Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Book Review: Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958) by Truman Capote

Audrey Hepburn was a proto-Manic Pixie Dream Girl in the movie version of Breakfast at Tiffany's

Book Review
Breakfast at Tiffany's (1958)
by Truman Capote

     Holly Golightly is one of the original Manic Pixie Dream Girls, she is even listed on the wikipedia table which contains examples.  Audrey Hepburn played in her in her iconic turn in the movie version of the book, and it is fair to say that it some version of the picture above that leaps to mind when I think of Breakfast at Tiffany's, either film or book version.  The book is a novella, maybe one hundred pages long.  It's told from the perspective of "Fred" a Capote-esque narrator struggling as a writer in World War II era New York City.   His downstairs neighbor is Holly Golightly, who like many other Manic Pixie Dream Girls is both irresistibly attractive to a wide variety of men, but who has more fraught relationships with members of her own gender.  This characteristic of hers is manifested in the parties she throws in her apartment, which typically have only one female guest (Golightly).

  Breakfast at Tiffany's has a reputation as being a work of light fiction, but the book is darker than that reputation.  As is gradually revealed, Golightly is a former child bride from Arkansas, who fled her (admittedly not terrible under the circumstances) her "probably illegal" wedding for Hollywood, then wound up in New York City.  She is enmeshed in a conspiracy to allow a jailed mobster to run his rackets from inside Sing Sing.  In the end, she flees indictment for South America, never to be seen again.

  Capote was already famous before the publication of Breakfast at Tiffany's, but his critical reputation wasn't truly cemented until after his magisterial true crime opus, In Cold Blood.  In Cold Blood would also be his last decent book.  Like his contemporary J.D. Salinger, the lack of finished works turns Capote into another mid century "What If", firmly ensconced in the canon as the result of one masterpiece and another less masterpiece, but not a top flight author for the ages.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Franny and Zooey (1961) by J.D. Salinger

The bathtub scene in the The Royal Tenenbaums owes an obvious creative debt to a similar scene in Franny and Zooey (1961) by J.D. Salinger.

Book Review
Franny and Zooey (1961)
by J.D. Salinger

  Not having read Franny and Zooey, I was surprised to read a short story + novella book that immediately brought to mind the Wes Anderson film, The Royal Tenenbaums.  Franny and Zooey is a short story (Franny) and a novella (Zooey) both published in the New Yorker, about two siblings in the Glass family, who, for all intents and purposes, might as well be the Tenenbaums of the film.  Among the many other resemblances is a sequence in Zooey where he (Franny is a girl, Zooey is a boy) has a fraught conversation in a bathtub with his mother, mirroring the conversation between Margot Tennenbaum and her mom in The Royal Tenenbaums.

  I understand that the Glass family was a frequent subject of Salinger's short fiction, basically the subject of all of his works that weren't The Catcher in the Rye.  Their intellectualism and neuroses would carry the day in 1960s and 70s popular culture, even as Salinger retreated from the spot light and literally refused to write.

Survival in Auschwitz (If This is a Man)(1947) by Primo Levi

Book Review
Survival in Auschwitz (If This is a Man)(1947)
 by Primo Levi

  "The Holocaust" is a synonym for genocide.  It differed from genocides of the past in its sheer scope and ambition, as well as in its use of modern industrial technology to exploit and kill its victims.  Going to Hebrew school in Northern California during the 1980s and 90s as I did involved learning A LOT about the Holocaust.  In fact, learning about the Holocaust is the thing I associate most with the Jewish religion.  I'm not sure that was really a good move on the part of my local reform synagogues.  We're talking about education that started when I was in kindergarten and lasted until my 13th birthday.  That is the time period where I was learning to associate the cold blooded murder of six million people, including many of my religious kin, with the religion of my family.

  I remember thinking distinctly (and still kind of feel this way) that the Holocaust is in fact a rebuke to the very concept of God, and certainly a counter-argument to any contention that God is anything other than a really mean deity.  Despite being innundated with Holocaust related information, we were never provided Primo Levi's excellent Holocaust survival memoir, Survival in Auschwitz (known most elsewhere as If This is a Man.)

  Levi, already in prison in fascist Italy for his anti-fascist activities, was removed to Auschwitz in February 1944.  His late arrival at Auschwitz certainly accounts for the fact that he survived.  The horrific, chilling moments during Survival in Auschwitz start on page one, with a description of his transportation from Italy to the camp in over-stuffed cattle cars, continue through the arrival and initiation at the camp, with Levi matter-of-factly describing how arrivals were almost randomly sorted into two groups, one for the work camps, and the other for the gas chamber. Although the gas chambers lurk in the distance, Levi was spared any direct encounter with the actual machinery of death.

  Life in the labor camps was no picnic, and maybe the most chilling process described was the use of a culling mechanism to free up space when the camp got overcrowded.    Some of Levi's experience weren't unique to the Holocaust, and fit within the larger genre of 20th century prison camp memoirs.  Survival in Auschwitz is one of maybe only three actual memoirs to make it into the 1001 Books list.  I wonder if maybe that will change in future versions of the list.  I wouldn't argue with the inclusion of Survival in Auschwitz, but it seems like there might be many more non-fiction memoirs worth including.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Pale Fire (1962) by Vladimir Nabokov

Book Review
Pale Fire (1962)
by Vladimir Nabokov

  I won't say that it is a crime that Nabokov never won a Nobel Prize for Literature, but it is a puzzler.  He may be the only author with five or more titles on the original 2006 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list to not lose any in the subsequent revisions to that list.  Pale Fire is an early example of what would later come to be called "Meta Fiction."  This tag line typically refers to books written after 1960, in which the author plays with the convention of the novel, introducing techniques derived from other literary formats.

  In Pale Fire, the book takes the form of an annotated poem written by (the now deceased) poet John Slade, and annotated by his friend, Charles Kinbote.  After the poem, the rest of the book is devoted to Kinbote's length line-by-line annotations, mostly regarding the fictitious land Zembla, and the flight of the King after a Soviet backed coup.  

  Any discussion of the plot or method of the book will inevitably lead to spoilers, so I'll leave it at that.

A Severed Head (1961) by Iris Murdoch

A Severed Head (1961)
by Iris Murdoch

   Sex is a major theme in 20th century literature.  From the battles over literary obscenity, to the ongoing proliferation of online pornography, controversies over sexually explicit literary content and the line between "obscene" and non-obscene content remain relevant today.  Discussions over sexual content in literature are also deeply related to the larger issues of both women's rights and LGBT rights.  It is unfortunate that many of the literary pioneers in the area of the depiction of sex in literature are also typical white males, excluding them from that wider discussion.  It is unfortunate because writers like D.H. Lawrence are important pioneers in this area, and because they were actually read, not just by white men but by the entire audience for literature at that time and later.

  Iris Murdoch sits on that cusp of being both included and excluded from that post 60s, feminist and gender studies informed discussion.  She herself was bisexual but her characters were not.  She wrote about sex in interesting ways, but her characters were the kind of upper class, white, English types that were becoming deeply unfashionable in the mid to late 20th century.  

  This is the first book in the 1001 Books project that adopts the casual attitude towards sex, intimacy and relationships that would dominate the discussion during the sexual revolution.   Martin Lynch-Gibbon is a wealthy 41 year old, married to an older woman, and childless.  He has a 26 year old mistress, and his wife is in ongoing therapy with his best friend.  Within the first 20 pages, his wife announces that she is having an affair with the therapist and that she wants a divorce.  She is unaware of the 26 year old mistress.   Lynch is despondent at the prospect of losing his wife, but handles the news with "maturity."  The therapist's half sister is introduced, the title of A Severed Head refers to her work as an anthropologist specializing in "savage tribes."

   By the mid 1970s, this plot would be the stuff of romantic comedies, but in 1961 it must have come as a shock, and serves as a testament to Murdoch's sophisticated treatment of human sexuality.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Book Review: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) by John Le Carre

Richard Burton played Alec Leamas, British secret service agent in the move version of John Le Carre's 1963 novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

Book Review:
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)
by John Le Carre

  Any fan of the genre would agree that Graham Greene, Ian Fleming and John Le Carre are the "holy trinty" of Cold War era spy fiction.  Greene is the elder statesman, with spy novels that pre-date the Cold War proper, but who set the tone of foreign settings, action and moral ambiguity which characterize the genre.  Ian Fleming is the red-blooded son, the athlete, the son who is good with girls.  He removed much of Greene's ambiguity and amped up the exoticism and the action sequences.  If Fleming is the flesh and blood son, then John Le Carre is the ghost, the member of the trinity who heightens the moral ambiguity and decreases the flash and bang of Ian Fleming's James Bond.

  John Le Carre's work is characterized by its straightforward assertion that both side on the Cold War were willing to do whatever it took, and that the West was in no way morally superior to the Eastern bloc, both sides were shitty.  Le Carre's "main character" is English Secret Service agent, George Smiley.  If you didn't know that this series of books early in Le Carre's career are called the "George Smiley series" you wouldn't glean it The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.  In this book, Smiley is a minor character to the point where he barely appears in the text.  Not having read the two prior books in the series, where Smiley is more prominent, I didn't figure out Smiley's role until the very end.

  In this book, Alec Leamas is the bureau head in Berlin, working for the English Secret Service.  He has a bad run of getting his agents killed by Mundt, an ex-Nazi now working for the East German Secret Service.  Leamas is recalled to London where he is enlisted in a plot to remove Mundt.  The plot precedes in rapid steps, though his prose is a step above the pulp-fiction-esque work of Ian Fleming, Leamas does not spend as much time struggling inwardly with moral dilemmas as does a Graham Greene character.

  Leamas feigns being tossed out of the service and even gets himself thrown into prison.  Upon his release the East Germans are quick to recruit him as a defector, and it all plays out in more or less familiar fashion.  Even though I am largely unfamiliar with Le Carre, I did see the recent Phillip Seymour Hoffman Le Carre movie, A Most Wanted Man, and they display a surprisingly consistent moral tone. 

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1962) by Giorgio Bassani

The 1970 movie version of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis won the academy award for best foreign film.

Book Review
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1962)
 by Giorgio Bassani

  The Garden of the Finzi-Continis depicts the existence of Jews during the rise of Fascism in Italy.  At the beginning, many of the older family members are actually Fascist, and the descent into virulent antisemitism is depicted through a silky gauze, with the social standing and wealth of the titular Finzi-Continis providing a shade from "reality" through much of the book.

  The narrator is a young Jew who is university educated, but from a middle class family.  He falls in love with Micol, daughter of the wealthy Finzi-Contini clan.  It's a doomed affair, for many reasons, not the least of which is Micol's lack of desire for the narrator and their differing social status.  As time advances, Jews are banned from their usual haunts, and the tennis court of the Finzi Contini's becomes a hub of activity for young Jews, most of whom are pursuing graduate level education in the absence of better activities in now-officially anti-Semitic Italy.

  It's not until the very end of the book, after the narrator has been firmly dissuaded of any romantic intentions toward Micol, that the darkness of the Italian Fascists really starts to manifests.   The extermination of the entire extended Finzi-Continis is alluded to, but not in any deep or emotional way.   Growing up, I was generally aware that the Italian Jewish community had suffered during World War II, but that their suffering was less than that of other Jewish communities who were in closer proximity to the Nazi's.   That awareness is backed up by the experience of the narrator and the extended community of Jews in this book.  The narrator himself avoids deportation to a concentration camp, and alludes to waiting out the war in an Italian prison.

  Bassani was a key figure in post-War Italian literature.  He published The Leopard, another classic post-War Italian novel, and this book rounds out the Italian experience in literature from the end of World War II through the early 1960s.  It was a fecund period for Italian literature, including the mannered neo-realism of film and book, the gritty realism of Pasolini and the beginnings of Fellini's exotic artistic career.

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