Zevaco is an abridger. Roland makes his daring escape by chapter 6; compare to chapter 20 of “Monte Cristo.”

For those who wonder why anyone would read an inferior “shot-by-shot” remake, it’s important to note that after Roland’s escape, Zevaco abandons the slavish adherence to his literary master. Instead of a slow-burning, subtle revenge plot, Roland is more interested in hacking-and-slashing, and by chapter 22 (of 100 or so), his incognito is over, he’s declared out-and-out war on his enemies, and is more or less murdering them on sight. It’s here that Zevaco, desirous of bodies for this massacre, adds a neat twist to the formula: Roland not only takes revenge against the handful of people who put him in prison, but also against anyone else foolish enough to associate with them.

RATNG: COOL!