Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Asphodel (1992) by H.D.


Book Review
Asphodel (1992)
 by H.D.

   Do not be fooled by the 1992 publication date- Asphodel was written in 1921.  The lengthy delay in publication was due to the author's explicit desire that it never be published.  The final manuscript that served as the basis for this publication had "Destroy" written across the top in red ink.  Asphodel is a fellow traveler with the experimental writers of high modernism.  She had a lengthy relationship with Ezra Pound- who is one of the main characters in this roman a clef.   H.D. (Hilda Doolittle in real life) was an important figure in modernist circles during the important years: the late teens and early twenties.  Her "rediscovery" serves as the inclusion of an important female voice in the high modernist canon.   Like many works of high modernism, Asphodel, though a roman a clef, and essentially, a combination of literary gossip and classically infused stream of consciousness, is at times impossible to follow.

  The reader gains an impression of various locations and people, but there is precious little action.  Most of the actual events of the book seem to be the narrator, sitting, lost in reflection.  That's a key difference between Asphodel and, say, Ulysses, which isn't stream of consciousness from the perspective of the author, but a fully developed novel. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Arcadia (1992) by Jim Crace


Book Review
Arcadia (1992)
 by Jim Crace


      If you want to check the current relevance of a particular novel in American culture, check the Wikipedia entry.  If it doesn't have a page, that's a 0.  If it has a page that shows copious annotations over time, that is a ten.  Arcadia, without a Wikipedia page, scores a zero on the Wikipedia test.  Crace is an English author who hasn't quite made it to the point where American audiences pay attention.   I'm not particularly surprised, but I quite enjoyed Arcadia, which I can say of many of the selected works from the early 1990's that made their way onto the 1001 Books list.  This was a weak time for literature, and the taint of the high profile "artsy" movie version of many of these books makes me questions whether the title has been selected for literary merit or because the movie just makes the book too popular to ignore.

   Crace starts with a fairly straight forward Horatio Alger tale about Victor, a street urchin turned millionaire, living in an unnamed city that resembles London or New York, contemplating his existence as he turns 80.  He is assisted in his endeavors, which include dominating the supply chain and real estate of the Salt Market, by Rook, a grocer-labor activist turned fixer.   Rook has taken to feathering his nest with cash bribes from vendors which he calls, "pitch fees."

  Crace moves backwards and forwards in time, telling the story of Victor's unusual childhood, while focusing mostly on Rook as he prepares for Victor's 80th birthday party.  Events are set into action when Rook is exposed as a bribe taker and terminated from his position.  Immediately after, Victor decides to replace the market with "Arcadia" which is familiar to many in the guise of what we might call a "food hall."

   We are kept well apprised of the economic and political ramifications of the decision, and the action unfolds against the familiar backdrop of urban real estate development.

Black dogs (1992) by Ian McEwan


Book Review
Black Dogs (1992)
by Ian McEwan

  I guess everything with Ian McEwan is pre-Amsterdam vs. post-Amsterdam, Amsterdam being McEwan's 1998 smash hit, Booker prize winner.  Black Dogs was his second novel to be short listed for the Booker Prize.   Like many prize winning/prestige novelists working in the mid to late 20th century, there is a clear career trend of starting with shorter novels and graduating to longer novels.  Being allowed greater length and complexity is a privelge of authors with established track records, in the same way that pop artists who sell millions of copies can release double records.   Black Dogs is still prior to that period in the career of McEwan- it's not quite on par with the early work that earned him the nom de plume Ian Macabre, but it's not a sweeping meta-fictional historic epic, either.

  Rather, Black Dogs is about a pair of relationships and how they impact the narrator, an orphan seeking to delve deeper into the failed marriage of his wife's parents.  The events take place against the back drop of the fall of the Berlin wall in Germany, giving Black Dogs a temporal quality it would have otherwise lacked. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Hideous Kinky (1992) by Esther Freud


Book Review
Hideous Kinky (1992)
 by Esther Freud

   As the 1990's progress in the 1001 Books project, I begin to ask myself, at what point, exactly, does one become exhausted with depictions of white privilege?   For sure, every book written before the 1960's gets a free pass.  By the 1970's, the questions were being asked, but there was a deficit in replacement literature.  In 1992, when Hideous Kinky was published, Toni Morrison was a couple a years away from winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, and I was asking myself if this semi-autobiographical depiction of the early childhood of Sigmund Freud grand daughter Esther Freud in the wilds of boho Morocco, was really worth the admittedly minimal effort it takes to read.

  What really came to mind while I read Hideous Kinky was the antics of Ab Fab protagonists Patsy and Edina.  The Esther's character's mother seems to be a younger version of Edina.  Since the novel is written from the point of the daughter, there are no references to Freud's favorite patronage.  She is depicted living month to month on a remittance from her (presumably estranged) husband.

  I suppose the point is that this is an outrageous example of comically neglectful parenting, albeit well meaning and ultimately harmless to the children.  Like many of the "international best seller/film coming soon" books from this period, Hideous Kinky places privileged white people in unusual locations.

Oscar and Lucinda (1988) by Peter Cary


Book Review
Oscar and Lucinda (1988)
by Peter Cary

   The idea of describing a work of "serious' literature as, "An international best seller..film loved my millions..." was essentially unheard of up through the mid 1980's, but the emergence of film producers like Merchant-Ivory Productions an the Weinsteins ensured that any half way decent work of "serious"literature with a prize winning pedigree would be a solid candidate for a movie.  Oscar and Lucinda won the 1988 Booker Prize, and the Ralph Fiennes/Cate Blanchett movie followed almost immediately.

Oscar and Lucinda, like many 1001 Books participants from this period in time, is a variation on "historical meta fiction,"  set in England and Australia in the early part of the 20th century.  The nutshell of the plot, "Defrocked clergy man an wealthy female social outcast build a glass church and transport it through the Australian outback;"  gives a decent idea of the plot, but doesn't adequately describe the "meta" part of the historical fiction description.   The main "meta" aspect is an uncanny obsession with human psychology on the part of the narrator, giving a depth to the described events that would otherwise be lacking.

Oscar and Lucinda is also "about" the Anglican church in England and Australia in the early 20th century, gambling an the social mores of frontier society in Australia.  Carey proves his Booker Prize winning merit in the final hundred pages of the 576 page book (it reads much shorter), which is a legit page turning ending, more like something you'd expect from genre fiction, but with a twist, of course.

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