Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Social Media Links

  I added my social media links on the side column, since currently I only have an email address listed ha ha.  Here they are posted on the blog proper:

Facebook (personal)

Group Portrait with Lady (1971) by Heinrich Boll

Image result for heinrich boll
Heinrich Boll, OG meme.
Book Review
Group Portrait with Lady (1971)
 by Heinrich Boll

   Group Portrait with Lady is typically referred to as Henrich Boll's masterpiece.  In 1972, Boll was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the accompanying Press Release issued by the Nobel Prize committee said, "Last in line comes his most grandly conceived book [,] Group Portrait with Lady, published only last year."  (Nobel Prize Official Website)  Later in the same statement, the committee refers to Group Portrait with Lady as his "crowning achievement."  Unlike his other books on the 1001 Books list, Group Portrait with Lady is lengthy, just over 400 pages in standard hard back format.

   Group Portrait with Lady  takes the form of an investigation of the main character, Leni, the daughter of wealthy construction magnate (at the beginning of the novel).   Leni lives in western Germany, and the spectrum of her experience in the wash of World War II ranges from people like her father who were Nazi's as a business opportunity to various Communists, Jews and Western Germany "separatists" who are trying to survive the war.   The investigation consists of dozens of interview's with Leni's friends and family, the narrative takes the form of the familiar "oral history" beloved by publications like Spin and Rolling Stone.  Boll is no stranger to a kaleidoscopic narrative with dozens of narrators, but in Group Portrait with Lady the introduction of a narrator/collector makes it much easier to read than his other books.

    The format- a post-some-undisclosed-event investigation of the protagonist, assumes that Leni requires explaining, that she has done something bad in the present of the book, and this misdeed is barely hinted at, let alone discussed.   This lends the narrative some weight, and unifies the dozens of separate interviews covering the whole of her life.   It is rare to see such a straight forward relationship between a single work and the award of a Nobel Prize for Literature.  The Nobel Prize for Literature has two major rules: 1. It doesn't award the prize for a specific work. 2. It doesn't award the prize to dead people.  Thus, for the prize and a single book to be tied so closely together is a notable achievement in the field of 20th century literature.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Moll Flanders (1722) by Daniel DeFoe

Kim Novak played the licentious Moll Flanders in one of several movie versions.

Book Review:
 Moll Flanders (1722)
by Daniel DeFoe

      Moll Flanders was first published in 1722. It was written by Daniel Defoe, three years after he had a huge success with Robinson Crusoe. Defoe didn't start writing fiction until his mid-50s- before then he was a journalist/rabble rouser/terrible business man (the chapters in Moll Flanders that describe the debtors prison of Newgate are written with such accuracy because Defoe himself spent time at Newgate).
Poster for the Kim Novak starring movie version.
            DeFoe's protean "novel" is written in the form of an actual biography- writing fiction at that time and place was considered a sin.   The novel as an art form did not exist, and the idea of a novel as "high art" a la 20th century modernism (Think Joyce, Beckett and Proust) did not yet exist.  There are no chapter breaks, spelling and punctuation are intermittent. At first I was worried that the utter lack of form and structure would make Moll kind of a bummer but the unfamiliarity of the form was counterbalanced by the... bawdiness? The ribaldry? The lewdness?

         I tell ya'- Us Magazine and TMZ got nothing on ole' Moll Flanders. Moll is an orphan. She's taken in by a local town official. Both of the son's of the family fall in love with her, one takes her for his whore/mistress, the other one wants her to marry him. Then she gets married to her brother (unknowingly!). She moves to Virginia, moves back, falls for a banker, but marries a wealthy gentleman but it turns out he has no money, becomes a thief, gets caught and moves back to Virginia.

     It's no wonder that this story has been made and remade time and time and time again into movies, tv mini series and made for tv movies. Time and time again I found myself thinking, "this was published in 1722?" It's no wonder the Puritans were disgusted with English culture and left for America!

    Reading Moll Flanders rather put my conscience at ease about societies obsession with the tawdry details of "tabloid" culture. Apparently, it's been the same way since the very birth of the novel itself. Perez Hilton, TMZ, Jerry Springer & Moll Flanders. It just takes time for the appreciation to grow!

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1981) by Douglas Adams

Martin Freeman as Arthur Dent and Zooey Deschanel as Trillian in the (terrible) 2005 movie version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1981)
 by Douglas Adams

  The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was originally commissioned by the BBC as a radio play in 1978, only later did it become the hit book.  Like many young adults of my generation, I reveled in the entire Hitchhiker's Guide series.  I hadn't read any Kurt Vonnegut then, having the benefit of having read Vonnegut now, it's clear that Adams represented a kind of wry English take on the pop/philosophical novel that Kurt Vonnegut epitomized in the 1960's and 1970's.  As I was recently re reading Hitchhiker's Guide for the purpose of this post, I have imagined that Vonnegut's wandering sci-fi author Kilgore Trout was going to show up.
Image result for zooey deschanel trillian
Zooey Deschanel playing Trillian in the 2005 movie version of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
    My fondness for Hitchhiker's Guide waned as I grew farther away from being a wise ass pre-teen, the final nail in the coffin was probably when Zooey Deschanel got cast as Trillian in the 2005 movie (even though Martin Freeman was literally the perfect actor to play Arthur Dent.)  Actually it was the movie itself, which reminded me that the source material was not as clever as I had once supposed it to be.
Image result for hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy
This Green alien with "Don't Panic" became the symbol of the Hitchhiker's Guide
   I will say that Adams' was almost uncanny in his ability to grasp future developments in astro-physics and technology.  His ideas about parallel dimensions and hyper-speed travel seem less comically outrageous and more like potentially spot on in 2016.   Most impressively is the Hitchhiker's Guide itself, which essentially sounds like Wikipedia 15 years before Wikipedia existed. Pretty impressive for a 1978 English radio play.

      Clearly, the enduring popularity of Adams among young adults speaks to his abilities as a novelist.  In 2016, his less popular but still fantastic Dirk Gently: Holistic Detective has been caught up in the groundswell of peak television.  No question that is his grasp of COMEDY- something that Vonnegut, for all his wit, never seemed to be able to wrap his arms around, that has proved the key to Hitchhiker's Guide enduring appeal with popular audiences.

Robinson Crusoe (1719) by Daniel Defoe

Pierce Robinson played Robinson Crusoe in the 1997 Australian-American film version of the 1719 novel by Daniel Defoe.
Book Review
 Robinson Crusoe (1719)
by Daniel Defoe

               As I sit here, revising this post which I wrote back in February/March 2008, I feel like at the time I read Robinson Crusoe- 2008- still the earliest stages of this project (in fact, perhaps before the project crystallized as a part of this blog), I did not appreciate it's significance in the history of the novel.

In August 2013 we'll be reading children's fiction: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe.:
Cover of the Penguin Classics editions of Robinson Crusoe.  One of the benefits of 18th century books is that they are all public demain and freely available on Kindle, Audio book, etc.
                Hard to believe that there was a time when Robinson Crusoe wasn't deeply embedded in the western psyche.  As I sit here on my couch, it's easy to come up with a dozen contemporary reference points: Lost, that shitty Tom Hanks well you get the idea.  Two contemporary reference points.  Like Moll Flanders, Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe as a "biography", and like Flanders, people believed it.  In fact, for many it is the character, not the author that people know and remember.
"The narrative voice of the castaway is Defoe's stroke of genius. It's exciting, unhurried, conversational and capable of high and low sentiments. It's also often quasi-journalistic, which suits Defoe's style. This harmonious mix of tone puts the reader deep into the mind of the castaway and his predicament. His adventures become our adventures and we experience them inside out, viscerally, for ourselves. ":
The set of illustrations done by N.C. Wyeth for his 1920 edition of Robinson Crusoe have become the standard set of illustrations for this book.  Here, Crusoe is pictured in his island paradise.

             Regardless, Crusoe is an important precursor to the novel and after reading the book, its easy to see why.  Defoe's protagonist is recognizable as a modern hero.  Before I started Crusoe I had the vague idea that the book would start and end with him marooned on a desert island.  Not so.  Crusoe starts out as a young lad in the UK.  He wants to go to sea, his dad tells him to stay home.  He goes anyways.  He hooks up with some Portuguese traders, gets captured by a Moorish pirate, escapes, is rescued off the coast of Africa, ends up in Brazil, starts a plantation, goes on an expedition to capture slaves(!) AND THEN he gets shipwrecked.

The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner / Daniel Defoe:
N.C. Wyeth's illustrations did much to anchor Crusoe as a 19th or 20th century bourgeois, reconstructing his bourgeois existence in exile.

    So. He's on the island, and he builds his own little world.  The meat of the book alternates between his explaining his various innovations (builds a goat pen, farms some rice, builds a house) and making exhortations to god about his miserable fate/how lucky his is not to be dead.)  This goes on for roughly 24 years(only 150 pages of text, tho.)  Meanwhile I'm thinking, "Didn't he have a sidekick?  Friday?  Isn't Friday in this book?"

Robinson Crusoe and man Friday, 1874:
The relationship between Crusoe and Friday, shown here on an 1874 postcard, is the only part of the narrative that seems in any way dated, but he was in line with the spirit of his times.
    And then- voila- Friday shows up- Crusoe rescues him from some Caribbean cannibals- and from there Crusoe's solitude is broken.  Despite the archaic spelling/grammar & syntax Crusoe is a quick, easy read.  It's almost like reading some kind of literary archetype- a kind of narrative that lies at the center of who we are as modern individuals.

I think individualism is at the center of Robinson Crusoe.  Crusoe's solitude is an early example of an internal, subjective narrative.  We all live in Crusoe's world now, but it's easy to see why it was such a smash in 1719- it must have spoken deeply to the rise in individualism that coincided with with the rise of other aspects of modernity in the 18th century.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Tristram Shandy (1767) by Laurence Sterne

Trustram Shandy: frontispiece of vol 9 by Hogarth
William Hogarth  (1697 to 1764) is a famous English artist now remembered for his engravings,  Sterne commissioned Hogarth to do a set of images for the first editions of the several volumes of Tristram Shandy as they were published in the 18th century. 
Book Review
Tristram Shandy (1767)
by Laurence Sterne

    I first wrote about Tristram Shandy in an early 1001 Books Project review from 2008, where I discussed it in terms of the 2005 film, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.  In retrospect, this was an error, first because nobody gives a fuck about Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden, the stars of that film.   On the other hand, the importance of this book in mind as being one of the top 10 most important novels ever only increases with time.  I've twice revisited the original review in an attempt to give this work a more fitting description on this blog.
Tristram Shandy: pages 146 and 147 of vol. 6 with a blank page where the reader is encouraged to draw own picture
Part of the playfulness of the original edition of Tristram Shandy can be seen in the text itself, as is the case here on pages 146 and 147 of Volume 6, where the reader is invited, in the facing page, here the reader is invited to make a sketch of the Widow Wdaman.

       The modern trend is to see Tristram Shandy as a forerunner of modernism and post-modernism in terms of use of non-linear plot development and self-referential characters.  Describing Tristram Shandy in such a fashion diminishes its instant popularity upon time of publication and its enduring popularity a century or more before the rise of "modernism", let alone "post-modernism."

Tristram Shandy: p169 of vol 3, with marbled paper
The so-called "marbled" page came at page 169 of volume 3 of one of the original editions of Tristram Shandy.

      Perhaps the tone of the above two paragraphs suggests some of the rabbit holes that dog any interpretation of Tristram Shandy. I will say that although it took me six + months to actually finish it, this is one of those "classic" novels that can actually inform your understanding of contemporary life- not to mention literature, and as such it is worth the investment of time & energy.
    Returning to this review some six years later, I feel compelled to include a summary of the story.  I've included a summary from the website "Sparknotes" on the theory that it is a well written summary:

There are, nevertheless, two clearly discernible narrative lines in the book.
         The first is the plot sequence that includes Tristram's conception, birth, christening, and accidental circumcision. (This sequence extends somewhat further in Tristram's treatment of his "breeching," the problem of his education, and his first and second tours of France, but these events are handled less extensively and are not as central to the text.) It takes six volumes to cover this chain of events, although comparatively few pages are spent in actually advancing such a simple plot. The story occurs as a series of accidents, all of which seem calculated to confound Walter Shandy's hopes and expectations for his son. The manner of his conception is the first disaster, followed by the flattening of his nose at birth, a misunderstanding in which he is given the wrong name, and an accidental run-in with a falling window-sash. The catastrophes that befall Tristram are actually relatively trivial; only in the context of Walter Shandy's eccentric, pseudo-scientific theories do they become calamities.
             The second major plot consists of the fortunes of Tristram's Uncle Toby. Most of the details of this story are concentrated in the final third of the novel, although they are alluded to and developed in piecemeal fashion from the very beginning. Toby receives a wound to the groin while in the army, and it takes him four years to recover. When he is able to move around again, he retires to the country with the idea of constructing a scaled replica of the scene of the battle in which he was injured. He becomes obsessed with re-enacting those battles, as well as with the whole history and theory of fortification and defense. The Peace of Utrecht slows him down in these "hobby-horsical" activities, however, and it is during this lull that he falls under the spell of Widow Wadman. The novel ends with the long-promised account of their unfortunate affair.  (Sparknotes)

         The key to understanding Tristram Shandy's long term appeal is understanding the way author Laurence Sterne anticipates modernist technique, but the quality that makes it readable for a larger audience is the humor.  The humor is centered in the Uncle Toby, a guy who probably had his junk shot off fighting Napoleon and after becomes obsessed with re-enactments of that same battle.   I would say that the chances of any reader who doesn't "get" the humor of Uncle Toby is a long shot to finish reading Tristram Shandy.

Watership Down (1972) by Richard Adams

The animated versions of the rabbit-characters of Watership Down, published in 1972, written by Richard Adams
Book Review
Watership Down (1972)
by Richard Adams

   Richard Adams is a good example of a one hit wonder, an author who struck gold with a left-field hit of a first novel (Watership Down), who then spent the rest of his career trying to replicate that level of success.  When he died on December 24th of 2016, there was almost nothing to say about him besides writing Watership Down.  Watership Down was explicitly written as a children's book, and the author specifically denies any allegorical purpose, but the tale about a group of male rabbits setting out into the unknown with the purpose of starting a new warren, functions equally as a well as a ripping yarn for any adult who still digs stories about talking animals.

  At 450 pages, stretches the definition of "children's literature."  If it was released today it would no doubt be classified as "young adult," which is indeed how the Los Angeles Public Library has it classified.  Watership Down has the quality of many hits across different artistic genres during the 20th century:  It successfully evokes the tradition of the children's novel, while adding depth and complexity to the reading experience.   I've read Watership Down before as a lad, and this time around I was taken by the craft of it all.  For example, it is easy to see the influence of the Odyssey/Iliad and A Thousand Nights and a Night (Arabian Tales) both in technique and the actual story itself.

  Adams grants the rabbits (and other animals) human level intelligence, but maintains a scrim by using an omniscient narrator, a story teller, if you will.   The message is overwhelmingly one a contemporary reader will recognize as "environmentalist" in that humans play a limited and unsympathetic part in the proceedings.

  Watership Down was famously told as a children's story by the author to his children, and was then just as famously submitted and rejected by several publishers before finding it's initial run of 1500 or so copies printed and distributed in the UK.  US rights were then purchased and it proved to be a great hit in the United States, leading to renewed attention and of course, more sales.  The book that Watership Down most resembles, and the book it is probably most often read alongside, is Animal Farm, by George Orwell.  I'm sure Adams himself would reject the comparison, and maybe that accounts for much of the charm of Watership Down.  The allegorical targets are vague to the point where it would be hard for anyone to take offense.

  Watership Down also seems to draw inspiration from the early animated films of Walt Disney, with Bambi, released in 1942, which Adams, being a living human being, likely saw.  Or perhaps both Adams and Disney were inspired by the same antecedents, English fiction going back to Alice in Wonderland and fairy tales before that.  It is an undeniably rip roaring yarn, easy to finish in a day or so even given the length.  Also if you've read it before. 

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Broken April (1978) by Ismail Kadare

This Albanian fortified tower was used as an off limits refuge by those marked for murder under the laws of the Albanian kanun.
Book Review
Broken April (1978)
by Ismail Kadare

  Ismail Kadare is number one Albanian novelist, winner of the first International Booker Prize, international best seller in French translation, perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature and emissary of Albanian culture in the West.  He had two books on the first edition of the 1001 Books list and then added and lost an additional title since then.   Broken April is a refreshing change of pace from other "European" novels from this time period, most of which fall in the category of Existentialist inspired philosophical novel.  Broken April, on the other hand, is about the Albanian highlands, set in the early 20th century, but it could be set in the middle ages for all the modern world intrudes on the setting.

  The main facet of this Albanian highlands culture is the vibrant tradition of honor killings, which are known to span a dozen generations and result in dozens of deaths on each side, each death prescribed by rules from the kanun, a quasi legal code that governs this region in place of any kind of central government authority.  This kanun lays down the laws for the ritualized honor killings that are a central institution of this place (Albanian highlands) and Kadare tells his story in a way that blends objective reportage with the characters and motives of a traditional novel.   The interlocking narratives switch between a young man who has just committed an honor killing and a young couple from the capital, Tirana,  travelling through the highlands in the style of young people from the city travelling through the sticks anywhere.

Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) by J.M. Coeteze

Phillip Glass composed an opera based on Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coeteze.
Book Review
Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)
 by J.M. Coeteze

  Waiting for the Barbarians didn't win the Booker Prize, but it was singled out in the Nobel Prize for Literature statement, calling it a worthy heir to Joseph Conrad.   Coeteze's colonial administrator is working towards a quiet retirement in a fictional location- it could be Africa, it could be Asia.  His placid existence is disturbed by the arrival of a representative from the central government (a colonial empire) amid rumors of increased activity of "Barbarians" beyond the frontiers./

  The plight of the good-natured colonial official in the face of undescriable horror stretches back to Conrad, other examples of similar books are The Opposing Shore by French author Julien Gracq, published in 1951,  There is also the Italian language novel, The Tartar Steppe, published in 1940 and written by Dino Buzzati.   Waiting for the Barbarians represents an advance in thematic complexity, in that the administrator/narrator lives among the colonial subject.  His relationship with a captive from the Barbarians, left behind by her people after suffering grevious abuse at the hands of the local soldiers, consitutes the major action of Waiting for the Barbarians.  In other similar books, including those by Conrad, the natives are always held at a remove, never fully described, a consciously dictated "other" for the purpose of the authors.

   For my money, the lineage of novels that starts with Conrad is THE best strand of 20th century literature.  The progression from the narrators of Conrad to the literature of Africa and Latin America is direct and unmistakable, even if Conrad himself functioned as an apologist for the colonial regimes.   Coeteze represents a direct African response to this literary heritage, and Waiting for the Barbarians is a powerful and succinct contribution to world literature.

Summer in Baden Baden(1981) by Leonid Tsypkin

Baden Baden still has casino's today/ Dostoyevsky spent most of his time in Baden Baden inside of one such casino.  He was not a good gambler.
Book Review
Summer in Baden Baden(1981)
  by Leonid Tsypkin
Translated from the Russian by Roger and Angela Keys
New Directions edition 2001
Foreword by Susan Sontag

 Summer in Baden Baden is firmly in the category of "late discovered masterpiece."  The 1981 publication date I'm using refers to the initial Russian language publication in an obscure Russian language periodical for Communist Era exiles.   The English translation didn't appear until 2001, when it got a nice hard back edition from New Directions and a snazzy foreword by Susan Sontag.
Tsypkin was a classic example of the Soviet era practice of "writing for the drawer"- he worked as a doctor in Communist Russia and never published for fear that he would lose his job and possibly face imprisonment.

  He lost his job anyway- after his son emigrated, but he didn't publish until the very end of his life, and actually died days after Summer in Baden Baden made him a "published author" for the first time in his life.   The title refers to a trip to the then gambling/spa mecca of Baden Baden made by Dostoyevsky and his wife.  Tsypkin intersperses Dostoyevsky's tale of gambling inspired madness in Baden Baden with his own trip to see a Dostoyevsky museum in contemporary Russia.

  Tyspkin was obsessed with the verisimilitude of his description of the Dostoyevsky's trip to Baden Baden, made all the more astonishing by the fact that Tsypkin never left the Soviet Union from in his lifetime.   Summer in Baden Baden is also notable for Tsypkin/'s prose style- full of run on sentences and feverish descriptions that breath life into the historical figures of Dostoyevsky and his wife.

Blog Archive