Dedicated to classics and hits.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Eileen (2015) by Otessa Moshfegh

Ottessa Moshfegh in New York. ‘I’m pretty fluent in irreverence and cynicism.’
Author Ottessa Moshfegh

Book Review
Eileen (2015)
 by Ottessa Moshfegh

  If you want to find commercial/literary cross-over success, head to your local major metropolitan airport- New York, Los Angeles, and look at the display for the airport bookstore.  If a work of literary fiction is getting major shelve space, as is the case for Moshfegh's latest book, My Year of Rest and Relaxation. I saw it myself at JFK airport in New York three weeks ago, Boston two weeks ago and Los Angeles this week.   Surely, My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a good prize for the major book awards- maybe not the Pulitzer, but a Booker Prize or the National Book Award would seem to be in reach.

  It's also a pretty good sign that after I read My Year of Rest and Relaxation I ran out and BOUGHT paperback copies of her first two books, the novella McGlue and her debut novel, the sleek n' nasty Eileen, about Eileen Dunlop, who narrates the events as a much older woman a la Titanic.  The events take place in a small town in Massacusets in the mid 1960's.  Eileen Dunlop works at a local juvenile prison and lives with her alcoholic ex-cop father, still a semi-respected figure in the town even though he has completely lost his mind and spends his days tormenting Eileen, drinking himself into a stupor, and pointing his gun at local school children who happen to walk past his house on their way to and from school.

   Eileen and her Dad live in a squalor familiar to watchers of TLC style reality shows like Hoarders and 600 LB Life.  Neither one cooks or cleans, Eileen also drinks and suffers from a variety of physical and mental maladies ranging from constipation to severe anxiety and depression.  She is, in other words, a classic Moshfegh narrator/protagonist.   I found it a compelling read, like all of her books.  I'm a believer! The cross-over success of My Year of Rest and Relaxation is no fluke!

  It's also worth noting that Eileen made it to the Booker Prize shortlist in 2015, the first year American published books were eligible, losing out to The Sellout by Paul Beatty.   That automatically makes her a contender for the Booker Prize this year.  The commercial/critical success makes her a good candidate for the National Book Award. 

Monday, July 15, 2019

Vineland (1990) by Thomas Pynchon

Book Review
Vineland (1990)
by Thomas Pynchon

 I've owned a hardcover first edition of Vineland for over a decade- a remaindered first edition and I've never read it- never really even thought about reading it, even as it became one of the last 50 books from the original 1001 Books list I hadn't read, and even as I profess Thomas Pynchon as one of my favorite twentieth century writers.  Even after Vineland I've got one more Pynchon title from the original 1001 Books list- Mason & Dixon- which is a re-read for me.

  Vineland has a reputation as the least of Pynchon's novels- there are probably people who would argue that Bleeding Edge is worse than Vineland, but I'm more of a Bleeding Edge fan.    Trying to explain the plot of Vineland is a typically Pynchonian chore, but the elements involve the consequences of the 1960's, rogue federal prosecutors, northern California hippies, drugs, the Reagan era, etc.  Pynchon doing Pynchon stuff.  I found myself yearning for the Audiobook- which appears to be an Amazon/Audible exclusive, published late last year.


Sunday, July 14, 2019

Vernon Subutex One (2017) by Virgine Depentes

Book Review
Vernon Subutex 1(2017)
 by Virgine Depentes

   Vernon Subutex 1 is one of the last titles from the 2018 Man Booker International Prize shortlist, alongside the winner, Flight by Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, The White Book by Han Kang,  Like a Fading Shadow by Anotnio Munoz Molina, Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi and The World Goes On by László Krasznahorkai.  That last one is the only book on the shortlist I haven't read.    I thought Vernon Subutex 1 would get a United States release in the aftermath of the shortlist, but I was mistaken.  Eventually I tracked down the UK published English translation in London over Christmas.

  Flash forward to summer vacation, and I actually pulled it off the book shelf and read the darn thing.  I figured the lack of US publication put an end to any possible English language audience made available by the Booker International shortlist.  I suppose it's possible that the US publication rights are held by the UK publisher- that would account for a delay or absence.

 Her Wikipedia lists volumes 2 and 3 of Vernon Subutex- I don't think either book has been translated into English yet- volume 3 was published two years ago.  Subutex is the protagonist, though he shares narrating duties with varieties of friend and enemies.  Comfortable in his role as the proprietor of a Parisian record store specializing in vinyl, in the opening page he is hit with a triple whammy: the death of his Kurt Cobain-like pop star friend, the loss of his record store and eviction from his long time apartment.

  The eviction puts him on the road to homelessness, though not without a half dozen rest stops at the apartment and homes of friends from his past, each of whom gets their own narrated chapter.  Depentes tells her story mater-of-factly, there is nothing maudlin about Subutex and his descent.   He's arguably unsympathetic, since he does nothing to try to stop his fall.

  Also there are terrible decisions along the way: stealing from a wealthy divorcee who takes a shine to him, banging the tranny love interest of another temporary landlord.  Again, I'm surprised there was no American release. Hell, I'd put it out.  There is an audience among the urban hipster-lit crowd, particularly among vinyl nostaligists and/or people who 'love Paris' any of whom might be inclined to pick this up in a local indie bookstore.

The Farm (2019) by Joanne Ramos

Image result for joanne ramos
Novelist and journalist Joanne Ramos, author of The Farm.
Book Review
The Farm (2019)
by Joanne Ramos

   One of the interesting aspects of the entertainment-industrial complex is watching the process by which a debut novel by a previously unknown author is introduced to the critical and general public.  Joanne Ramos is a very interesting example of this process, being with her pedigree: Daughter of Filipino immigrants, raised in Wisconsin, educated at Princeton, worked on Wall Street, became a journalist, has a position at the Economist.   Next you've got the announced pre publication value a "six figure" sale for the publication rights.

  Then you've got the pre-publication role out, gathering up the book jacket quotes, early reviews and whatever public appearances a multi national publishing corporation can arrange for a first time author with no pre-existing celebrity.   I listened to The Farm Audiobook after fully witnessing that process for Ramos and her debut novel, about a shadowy, but very well-heeled surrogacy operation running in upstate New York.  The narrators include Jane, a failed Filipino-immigrant baby nurse, looking for a way to secure a future for her father-less daughter;  Ake, the Grandmotherly cousin of Jane who plays a vital role in the local (Manhattan) immigrant community, connecting new arrivals with families needing child care solutions;  Mae, the half-white, half-Chinese corporate executive, running the business for her billionaire boss; and Raegan, the privileged, white fellow "host" who becomes central to the narrative.

   There is a definite "thriller" feel to the later parts of the plot that preclude any kind of detailed description.  I would also dissent for the more hyperbolic prose which compares The Farm to The Handmaid's Tale and other works of feminist-dystopian fiction.   Whether situations such as those described by The Farm actually exist in America, they certainly exist in other parts of the world.  The issues around surrogacy are incredibly complex, but turning it into a market transaction takes away much of that complexity.  If the host and the client agree on the terms of the transaction, that's great.  If the host fails to understand the full meaning of the contract because of her status as a non-high school graduating immigrant to America, that's not great, but hardly unusual in this (or other) countries.

  I didn't love The Farm, but I liked it.  Ramos lands halfway between writing a standard-issue thriller type book and something more complicated.  I guess the year end Awards will provide the first verdict.  It doesn't look like it's been a huge sales success- it looks like the press exceeded the sales, but a run on the year end prize lists/best of lists would likely elevate those numbers.

  The Farm is a great Audiobook- another example where the accents make all the difference.  I don't think I could have put on the female, Filipino accent which describes the speech of several of the main characters in my own head, they would, at best, not sound like Filipina's.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

The Traitors Head (2019) by Ismail Kadare

Book Review
The Traitors Head (2019)
by Ismail Kadare

   This 2017 nominee for the Man Booker International Prize finally got an American release in June of this year, allowing me to pick up the Ebook from the library after only a couple months on the waiting list. (Not a huge number of Ismail Kadare fans in the Los Angeles Public Library system?)
Ismail Kadare is THE Albanian author to read if you are going to read one Albanian novelist, and he's got a great reputation in France.  Also, he's the kind of writer the New York Times calls a perennial contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature.   Seems like a long to medium shot to me, and he's generally in the same category as Ohman Pamuk  (2006 winner).   Or I guess you could call him a Balkan writer- which hasn't produced a winner since 1961. 

  The Traitors head is historical fiction, set in the time of the Ottoman Empire, and it is quite literally about the head of a traitor having his head transported to the so-called traitor's niche in Istanbul, where the head's of traitors are displayed and maintained by a doctor so the public can bear witness.   Like many of Kadare's books, the characters- there are maybe a dozen different narrators, are obsessed with power, and Albania's relationship to power. 

Audiobook Review: The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Image result for tom stechschulte
Narrator Tom Stechschulte

Audiobook Review:
 The Road
 by Cormac McCarthy

    The Road is one of those classics: best seller, critical hit, great movie version; to which I find myself returning.   Cormac McCarthy is an author  in my top 10, if you are talking about contemporary American writers it would be McCarthy, Pynchon and Roth at this point.  For each of those writers, I'm going  back through the various back catalog titles and formats, filling in the blanks as it were.

   Cormac McCarthy and the Audiobook seem like a particularly good combination of canon level author/and format- most of his Audiobooks are narrated by actor Tom Stechschulte, including The Road.  He's the first Audiobook narrator who seems a star in his own right- it helps that all of McCarthy's books work SO well as Audiobooks.   His prose-style is unmistakable: economical and violent, and it translates directly into the spoken words.

  Hearing McCarthy's sparse descriptions of what we call "the After Time" around here, are particularly compelling in Audiobook.  At times more evocative then the also very good movie.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Wolf and the Watchman (2019) by Niklas Natt Och Dag

Bok Review
The Wolf and the Watchman (2019)
 by Niklas Natt Och Dag

   There is no question that the "Scandanavian Noir" genre has a pedigree which carries the potential to ascend into the precincts of literary fiction, from Smila's Sense of Snow to the Girl With A Dragon Tattoo, we are talking about close to two decades of critical-popular cross-over hits in English translation, with movie adaptations in the bargain.   One of the characteristics of the genre is a thematic darkness that is more apt to evoke the Marquis de Sade than Raymond Chandler as an influence.   Sexual abuse, torture, sexually abusive torture, all figure prominently and it's possible that the idea of European sophistication allows some of these writers to get away with material that would be beyond the pale if set in America.

   So, when critics call The Wolf and the Watchman a combination of Sherlock Holmes and True Detective, but set in early 18th century Stockholm and when said combination wins best Swedish Crime Novel in 2017, the reader can be assured shit is going to get mental.  Just the set up should be enough:  A corpse is discovered floating in the water around Sweden.  It is limbless, eyeless and has had it's tongue ripped out.  Who is the victim?  Who did this to him, and why?

  I listened to the Audiobook- it was a good choice for the format, as crime/detective fiction always seems to be.  At slightly over 10 hours, The Wolf and the Watchman runs a bit long, largely because Natt Och Dag splits his narrative between a handful of narrators.   The Sherlock Holmes character, a consumptive lawyer-detective and his sidekick, an alchoholic night watchman with one arm, haunted by his experiences in the Swedish-German wars of the late 18th century, turn into an appealing duo and the general similarities with "Sherlock Holmes" are overwhelmed by the difference in setting and Dag's interest in the actual history of Sweden. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Power Trip: The Story of Energy (2019) by Michael E. Webber

Book Review
Power Trip: The Story of Energy (2019)
 by Michael E. Webber

  There is a school of thought that our whole modern civilization is basically a century long ponzi scheme based on the exploitation of our available fossil fuel resources.  Once the fuels are gone, so our the advances that we have attributed to our human ingenuity.  It's a hypothesis that is intriguing even without the bonus kicker: that it is these fossil fuels that are causing global client change and the imminent collapse of said civilization enable by fossil fuel exploitation.

   Michael E. Webber is an engineer/professor/energy executive, not a liberal climate-change obsessed muckraking journalist, and Power Trip goes deeps into the the role of energy and energy exploitation in human history.  He is deeply concerned in the same way you might imagine the chariman of Exxon/Mobil might be in his/her private moments: Sure, the planet faces some pretty stiff challenges, but we wouldn't even be here without fossil fuels, and we've got plenty of ways to fight this thing together!

  Contrast this perspective to the more alarmist The Uninhabitable Earth, which covers many of the very same subjects but without the engineering/energy industry can-do enthuasism for ways we can get out of this mess.    It's an interesting take- I'd recommend the incredibly detailed product page written by Basic Books.

Last Day (2019) by Domenica Ruta

Image result for domenica ruta
Author Domenica Ruta
Book Review
Last Day (2019)
by Domenica Ruta

  I'm trying to keep up with contemporary literary fiction.  This basically involves subscribing to the book review feed of the New York Times, the Guardian (UK), Kirkus Reviews (not very useful), The New York Review of Books and The London Review of Books.  The physical copy of Entertainment Weekly, to which my girlfriend is a subscriber.  The physical copy of the Los Angeles Times Sunday edition.  The nominations for the Booker Prize, the National Book Award and the Pulitzer.

  I managed to check out the Ebook edition pretty close to the release date of May 28th.  Ruta has a non-fiction best-seller about her childhood, and the New York Times review raved about this book. I wasn't taken by it, but that might be because of the Ebook format- which does a disservice to any title that strays outside of conventional genre territory: ok to read crime fiction or science fiction, but not literary fiction.

 Last Day is a book about people and their relationships, covered with an alternate world situation where the End of the World is celebrated each year in the same way that we celebrate New Years.  The various characters- nerdy Sarah and Kurt, her reprobate love interest, crazy Karen, on the precipise of homelessness as she struggles with mental illness and an international cast of characters on the space station orbiting above the earth.

  Details on the holiday are scarce- that's one way to tell that Last Day is a work of literary fiction, not genre fiction.  It's more of a collection of short stories about the various characters then a conventional novel, linked by the temporal element of the Last Day celebration.


Friday, June 28, 2019

A Memory Called Empire (2019) by Arkady Martine

Book Review
A Memory Called Empire (2019)
by Arkady Martine

  If you search the term, "space opera" on Google, you will read that it was coined as a pejorative term to describe over-wrought science fiction which mimicked the "opera" of a soap opera on television.  It was never a reference to opera the art form.  Space Opera is known for imitating models like ancient Egypt, ancient Rome, ancient China, etc, except with advanced weaponry and fast than light speed travel, all of it poorly explained to the reader.

  So to call A Memory Called Empire a space opera is accurate, but also a little dismissive.  There's nothing wrong with space opera per se, but it would be hard to imagine such a work transcending genre limitations.   However, Arkady Martine- a pseudonym for Anna Linden Weller, a scholar of the Byzantine Empire, is not your average space opera debutante, and I think her publisher, Macmillan, has high hopes for her Texicalaan, of which A Memory Called Empire is the first volume.

  I listened to the Audiobook- I think I might actually be too ashamed to read an actual copy of A Memory Called Empire.  They used a woman to narrate, which makes sense because the narrator and protagonist is a woman- a young ambassador sent from an independent mining outpost to the center of a giant galactic empire.  It is a human universe, though Martine appears to be setting up a conflict with the first "non human" civilization in the galaxy.  Martine's academic background shows up in her loving description of the Texicalaan imperial bureaucracy.

  Oh also Martine is LGBT and so is the main character, so that's cool, because the world of speculative science fiction can be pretty male and cis male heavy. 

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