Dedicated to classics and hits.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Bonjour Tristesse (1954) by Francoise Sagan

Author Francoise Sagan was 18 when Bonjour Tristesse was published in 1954, it was an overnight sensation.

Book Review
Bonjour Tristesse (1954)
 by Francoise Sagan

     One of the major themes of 20th century literature is the emergence of "youth culture."  That emergence is inextricably linked to the post World War II economic boom in the United States.   England and France, although they experienced a different economic reality, supplied many of the initial artists of the youth culture that began to emerge in the 1950s.  Francoise Sagan and her break-out hit Bonjour Tristesse is an early, French, female example of the pan-cultural "pop star" artist.  Bonour Tristesse is a mere slip of a tail about a young (17) woman living with her widowed father.

  The novel starts while the family (and Dad's nubile girlfriend) are on vacation, renting a villa in the south of France.  The more age appropriate Jane shows up, and complications ensue. Cecile is a pre-adult sexual creature and her machinations are those of a fully grown woman.  This character has been so embedded in popular culture, both inside and outside literature that it is impossible to imagine how novel and refreshing this book must have been in 1954, let alone in its English translation.  The explicit treatment of sexuality of ADULTS let alone children, was so remote in the 1950s that books like Ulysses were banned for essentially factual descriptions of intercourse.

 Bonjour Tristesse is a mere 120 pages soaking wet, so to speak.  Even with wide margins and smaller pages it is barely that length. There is no doubt that it makes for a good product, the kind of book that a 17 year old girl or 20 year old woman would read in 1954.   It is the literary equivalent of a pop song.

The Killer Inside Me (1952) by Jim Thompson

Casey Affleck was by all accounts terrible in the 2010 movie version of The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson.  Also, Jessica Alba was in that movie

Book Review
The Killer Inside Me (1952)
by Jim Thompson

  Black Lizard is a speciality crime imprint that was started by publisher Random House in 1990.  Although they publish contemporary authors as well, their reprints are essential for the critical reevaluation of crime fiction that elevated writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler from genre territory to canonical figures in 20th century American literature.  Jim Thompson is another writer that was swept up in the craze for crime fiction/noir in the late 80s and early 90s.  Less popular than Chandler and Hammett at the time, he had the good fortune of being singled out by the New York Times even as his books were treated as pulp fiction by their publisher.

  By the reappraisal period of the late 80s and early 90s his hyper violent books like The Killer Inside Me, about a sociopathic sheriff's deputy terrorizing a community in small town Texas, were more in tune with the zeitgeist of ultraviolence and serial killer chic.  Thompson  also used high-end literary technique in service of his violent plots- The Killer Inside Me is a riff on the classic unreliable narrator.  The Killer Inside Me is a great deal more graphic than anything else published during this period outside of Junkie by William Burroughs, which was also treated initially as pulp fiction by its publisher.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) by James Baldwin

James Baldwin

Book Review
Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953)
by James Baldwin

  James Baldwin spans the major fault lines of 20th century America.  He was a gay, black, civil-rights activist/socialist with a lot to say about the role of Christianity in the lives of Americans.   He was born and lived in New York City and left New York for France where he lived the rest of his life.  Although he has a life time of work to his credit, both fiction and non-fiction, he is best known for Go Tell It on the Mountain, a semi-autobiographical bildungsroman about the relationship between a young man grouping up in Harlem in the 1930s and his step father, a strict Pentecostal preacher who emigrated to New York City.  Other characters are his mother, Elizabeth and his step father's sister, Florence.  

  After an opening section that is more-or-less a stream of consciousness narrative by John- the narrator/author character depicting his day-to-day life.  His world is fraught with conflict and the day that is documented is John's birthday.  His mother, at least, remembers, but his older brother- ne'er do well Roy, spoils any opportunity for celebration by getting stabbed in the face, cursing out his father and then having his father beat him unmercifully.

  The second section has John and his Father, Mother and Aunt at the same church, where each has a flashback that gives insight into their back-story and current situation. The individual stories of the family members are almost unbearably sad.   Baldwin's homosexuality is not a central them of Go Tell It on the Mountain, but it is alluded to in the text.  Being gay is almost the least of John's problems, and when the story is included to embrace the experiences of his parent's generation, the overall effect is almost unbearably sad.

 If you read the first wave of classics of African American lit, written before the 1960s cultural revolution, you have a good grasp on the same problems that exist today in that community.  But Baldwin is also pointing the finger at Christianity and the role it plays in African American communities.  The character of John's step-father is shown as moving from a drinking, whoring, layabout to become a preacher over night.  He then fathers an illegitimate child with a local woman while married to another, and lets both Mother and Son die without ever acknowledging the connection.  The hypocrisy of this character isn't counter balanced by any redeeming positive traits, making him one of the major ogres of 20th century fiction.

Memoirs of Hadrian (1951) by Marguerite Yourcenar

Roman Empire under the Rule of Emperor Hadrian.

Book Review
Memoirs of Hadrian (1951)
 by Marguerite Yourcenar

  This is a historical novel written about the Roman Emperor Hadrian.  Hadrian ruled during the period after Christianity had been invented but before it was adopted by the Roman Emperor.  This period of late antiquity is both interesting and rarely a focus of Roman era histories which tend to focus on either the rise of Christianity, the fall of the Roman Empire or the period of the Republic.  Written in the form of a missive to his successor (Marcus Aurelius),  Hadrian's memoirs cover his dimly remembered childhood, his live as a soldier (general) fighting in the endless border skirmishes in Eastern Europe, his rise to power as Emperor,  his career as Emperor, also largely consisting of endless border skirmishes from Parthia to Scotland, where he built Hadrian's wall.

   I would have thought there would be more historical fiction from the Roman Empire in the 1001 Books project, but other than Ben Hur I can't think of another novel set in that time period.  Perhaps that's because so much of Roman history takes place prior to Christianity and so much of the novel relates to the literature of Christianity.   I found myself wondering how many compelling non-Christian characters even exist in the history of the novel between the 18th and 20th century.  Even as voices began to multiply in the 20th century, female voice, African American voices, Latin American voices, LGBT voices, Christianity was a central concerns for authors, both in positive and negative ways.

  As a truly non-Christian lead character, Hadrian stands almost alone and personally I found his mixture of stoicism and Roman paganism to be compelling.  I'm a sucker for stoicism, truth be told.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

The Old Man and the Sea (1952) by Ernest Hemingway

The Old Man and the Sea, a man, a fish, some sharks, the water and a boat.

Book Review
The Old Man and the Sea (1952)
by Ernest Hemingway

  The Old Man and the Sea is a slim hundred and thirty pages in length.  Generally considered to be Hemingway's last good book, it also won the Pulitzer Prize and was a staple of courses in American literature for decades after publication.   Today, it's popularity has been eclipsed, a victim of the quest for other (non white, non male) voices, particularly when it comes to tales about Caribbean fishermen.  Let the fishermen speak for themselves, in their own language, is what contemporary teachers of literature would most likely say.

 The story concerns an old fisherman and his quest to bring in one last giant marlin.  It is a journey that takes him far out into the gulf stream, off the coast of Cuba.  The Old Man and the Sea is one of those narratives that has burrowed so far into the popular consciousness that you can almost write the damn thing.   Reading Hemingway outside of the constraints of school has been a delight.  I find his restrictive prose soothing, a welcome antidote to the stuffy English and European upper classes of most early 20th century fiction.  Like other Anglo-American authors, he moves into fraught territory with Latin American characters, but you can't really hold him responsible for wanting to write this story and feeling like he was competent to do so.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

The Opposing Shore/Le Rivage des Syrtes (1951) by Julien Gracq

Despite the old world origin of the fictional nations of The Opposing Shore, the milleu reminds me of Central or South America.  Pictured here the "mosquito coast" of Honduras.

Book Review
The Opposing Shore/Le Rivage des Syrtes (1951)
by Julien Gracq

  Published in French in 1951, the English translation came out in 1986, over thirty years later.  Something that I've noticed about more recent books in the 1001 Books project is that they have little or no commercial value and are often published by public interest and independent publishing houses in small editions.   Whereas almost every book on the list from the 18th and 19th century has been in print and read throughout the literate world for a hundred years plus.   Also, if you just look at the sheer number of titles from the decades of the 20th century that were selected it's no wonder that some have failed to draw a significant popular audience.   The example of a "classic" novel with little or no track record with mass sales in English, or adaptions into other art forms, penetration into the popular consciousness, etc., becomes increasingly common.

  The Opposing Shore is something like a French take on Kafka, though the book it most resembles is the Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati.  Tartar Steppe is about a soldier posted to a fortress at a remote frontier where the enemy is unseen and the real enemy is within.  The Opposing Shore is set at the southern border of a fictional southern European country.   Tartar Steppe was published in Italian, in 1940, so there would have been time for a French translation, and it wouldn't be shocking if Gracq read Italian.  Both books exist in the same creative territory carved out by the Gnostic Manicheanism of The Castle and something to the fugue-dream state popularized by psychiatry and art movements influenced by psychiatry.

  The Opposing Shore also contains some of the early hallmarks of magical realism.  If you are looking for a reason why this book finally got an English translation in 1986 it might be attributable to the rising popularity of magical realism and a search for literary antecedents.  I've read enough magic realism to know that I like it.  I also know that I am sick to death of reading about the English upper classes and their emotional issues.   Bring on the books that aren't that, is what I say.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Book Review: Wise Blood (1952) by Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O/Connor is an original hipster.

Book Review:
Wise Blood (1952)
by Flannery O'Connor

  I watched the movie version by John Huston and spelled his last name Houston throughout the review.  Embarrassing mistake!  I blame auto correct.   I was enthusiastic about the movie and I'm equally enthusiastic about the book.  The movie is a straight forward visualization of the book itself, so they are basically the same work of art. I mean they're not, of course, but the similarity between book and film is closer than what you usually see.
Harry Dean Stanton as the 'blind" preacher in the John Huston film of the Flannery O'Connor novel, Wise Blood.

  Part of the reason Wise Blood made such a good movie is that its actual length and writing style are close to that of a 90 minute movie.  O'Connor is such... a proto-hipster,  In fact, considering Wise Blood was published in 1952, you could put her up there with other proto-hipster icons like Jack Kerouac or J.D. Salinger.  Saliner is a particularly apt comparison because of the similarities between Salinger's Catching of the Rye and Wise Blood.  Both deal frankly with  the travails of an alienated young man.

  The hipster as a concept dates back prior to the 1950s.  You could trace it back to jazz age culture or blues culture in the early part of the nineteenth century.  But the role of American writers in the 1950s play in our contemporary ideas about what is cool and uncool  is impossible to ignore and interesting to contemplate.

  The claustrophobic small town environment is identifiable as southern but also universal is a way that anyone who lives in a Portland, a Louisville, Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, Los Angeles or even New York can relate to.  You could imagine Wise Blood being written today and finding an enthusiastic audience.   I think it probably lies just outside being on many literature class reading lists for twentieth century literature but that is a shame- it is very likely one of my top 100 novels and my favorite of this year.

 I think generally that the American South is underrepresented in 1001 Books to Read Before You Die series because many of the editors are English and it is an English production.   Faulkner is underrepresented and many secondary authors are underrepresented entirely.  You could say the same about the midwest- only ONE Willa Cather novel?  One Theordore Dreiser novel.  Or about the American West- Jack London is underrepresented, Frank Norris doesn't even make the cut.


Sunday, September 27, 2015

Foundation (1951) by Issac Asimov

Hari Seldon, the creator of the Foundation, as pictured on the cover of one of the many paper back edition of the novel.

Book Review
Foundation (1951)
 by Issac Asimov

 Famously inspired by Edward Gibbons Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the Foundation series (originally a trilogy and expanded in the 1980s) is arguable the most successful series in the history of science fiction, and ranks up there with the Lord of the Rings trilogy for being the most successful series in all of speculative fiction (science fiction and fantasy.)   The first book in the series was adapted from several short stories Asimov published in the 1940s.   The episodic structure of the book, with decades elapsing between chapters, makes sense if the reader considers the books as separate short stories woven together in the format of a novel.

  The story of Foundation is about a galaxy where humans are the only intelligent species and they are organized into a single galatic Empire- an Empire which resembles the Roman Empire.  At the beginning of the Foundation series, the Empire is in the early stages of collapse- so early that no one realizes it except for "psychohistorian" Hari Seldon.  In the first chapter, Seldon arranges for the exile of his foundation to the periphery of the galaxy, where his people begin work on a galactic encylcopedia which they are told will preserve knowledge through a dark age of thousands of years.

  Seldon's "psycho-history" essentially uses statistics to predict the future, and it shortly becomes clear that the encyclopedia is a ruse, and that Seldon has planned for the Foundation to become the second galactic empire.  The first book in the series concerns the early days of the Foundation- using their superior grasp on technology to create a science based religion to cow and control their immediate neighbors, and then evolving to a trading based empire, again based on their unique understanding of atomic power, which has disappeared in other parts of their galactic neighborhood.

  By the end of the First Foundation novel, the advanced traders of the Foundation have encountered the remnants of the still powerful Empire, and that sets up the next novel.  Asimov has been so influential in the development of space based science fiction that Foundation seem obvious.  But for the Foundation trilogy neither Star Wars nor Star Trek would exist.  He was also in the vanguard in writing about the miniaturization of technology.

  Even though Asimov's prose is, at its best, sub-par, there is no denying the power and influence of Foundation and the subsequent books in the series.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950) by Octavio Paz

A young Octavio Paz

Book Review
The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950)
 by Octavio Paz

   It is unclear why the 1001 Books project would entirely omit ALL non-fiction titles between the dawn of time and 1950 and then choose to include The Labyrinth of Solitude as the only work of non-fiction up to this point.  It's even more puzzling when you consider that Paz was primarily a poet and that there are no poems included in the 1001 Books project.  So here we have a book length essay about Mexican/Latin American identity, written by a poet, which is the only non-fiction title up to this point in the entire 1001 Books project.

  At the same time, it's easy to tie The Labyinth of Solitude into the emergence of Latin American literature in the mid 20th century.  Paz is a harbinger of an independent Latin American identity for writers and intellectuals.  Whatever ones perspective on the events of Mexican/Latin American history between independence and World War II, it was a tough time to be a scholar, thinker or intellectual.  The history favored men of action, landowners and activists working on behalf of the poor. Intellectuals and their natural audience of the middle class were in short supply across Latin America.

  In The Labyrinth of Solitude Paz takes a stab at defining Mexican and Latin American identity as being situated between the Spanish Empire of the Old World and the American Empire of the New.   The combination of disdain both for old and new, a defining characteristic of Latin American intelllectual culture is already present, fully formed, in the The Labyrinth of Solitude.  Paz spent time in America- he writes about his time in Berkeley, CA. and the opening chapter of Labyrinth concerns Pachuco youth culture, which is present both in  Mexico and the United States.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Book Review: I, Robot (1953) by Issac Asimov

The terrible Will Smith film I, Robot shares a title but little else with the Issac Asimov book.

Book Review
I, Robot (1953)
Isaac Asimov

  I think for many people, including me, science fiction represents a transition from children's literature to adult literature.  I grew up in a suburb in the East Bay of Northern California, and I wore out the science fiction section of the local public library near the end of grade school and throughout junior high.  I should say that I read widely in both science fiction and fantasy, once separate genres, today they both tend to be called "speculative fiction."  A major difference between science fiction and fantasy is in their treatment of time and space.  Fantasy almost entirely takes place in another time period other than "modern times" and almost entirely take place in a fictional place- another universe, etc.  On the other hand, science fiction is thoroughly grounded in the tenets of "realism" developed by 19th century authors in the western novel.

  Although Issac Asimov in no way invented science fiction, he became the figurehead of American 20th century science fiction authors in that he was first and he sold the most copies. I, Robot is important because it was his first hit in novel form.  Prior to that Asimov, like many genre writers in the 20th century started writing short fiction for periodicals.  Asimov also had a day job the whole time.

  I, Robot is really a series of previously published short stories.  Asimov wrote a framing narrative involving a main character in several of the stories- Doctor Susan Calvin, the chief robopsychologist for the fiction United States Robotics Corporation.  The framing takes the form of a near-death Susan Calvin being interviewed by a journalist writing a history of robotics.  I, Robot is a sort of template for modern science fiction in that the inelegance of the prose being subsumed by the breathtaking creativity of the ideas.   The amazing foresight that Asimov displayed is even more remarkable if you consider that the short stories were originally published prior to World War II.

   In addition to influencing future writers inside and outside of genre fiction, Asimov's vision has influenced reality itself.  Many technologists from Silicon Valley and scientists from the generation prior to Silicon Valley were directly influenced by Asimov's fiction.   It's almost impossible to recreate the novelty of Asimov's treatment of "robots" in 1940.  First of all, they didn't exist.  Second of all, the computer as we now discuss it did not exist.  In I, Robot, Asimov brings robots to life in  a way fully recognizable to anyone who watches television or goes to the movies in 2015.   Robots are ambulatory mechanical men with a computer powered brain.  Again, computers literally did not exist in the 1940s, when these stories were published.

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