Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Fear of Flying (1973) by Erica Jong

Image result for erica jong 1973
Erica Jong's narrator in Fear of Flying very much resembled herself in terms of her physical description and life history, a point made very clear by the author herself in her post script to the 20th anniversary edition of the book.
Book Review
Fear of Flying (1973)
 by Erica Jong

  This crucial document in the history of second-wave feminism was also a million copy bestseller. I remember seeing it on the bookshelves of the homes of my childhood friends parents in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1980's and early 1990's. If only I had known then how racy it was, I surely would have read it in high school. I think there is also a strong case to be made that Fear of Flying was the first novel that can accurately be described as "chick-lit."  It is clear, if only from the obsessive literary referencing of the author-esque  narrator, Isadora Zelda White Stollerman Wing, that author Jong was well familiar with the entire history of books written by men and women about female sexuality.  D.H. Lawrence and Doris Lessing serve as reference points of particular gravity.  Lawrence is reference a half dozen times by the characters in the book, and Isadora Wing actually uses a bulky complicated notebook to organize her in-book writing materials, a la Lessing in The Golden Notebook.

  Jong's use of a breezy, magazines copy influenced narrative voice is what distinguishes her from other literary pioneers of female sexuality.  Considering the sizable percentage of contemporary books and movies that are either chick-lit or chick-lit derived, it's worth considering Jong's accomplishment of fusing her very literary concern with the depiction of contemporary female sexuality with the narrative voice of a proto-Carrie Bradshaw or Bridgette Jones.  I'm not trying to diminish anyone by making that comparison, only to say that the later would be unthinkable without the former, particularly the healthy sale of the former.  I imagine the presence of Fear of Flying on the best seller list's in the mid 1970's must have set off an earthquake in New York and London publishing firms.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Correction (1975) by Thomas Bernhard

Haus Wittgenstein, the real life inspiration for the house in Correction.
Book Review
Correction (1975)
 by Thomas Bernhard

    Austrian author Thomas Bernhard placed seven books on the first edition of the 1001 Books list.   Correction, published in German in 1975 and in English translation four years later, is the first of those seven books.  Correction takes place in the aftermath of the suicide of its protagonist, Roithamer, after he has completed an expensive conical house which he designed for his sister, who dies out of mix of shock and shame when she sees the completed house for the first time.  After her funeral, he kills himself.  The narrator is a friend from his home village, who is tasked with Roithamer's voluminous writings about his family and obsession over building a conical house for his sister.

   The obvious points of comparison are Beckett- the entire 270 page book takes the form of TWO 135 page paragraphs.  Roithamer and the story of the conical house is loosely based on the real story of Ludwig Wittgenstein and his Haus Wittgenstein, built for his sister.   Roithamer bears other resemblances to the real life Wittgenstein, particularly his wealthy background and studies in England.

   The paragraph-less format means Correction is a book that requires concentration.  Actually putting it down is difficult, because there is no natural break, with the exception of the break between the two paragraphs. 

The Fan Man (1974) by William Kotzwinkle

The Fan Man is a semi-classic of the butt end of 1960's hippie culture in New York City.
Book Review
The Fan Man (1974)
 by William Kotzwinkle

  Perhaps because of the Kurt Vonnegut penned introduction to the edition of The Fan Man that I read, I became fixated on the idea that Kotzwinkle was somehow the "real life" inspiration for Kurt Vonnegut's fictional pulp philosopher Kilgore Trout.  That theory has no merit, but there is no doubt that Kotzwinkles ouevre which ranges from sci-fi genre work to the experimental bent of this book, is reminiscent of the plots described by Vonnegut on behalf of Kilgore Trout.

  Horse Badtories is the narrator, a down at the heels hippie/hoarder artist. He lives in a series of "pads," paid for by bad checks, where he accumulates garbage and tries to seduce under age girls (15 year old girls).  He also speaks in hippie jargon, liberally peppering his speech wit the ubiquitous "man."    To compare a work of 20th century experimental prose to Joyce and Beckett is simply to state that the work is experimental.  The idea of writing a book about a crazy perambulating low life in stream of consciousness format was perfected by James Joyce in Ulysses a half century before Kotzwinkle wrote The Fan Man.

   The value in The Fan Man is in the depiction of the butt-end of 1960's hippie culture, not the stream of consciousness narrative technique.   It's also worth observing yet another quintessentially "60's" work of fiction that was written mid way through the 1970's.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955) by Patricia Highsmith

Alain Deion played Thomas Ripley in the 1960 film version of the novel, The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith.  The 1960 movie was called Purple Noon.
Book Review
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)
 by Patricia Highsmith

   There aren't many crime novels that have inspired not one but two excellent film adaptations, but The Talented Mr. Ripley was the source both for the French movie Purple Noon (with Alain Deion as Ripley) and the American film, made in 1999, with Jude Law, Matt Damon and Gwyenth Paltrow.  The Talented Mr. Ripley marked the introduction of Thomas Ripley, the star of Highsmith's best-selling five volume Ripilad.

  Thomas Ripley is a classic mid-to-late-20th-century anti-hero and he may be the first franchise level literary creation who qualifies firmly as an anti-hero. The whole idea of basing not just a stand alone book but an entire franchise around a ruthless con man and serial murderer is bold.  It was bold in 1955, and it is still bold in 2016, no matter what artistic format you consider.  After all, we may celebrate Darth Vader, but the movies are about Luke Skywalker.   The Joker commands our attention, but the movie is called Batman.

  Nothing much has changed in that regard in popular culture between 1955, we still celebrate the anti-hero but have trouble contemplating shaped wholly from the perspective of the anti-hero.  The experience of rooting for Ripley, mostly because his targets seems so deeply unsympathetic and Ripley is so apologetic, comes easy.  Highsmith does such a good job illustrating the interior life of an amoral sociopath, that you have to wonder about the author.   She was, according to her Wikipedia, a hugely difficult human being, and so it's not hard to see the connection between Ripley and Highsmith herself.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Sula (1973) by Toni Morrison

Book Review
Sula (1973)
by Toni Morrison

  I'd gladly read all of Toni Morrison's in sequence at this point.  The introduction of the two Morrison novels I've read so far have both contained prefaces written by the author after she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.  Both prefaces emphasize that her books were not commercially nor critically successful upon publication in the mid 1970's.  The very fact that she had a job in academia (professor emeritus at Princeton University) testifies to the fact that her early novels were not commercially viable.   Of course, the Nobel Prize for Literature changes all that.   In 1993, everyone went back and reread Morrison' oeuvre. That's a process of recollection which continue today.

 Like Bluest Eye, Sula is waaaayyyyy darker than what you might expect if you have only a casual knowledge of Toni Morrison.  Like Bluest Eye, Sula is about African American women living in southern Ohio. They live segregated lives but escape the worst humiliations of southern racism.   Morrison's strong female characters eschew conventional morality out of a combination of choice and necessity.   In Sula, Morrison's multi-generational matriarchy has decidedly gothic touches, and at moments the behavior can seem positively Faulknerian.   To detail the incidents involved would spoil what little surprise is to be squeezed from the 170 pages of Sula, but the over-all merit of reading about the lives of economically disadvantaged African American women after three hundred years of English men and women overwhelms any picayune criticisms about a lack of length.

The Summer Book (1972) by Tove Jansson

Author Tove Jansson on a postage stamp in her native Finland.
Book Review
The Summer Book (1972)
by Tove Jansson

  Tove Jansson is a Finnish author internationally known for her series of children's books about the Moomin Family.  She also wrote several books for adults, The Summer Book, based loosely on her own experience living on an isolated island in Finland.  There isn't much to The Summer Book, a grandmother, her son, her son's daughter, living in their summer house out on a small island.   The closest there comes to "action" in The Summer Book is when the grand daughter climbs up a rock and is then afraid to come down, and when the grandmother and granddaughter break into the new home of a neighbor.   Also, The Summer Book wasn't actually translated into English until 2003, so it isn't like people were reading this book in the US & UK in 1972.

In a Free State (1971) by V. S. Naipaul

V.S. Naipaul at Oxford University
Book Review
In a Free State (1971)
 by V. S. Naipaul

   The Man Booker prize gave out its inaugural award for outstanding work of fiction written by a Commonwealth residing author in the prior year in 1969.  It quickly established a reputation as the second most important annual literary prize in the world (behind the Nobel Prize for Literature.)   As of this year, the Booker has opened up eligibility to English language books from all over the world (including the United States.)  Unlike the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Booker is given for a specific work written in a specific time period (the year prior.)    The overlap between the 1001 Books list (edited in England) and the Booker Prize winners list is close to 100%.

  Naipaul won the award for 1971, the third award given out.  V.S. Naipaul is from Trinidad and Tobago, of Indian parentage, the child of immigrants who came as indentured servants to work in the sugar plantations of the Caribbean.  Naipaul won a government scholarship to study at Oxford University in England, then moved to London and began writing in the mid 1950's.   Naipaul's Booker Prize came several novels into his career.   His Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded in 2001, came towards the end, and in between he pioneered the kind of world-straddling literary reputation that became a template for authors like Salaman Rushdie and Haruki Murakami.

  Although In a Free State came several novels into his career, it's status as a Booker Prize winner cemented Naipaul's marketable reputation.   In a Free State is not a traditional novel, rather it is two short stories and a novella paired to a framing narrative.   In a Free State is the longest of the three stories, about two European expatriates who appear to be in an unnamed Uganda in the aftermath of Independence.  The other two stories feature Indian narrators who are in the United States or England as immigrants.  Naipaul shows exceptional range in his choice of narrators.  The first two are Indian's of no formal education, the third a white European diplomat.   Naipaul, a Trinidadian of Indian ancestry, was none of these things, but he captures all of his voices with astonishing verisimilitude, spanning a range between Toni Morrison and Graham Greene in a single volume.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Crash (1973) by J.G. Ballard

Book Review
Crash (1973)
 by J.G. Ballard

     Poised at the intersection of Freudian death wish theory, technology and sex,  J.G. Ballard's Crash is an enduring classic of the 20th century canon of transgression.   An obsession with arousal derived from a staged disaster is called "symphorophilia,"  although the term "car crash fetish" is probably closer to what a modern reader would call the obsessions of Vaughan and "James Ballard,"  the 40 year old narrator, who shares a name with the author but works in television and film as a producer of some sort.

Image result for vaughan crash cronenberg
Elias Koteas as Vaughan in the David Cronenberg movie version of Crash by J.G. Ballard.
     Elias Koteas played Vaughan in the 1996 David Cronenberg directed movie version.  In Crash, Dr. Robert Vaughan is a formerly famous "television scientist" who has lost himself to driving around in a heavy Lincoln Continental and arranging various combinations of sex with prostitutes, staged car accidents that replicate famous car accidents and actual car accidents, specifically photographing them, photographing the injuries caused by those accidents and seducing and having sex with the surviving accident victims.  Although Vaughan is a memorably creepy presence, you can't fault the man for knowing what he wants, and his affect is as anti-Freudian as the rest of the book is under-girded by Freudian related theory regarding Thanatos or the "Death Wish."

    Ballard does not stint on the mechanical automobile side of the equation.  It is clear that the author was intimately familiar with the technical description of automobile accidents in all their gory detail.   Ballard was not the first author to link sex, technology and death.  In fact, some of the sexually perverse details of Crash notably remember the writing of the Marquis de Sade in his pre-Freudian 120 Days of Sodom.   In that book, the vile aristocrats adopt a very mechanistic approach to defiling their victims, with an emphasize on exploring multiple permutations.   This obsession is echoed in a scene where narrator Ballard has sex with auto accident victim Gabrielle, placing his member sequentially in each wound on her body.

  De Sade is also echoed in the elaborate plotting between Vaughan and his deranged co-conspirator Seagrave, a stunt driver with a specialty in portraying female drivers.  Over and over again, Vaughan and Seagrave recount minute details regarding the real life automobile deaths of actresses like Jayne Mansfield, which they then re-stage for live audiences.  J.G. Ballard was a huge victim in the first revision of the 1001 Books project, losing five of his original seven titles.  Of those seven only this book and Empire of the Sun remain.   That is a pity I think-  Ballard is the first among the authors who get slashed between the first two editions who I would take a stand for.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Breakfast of Champions (1973) by Kurt Vonnegut

One of the line illustrations contained inside Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut.
Book Review
Breakfast of Champions (1973)
by Kurt Vonnegut

    Kurt Vonnegut placed four titles on the first 1001 Books list, Breakfast of Champions, published in 1973, is chronologically the last of those books, and it also one of the two titles that got cut in the first revision.   I am not a huge fan of Kurt Vonnegut at the best of times.   I would argue that Vonnegut has not aged well, and nowhere is this more apparent in Breakfast of Champions, which takes his penchant for doodles and repetition to a logical extreme by including actual doodles in the text as well as dozens of paragraphs that end with "and so it goes."

  Breakfast of Champions is also an incredibly inter-textual book, full of characters from his other books, particularly Kilgore Trout, the stand in for Vonnegut who appears talismanicaly in many of Vonnegut's other works.  Here, he is a main character.   Trout is a prolific, little known author of science fiction books who conceals great truths in his pulpy plots.   He is spectacularly unread in all of Vonnegut's books, but here he finds a great fan, who is unfortunately inspired by Trout's book-within-a-book plot to go on a violent rampage.

   And so it goes, as Vonnegut would say.  It's impossible to miss the decline in average length of the titles between decades.   18th century, many of the books are over 500 pages.  In the 19th century, books were often published in three volume sets, with a total length of 3 to 500 pages.  In the 20th century, the 300 page novel is standard until the mid century, but by the late 1960's and 1970's, the average length of a title on the 1001 Books list is closer to 200 pages.


Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Breast (1972) by Philip Roth

Breasts! People love them.
Book Review
The Breast (1972)
 by Philip Roth

  I remain skeptical of the merits of the "novella" as an art form.  Too long to be a short story, too short to demand the attention required of a novel, it exists in an indeterminate space in the market-place and really only finds a ready audience in high school and college Literature class, where the length makes them preferable.    The idea of spending money on a novella,  20 dollars for a book that is guaranteed to be under 150 pages, makes me cringe.   The Breast is a firm 78 pages, and is basically the opening sentence of the Metamorphsis by Franz Kafka extended for an additional 78 pages.

   The narrator,  David Kapesh, is a college English professor who is mysteriously transformed from a human form into a similarly weighted (155 pounds) female human breast.   He is, to put it mildly, not pleased with the situation, but is very limited in his options, being unable to move on his own and lacking limbs or sensory organs.   The Breast rates about a five on the naughtiness scale.  Much of the text deals explicitly with the impact his transformation has on his sexuality, and to get it into literally spoils the only plot point in the entire book.

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