Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

The Busconductor Hines (1984) by James Kelman

Book Review
The Busconductor Hines (1984)
 by James Kelman

  The Busconductor Hines is what you might call "Scottish kitchen sink realism," about said Busconductor (as supposed to Bus Driver) working on the Glasgow city bus system.  For those who don't know the "Glasgow Effect" is the unexplained phenomenon by which the life expectancy of people from Glasgow is ten years lower than for those living outside of Glasgow.

  The events take place over a few days,  Hines loses his job, and gets it back at the end... I think.  He's got an unhappy wife, a young baby (or Bairn as he calls it) and a shitty bedsit in Glaswegian slum.  Hines needs to wake up super early to get the work, except when he has a super late shift.  For whatever reason, he has trouble getting up on time.  That was a personal trait I've never understood, like, either you need to get up and you do, or you don't need to get up, and you don't, but Hines is very much a connoisseur of the alarm clock, and Kelman treats the reader to an "Eskimo words for snow" situation describing the various ways Hines fails with his alarm clock.

  The Busconductor Hines was Scottish writer James Kelman's first novel.  He would go on to win the Booker Prize in 1994, and Hines is, I think, the only novel on the list that captures the (now familiar, to me, I think) Glasgow patter/slang.   Kelman also throws in a hefty gob of graphic sex and enough swearing to bring down the wrath of effete English literary critics.  In this way, he is a clear antecedent of Irving Welsh.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

The Temple of My Familiar (1989) by Alice Walker

Book Review
The Temple of My Familiar (1989)
by Alice Walker

    There is a fairly typical, pan-artistic discipline career path followed by artists who achieve a significant combination of critical and popular success in the mid to late 20th century:  The breakthrough work is typically conventional, but something that brings new life to the form.  After that, the artist rebels against the early success.  Musicians start side projects, or change their sound.  Authors create pseudonyms or publish works that radically push against what is "acceptable" within the form at the time.  Studio artists switch art forms or abandon successful themes.  Continuing to mine the veins that brought you initial success is frowned upon among communities of successful artists.

  The Temple of My Familiar is a good example of an author taking flight after publishing a career defining hit.  The Temple of My Familiar contains a multitude of plots and characters, and delves deeply into past life and recovered memory theory, while containing characters of (almost) all races and genders.  I wouldn't call it a masterpiece, but it is a very interesting book for those interested in the mind of Alice Walker.  Walker was never "just" a novelist- her career spanned journalism and academia.  Before she struck gold with The Color Purple, she almost single-handedly revived the memory of early African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston (she literally uncovered her unmarked grave in Florida.)

   Walker also directly addresses the irrational hatred of whites by African Americans, though she attempts to explain it away by using recovered memory instead of copping to what is essentially a rational attitude for any African American (I don't agree with it, I just understand the why.)

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Melancholy Resistance (1989) by László Krasznahorkai

Book Review
The Melancholy Resistance (1989)
 by László Krasznahorkai

   Krasznahorkai is the second Hungarian language author to make the 1001 Books list.  The other author is Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertesz, so that makes Krasznahorkai the SECOND most famous Hungarian language novelist in English.   Unlike Fatelessness, Kerteszs' straight forward Holocaust memoir, The Melancholy of Resistance is an avant-garde, paragraph-less fantasia about a nameless town plagued by a mysterious circus, a dead whale and a shadowy mob of hooligans.  Did I mention that this book has no paragraphs?

  Aside from the total lack of paragraphs- there are chapters, thank god, The Melancholy Resistance avoids any kind of signaling to the reader so that the story unspools "in real time."

An Artist of the Floating World (1986) by Kazuo Ishiguro

Book Review
An Artist of the Floating World (1986)
by Kazuo Ishiguro

   Kazuo Ishiguro's career is a testament to the strength of the novel as an art form.  He was the child of Japanese emigrants to England, grew up in England, never went to Japan, wrote books written in English, set in Japan, then wrote books about England- won a Booker Award for Remains of the Day.  Remains of the Day got made into a movie that turned into a world beater, both critically and in terms of box office receipts.  

    The extent to which An Artist of the Floating World is "about" an actual historical Japan- it is set in an unidentified Japanese city during the American occupation period after World War II- is a matter of some debate.  Ishiguro grew up in post War England- not Japan.  Floating World is written in English. Masuji Ono- the aging painter who narrates Floating World, is coming to terms with his ill-fated participation in the Japanese war effort via his propaganda posters- the Shep Fairey of his day, as it were.

   In the present, he grapples which arise as a result of his un-analyzed role in Japan's disastrous experiment with totalitarianism.  One of his daughters is on the eve of marriage, and he worries that his history will destroy the match.  He makes his way to his former compatriots- including one who was actually imprisoned directly as a result of his denunciation, and eventually acknowledges moral culpability in a very, very, very, Japanese way.

  The question of "authenticity" as it relates to an obviously good novel written by an English language author of Japanese ancestry who was raised in England is a curious one.  I would argue that Floating World demonstrates that the novel- either written in English or translated into English- becomes, in the late 20th century, an art form which transcends the original language. 

A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989) by John Irving

Image result for simon birch
Actor Ian Michael Smith played Owen Meany (Simon Birch) in the movie.  Smith suffers from Morquio syndrome, a type of dwarfism. 
Book Review
A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989)
 by John Irving

   A Prayer for Owen Meany is one of those "popular, critically acclaimed artist at the top of their game" releases that is well received upon release, but ages badly.  The aging process was not helped by a movie version that was so bad that Irving forced the makers to rename the film (Simon Birch).  In 2017, reading A Prayer for Owen Meany was a tedious experience.  First of all, it's something like 650 pages long- well over a thousand pages in the large print edition I accidentally checked out from the library.  Despite being 650 pages long, Owen Meany doesn't cover a whole lot of territory- basically it discusses the friendship between John Wheelwright, the mini-scion of a regionally important Maine family, and his dwarf-like best friend, Owen Meany.

   A Prayer for Owen Meany is about a lot of things:  friendship, religion, family tragedy, New England private school education, the Vietnam War and the Reagan era Iran Contra shenanigans.  Narrated from a present where Wheelwright is teaching girls school in Canada, a forty year old version, he recounts the shared life of himself and Meany through Meany's untimely demise (not a spoiler, Wheelwright makes clear in the first chapter that Meany has been deceased for some time).

   Irving is nothing if not consistent, if you wanted to change the names around you could almost put The World According to Garp, Cider House Rules and this book in order and call it one book.   Personally, I don't think that Irving is going to a canonical author a century for now.   His books just aren't arty enough and they are long, long, long.  His milieu, that of straight white men from New England coming of age in the mid 20th century, are highly unlikely to evoke the kind of revival interest among academics of the kind sparked by representatives of less familiar groups, none of the movie versions have made it to "classic" status.  No one is ever going to that John Irving is "cool" ever again.

  The main argument for Irving's canonical inclusion is his continued popularity with a mass audience.  As I'm writing this, the most recent edition of this book is a top 5000 Amazon title, followed closely by Cider House and Garp.  John Irving is still being read, in other words, and an author who combines critical and popular acclaim is likely to stay canonical as long as said works continue to be purchased by a large audience. 

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