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Friday, May 20, 2016

Book Review: The Trees (2016) by Ali Shaw

The Trees by Ali Shaw,  published in paperback on August 2nd, 2016
Book Review:
The Trees (2016)
by Ali Shaw
Paperback edition published on August 2nd, 2016
Published by Bloomsbury USA
(Buy Hardcover version on Amazon)

   Ali Shaw is a young English novelist.  He lives and works in Oxford.  The Trees is his third novel, coming after The Girl With Glass Feet (2011), which was lauded as the top debut novel by the Desmond Elliot Prize.  He followed The Girl With Glass Feet with The Man Who Rained (2013). All three books combine elements of magical realism and fairy tale's with standard Anglo-American characters dealing with difficult emotional issues made worse by circumstance.

  In The Trees, that circumstance is a Day-of-the-Triffids-meets-The-Road style plant uprising.  In a single night, global civilization is utterly annihilated, and the survivors are left to make their way in a world that is fairly benign when compared to say, the nightmarish dystopias of The Road and The Walking Dead, but worse than a world where one can pop down to the Tesco for a rotisserie chicken.  Adrien Young, the married, childless protagonist is very much a pop down to the Tesco for a rotisserie chicken type of guy.  On the night of the tree uprising-apocalypse, he is winding up a year of "searching for himself" at the behest of his to-good-for-him wife, currently on a work trip to Ireland.
 He quickly hooks up with a troupe of survivors, a hippie single mom and her tech savvy mom and a young Japanese tourist who happens to be aces with a slingshot. They have episodic adventures of the sort one might expect in a book of this type, and there is also a larger plot concerning Adrien and his destiny.  The most unusual and distinctive aspect of The Trees is the creation of Adrien as not an anti-hero but a non-hero, a literary equivalent of Seinfeld's George Costanza, thrust into the post-apocalypse world.

  At 500 pages in length, The Trees isn't exactly a challenging read, but it's not something you can take down in a weekend.  It is extremely, extremely easy to see this work being adapted either for English or American TV or Film.   It's long enough to warrant a series on television, but compact enough to be turned into a stand alone feature film.  Given the popularity for apocalyptic themes in popular culture, such a move would be expected.

  Shaw successfully skirts the line between adult subject matter and writing something that sophisticated adolescents can enjoy.  There are moments of graphic violence, but nothing more upsetting than anything on television today (and significantly less violent than comparable cross-media properties like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead.

The German Lesson (1968) by Siegfried Lenz

Siegried Lenz, West Germany's second biggest literary author after World War II.
Book Review
The German Lesson (1968)
by Siegfried Lenz

  The success of Marcel Proust and his Remembrance of Things Past marked the coming of age of the anti-picaresque, "memory novel."   This type of novel, for which Remembrance of Things Past is the first and still greatest example, inverts the picaresque model of the narrator who goes everywhere and learns nothing with a narrator who goes nowhere and learns everything.

 Although the picaresque was well in decline by the time Proust rolled around, it left an indelible imprint in the genetic code of the novel, inspiring successor genre's like the bildungsroman/coming of age.  The picaresque also echoes in the world of genre fiction, detective novels, science fiction, all those sorts of books maintain a direct connection to the picaresque tradition.

 The inversion of picaresque in the form of the "memory novel" took firm root across multiple artistic disciplines in the mid to late 20th century, finding particular traction in the area of "art film" in places like France, Italy, Sweden and the United States from 1950 to the present.  The German Lesson is an excellent illustration of the development of this genre by a German author.  The narrator in The German Lesson is Siggi Jepsen, the son of a policeman in the most northern part of Germany, along the border with Denmark. In the present of the novel, Jepsen is serving a three year sentence for theft at an island juvenile detention facility.

  At the beginning of The German Lesson, Jepsen is placed in solitary confinement  so he can finish a paper on the "joys of duty." The story that unfolds through the medium of his school assignment is a complex tale involving Jepsen's father, the stern policeman of his home town and his persecution of a local painter (and longtime friend) Max Nansen.

  The events take place during and after World War II.  Schweig-Holstein, the province where Jepsen, his father and Nansen live, is far from the front.  Nansen, the persecuted painter, is based on real-life expressionist Emil Nolde.  The landscape, surrounded and bisected by water on all sides, low to the ground mirrors the limited palette of emotions displayed by Jepsen's father.  Lenz's decision to place Siggi Jepsen on an island, miles away from the location of the majority of events in the book, serves to highlight the alienation from family and land that plagues Jepsen.

  And indeed, one could read that  alienation from family and land as a metaphor for all thinking Germans after World War II, those who were perhaps vaguely uneasy with parts of the Fuhrer's plan for Nazi Germany but either did nothing to oppose it or continued the roles they served in the German state prior to Hitler's rise.   Nansen and Jepsen's father represent two poles on that spectrum- Nansen- who is actively persecuted by the Nazi state but stays in Germany and tries to make the best of a very bad situation, and Jepsen's local policeman father, who becomes increasingly obsessed with following his concept of "duty" to its utmost conclusion, in the face of virulent opposition from both friends and loved ones.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The First Circle (1968) by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Book Review
The First Circle (1968)
by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

   The collapse of the Soviet Union was a bitter sweet moment for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  On the one hand, he survived to see the collapse of the entity that was responsible for sending him to a series of prison camps for making fun of Joseph Stalin in a letter.  On the other, it meant the immediate downgrade of Solzhenitsyn as a saint of the anti-Communist movement to a half-crack pot/half-literary immortal in the larger field of totalitarian regimes and their excesses.  In 2016, his trilogy of fictional prison camp books:  A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle and The Cancer Ward (which is about the Soviet practice of internal exile to remote locations rather than a prison camp, per se) are more relevant for what they say about the 20th century totalitarian experience than anything specifically Russian.

  At the same time, Solzhenitsyn is an undeniably Russian writer, steeped in the technique of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.  The First Circle, or In The First Circle as it is also known, takes place in a special "Sharaskha" prison in the suburbs. The Sharaskha were special, technically skilled prisoners who were kept outside the brutal forced labor camps that comprised the great majority of GULAG priso camps.  The Soviet government used them to work on special technical projects.  In The First Circle, the prisoners devote themselves to problems with acoustics and optics.

  Solzhenitsyn develops a thin plot about a diplomat who places a warning call to a scientist who is about to be arrested for trading with an enemy nation.  The zeks, and one in particular, are asked to identify the caller based on a new technology developed by the prisoners.  The development of the plot is interspersed with lengthy descriptions about almost every significant character in regards to their pasts, and how they came to be in the special Sharaskha unit.

  These character portraits overwhelm everything else.  By the end of The First Circle, the reader gains a firm understanding of just how arbitrary and capricious the purges following Stalin's rise to power were.   Ironically, the most victimized were the Party members who pre-dated Stalin's rise to power.  These were the most loyal soldiers of the Revolution, many playing key roles in the Civil War and World War II.  And yet, it wasn't enough for Stalin who appears in The First Circle in a memorable scene that reveals him offhandedly reminiscing about the millions he's killed, his anger at the way Adolph Hitler betrayed his trust and whether or not to kill his top security officer.

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