Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids (1958) by Kenzaburo Oe

Kenzaburo Oe, Nobel Prize for Literature Winner, 1994.
Book Review
Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids (1958)
 by Kenzaburo Oe

  Published in Japan in 1958, translated into English in 1995, one year after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Nib the Buds, Shoot the Kids was his first novel, published when he was 23 years old.  Oe was famously affiliated with the Japanese left, and Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids is a tale which reflects his strident criticism of Japanese behavior during World War II.  In Nip the Buds, the narrator is the reluctant leader of a group of juvenile delinquents who have been evacuated from their urban holding facility in the final stages of World War II.  They are brought to a hostile, remote village where they are almost immediately abandoned by the villagers after an outbreak of plague.  Left to their own devices, they enjoy a bittersweet interlude of freedom and self-determination which comes to a screeching halt upon the return of the villagers.

  Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids has elements of Orwell and the French existentialists, but it maintains an undeniably Japanese spine that comes over even in English translation.  Only one hundred and ninety pages or so, Nip the Buds is a fast read, almost like a contemporary fairy tale.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Memento Mori (1959) by Muriel Spark

Scottish born writer Muriel Spark
Book Review
Memento Mori (1959)
by Muriel Spark

  If nothing else, the 1001 Books project keeps me humble about my level of cultural knowledge and sophistication.  Muriel Spark was a Scottish novelist, active in the 50s and beyond, who obtained a great deal of critical and commercial success in her lifetime, though falling short of winning either a Nobel Prize for Literature or a Booker Prize.  Like The Prime of Miss Brodie,  another novel she wrote that made it to the 1001 Books project uses the formal techniques of modernists to tell a bright and engaging story with a tightly wound plot mechanism.

 Here, it is an anonymous caller who starts making calls to a circle of wealthy, older friends saying, "Remember you must die."  Spark creates the expectation that the reader has begun a "who dun it" novel of suspense, but subverts that expectation while maintaining a level of tautness equivalent to that generated by the original expectation of the reader (that one is reading a mystery novel.)  In fact, Memento Mori is a chance to revisit the familiar characters from English novels of the 30s and 40s in their dotage, like a Waugh novel or Mitford story with everyone is a resting home.

  The anonymous caller triggers the story, but the reader is drawn into the lives of the elderly circle of friends and their various flaws and betrayals.  In America, the most recent edition is a New Directions paperback, a sure sign that Memento Mori has a less than canonical status in the United States.  In England, on the other hand, it is sometimes included on "top novels of the 20th century" type lists.

  Memento Mori hasn't aged a bit, but for the odd reference here or there, it could have been written last year.  

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) by Muriel Spark

prime of miss jean brodie
Maggie Smith played Miss Jean Brodie in the movie version of the book
Book Review
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)
 by Muriel Spark

   By the end of 1960, the modern day cultural industrial complex was in full swing.  Manifestations of the mature cultural industrial complex include the then increasingly common experience of taking a work in one medium (book) and turning it into another medium (movie, television, play.)  Another manifestation of the mature cultural industrial complex was the transfer of works from one geographic market to another.  The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was the kind of transatlantic hit that places it in many "top 100 novels of all time" list.  It was initially published in the New Yorker, then brought out as a book, then made into a film starring Maggie Smith.

   The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie features a light touch that masks the darkness that lurks at the center.  After 50 pages, you might think you were reading a Scottish version of Madeline, the children's book about the French school girl, but by the end, it is clear that The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a very adult book.  Spark uses the narrative tricks pioneered by the modernists, she jumps back and forth across time and between the perspectives of multiple narrators who hide various facts from the reader.

Cider with Rosie (1959) by Laurie Lee

The Cotswolds are in the west of England, facing the Southern Welsh border.  Cider with Rosie is the story of a childhood spent in this region.
Book Review
Cider with Rosie (1959)
by Laurie Lee

   Most of English literature is about London or about people who live in London.  Characters tend to be upper class or the educated middle class, with relatively few belonging to either the rural or urban working classes.   Thus, Cider with Rosie, which concerns the poetic boyhood of a boy in the Cotswolds, in the west of England near the southern Welsh border, is as novel as the authors of emerging areas like Africa, South America and Asia.  The characters in Cider with Rosie live not 200 miles from central London, but they might as well be from Mars.

  Lee's flowery prose betrays his background in poetry.  Calling the text "poetic" doesn't quite do it justice.  Lyrical, perhaps?  Which is not to say that Lee suger-coats or romanticizes the area, going so far as to describe the planned gang rape of a mentally challenged young woman at the hands of the narrator and his friends.  A plan which thankfully for the reader, does not come off.   Cider with Rosie continues to maintain an Audience in England, where it was adapted for television as recently as October of last year.  In America, I'm sure no one reads it, I read a "Time Magazine" edition printed 40 years ago.  In fact, it doesn't really appear to be in print in the United States- with the exception of a small-press edition from 2014 you are looking at buying a mass market paperback version from 1982!

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) by Alan Sillitoe

Book Review
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958)
 by Alan Sillitoe

    Sillitoe is a genuine working class English author, and his territory are the urban areas of Nottingham, among the working class men and women of that region.  Arthur Seaton is a genuine working class English hero, the ancestor of both the Gallagher brothers from Oasis and the bowler sporting reprobates of Clockwork Orange.  Seaton makes good money doing piece work making bicycle parts on a lathe at a factory five minutes from his home.

  Arthur is carrying on with two married women and maintains a full "Teddy boy" wardrobe.  As a Teddy Boy, Arthur is also a literary forerunner of the mods of Quadrophenia and the Punk scene of London in the 1970s.    Arthur, or the author himself, is the best example of the "Angry Young Man" of post war English fiction.  A major difference between the Angry Young Men and the Beats of American fiction is the use of the Beats as travel as an escape hatch.  The Beats drove west, whereas the Angry Young Men simply returned to the fold and acquire a wife, child and a factory job.

The trusting and the maimed (1955) by James Plunkett

Book Review
The trusting and the maimed (1955)
 by James Plunkett

    Abortion wasn't exactly foreign to nineteenth century fiction, but was typically reserved for the fallen, desperate or both.   Abortion continues to be a hot topic in many countries, but the Irish, who until late last year banned any kind of legal abortion for any issue, stand out for their strong anti-Abortion stance among other countries in the European Union and "the West."  So I was a little surprised to read the title story in this collection of short stories about working class Irish in and around Dublim.  The trusting and the maimed is about a young couple facing the difficult choice of whether to pursue an abortion, made more difficult by the moral climate in Ireland in the 1950s, abortion is a crime and perpetrators can go to prison AND hell for any attempt, in addition to having to deal with the type of people who will assist with abortions in that kind of environment.


Things Fall Apart (1958) by Chinua Achebe

Young Chinua Achebe
Book Review
Things Fall Apart (1958)
 by Chinua Achebe

   Things Fall Apart was the first novel I read on assignment in high school.  In college, my literature professor was a (white) specialist in African literature and had played some kind of role in cementing Achebe's reputation in the west (Achebe taught at Bard University between 1990 to 2011 (he died in 2013.)  To revisit Things Fall Apart as an adult is both to appreciate it as a perfect school book and appreciate Achebe himself, now deceased.   Achebe never won the Nobel Prize for Literature, more or less incredible considering his commonly described status as "the Father of African Literature."

   You can't argue with the fact that is the first novel written by a black African author that 99% of Western readers encounter.  It's shocking to think that Things Fall Apart was published as late as 1958.  The story details the life of Okonkwo, a moderately successful farmer living in the land of the Ibo, the primary ethnic group in Southern Nigeria (and the group that suffered in the so called Biafran civil war.)  in the late 19th century.   The events of Things Fall Apart straddle European colonization by the English and the impact of the introduction of Christianity to the Ibo population.  

Monday, January 18, 2016

Voss (1957) by Patrick White

Book Review
Voss (1957)
by Patrick White

   I was so surprised that Werner Herzog hasn't made a film based on Voss, the 1957 Australian novel by Patrick White, that I had to check the internet to make sure that he hadn't.  Voss is a German explorer, based on the real life Ludwig Leichhardt.  In the mid 19th century, Leichhardt tried to traverse the continent of Australia, failing miserably and disappearing into the out back, never to be found.  The same could not be said of his possessions, which were periodically discovered in the custody of Aborigines, leading to speculation that Leichardt was murdered by them.

  Like a hero from a Werner Herzog movie, Voss moves against impossible odds, in the face of all rational thought.  He is joined on his fruitless quest by several locals and a few aborigine guides, all except one of whom desert him well before the end.   White includes almost 70 pages of post-script, with several chapters concerning the discovery of one of the members of the party, alive, some 20 years later in Sydney.  This post-script serves to wrap up the bizarre "love interest," Laura Trevelyan, a woman in Sydney.  Voss and Trevelyan have a sort of psychic bond even though they spend most of the book thousands of miles apart as Voss wanders in the desert.

  This not-love interest makes Voss even weirder than the explorer lost in the desert plot would make it seem.  Maybe more like Werner Herzog meet Sofia Coppola.

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