Dedicated to classics and hits.

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.

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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.

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