Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

City Sister Silver (1994) by Jáchym Topol

Book Review
City Sister Silver (1994)
 by  Jáchym Topol

   500 pages, and written in a "new" form of informal Czech that mirrors Anglo-American novels written in the "language of the street,"  City Sister Silver presents a challenge for ANY reader, and, if like, basically everyone in the Western world, you are wholly unfamiliar with Czech culture outside of Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel, that challenge is all the greater.

  You have to admire the editors of the 1001 Books giving the Czech language five books on their first version of this list, where Chinese has ZERO and all of the languages of the Indian subcontinent have ZERO.  That is five books for a country with 10 million people, and zero books for China, with close to a billion.  What you are telling me is that the editors in charge of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die, putting together their list in 2005, 2006, couldn't think of a SINGLE Chinese language book to put on this list, but giving the Czech's give, including three by Milan Kundera, seemed perfectly appropriate.

  On top of the difficulties of translation and cultural specificity,   the narrative style of City Sister Silver is close to being stream-of-consciousness, with little or no set-up to tell the reader who is talking, what they are talking about and how it relates to other episodes in the novel.   At various points, Topol's translated prose evokes William Burroughs, the "cyber punk" of William Gibson, and early 20th century modernists like Joyce and Gertrude Stein.

  The plot, I couldn't even begin to describe, except to posit that the main character is a man named Potok, that he has a girlfriend named Cerna and that both live in a post-Communist Prague where Potok is involved in "bysnys" that ranges from arms trafficking in the third world to the manufacture of snuff films. It seems, based on the tone, that drugs must be involved, but I couldn't point to a passage which says that.   Some episodes: The recollection of the struggles of medieval Czech's, and the graphic description of the aforementioned Czech snuff film, stand out in the memory for their raw power, but I don't even know what to say after that, and I really question why this book was included.

Friday, October 20, 2017

The Buried Giant (2015) by Kazuo Ishiguro

Book Review
The Buried Giant (2015)
 by Kazuo Ishiguro

  The Buried Giant was Kazuo Ishiguro's first novel in a decade and I think that it is fair to observe that it was practically a flop in terms of the initial critical reception.  I'm not sure how it sold, but I'd imagine it didn't do that well.  Then he goes and wins the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature.  Boom. Instant revision.  The Nobel Prize for Literature is only given to active authors, and I would surmise that they like to give it to writers who are still at the top of their powers- if you follow the "inside baseball" type Nobel Prize for Literature information, you will learn that authors often have a Nobel Prize "window" that they age out of- basically, if you don't win it when you are on top, you will not win it as a "career achievement" award.

  I think it is perfectly acceptable to look at the last work published before the Nobe Prize for Literature is awarded and see it as the work that put a given author "over the top.'  So for Kazuo Ishiguro, that work is The Buried Giant, the same book that was, essentially, deemed a failure by critics not two years ago.  I remember being disappointed when I read those same reviews- at the time I still hadn't read any Ishiguro (and I still haven't read The Remains of the Day.)  I have read A Pale View of the Hills (1982) and An Artist of the Floating World (1986.)   

  The awarding of a Nobel Prize for Literature is unmistakably a canon making experience.  First, it secures canonical status for anyone who wins and already has a sale track record in the English language publishing industry.  Second, any author who exists outside that universe gets a fair shot, classic works translated into English for the first time, new works get immediate translation and a decent marketing budget.   Ishiguro is firmly in the former category- an English writer (of Japanese ancestry) writing in English, with multiple hits and hit movie versions of the hit books.

  For an author like Ishiguro the questions is whether one has to go back, revisit his non-canonical works and perhaps add additional books.  It also puts all future and present books in the "must read" category, as far as potential canon status goes.   Clearly a short-term reevaluation of The Buried Giant is in order. It's a work of fantasy, squarely set in the literary Arthurian world/universe that it shares with books like The Once and Future King by T.H. White and The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley.  Despite abandoning the contemporary/historical realism of his other books and embracing the fantasy milieu, everything about The Buried Giant is unmistakably the work of Kazuo Ishiguro.   Characters drift around in a (literal in this book) fog of amnesia, living in the aftermath of the Arthurian wars where King Arthur (Briton) defeated his Saxon rivals.

  I don't believe I'm spoiling anything by revealing that The Buried Giant is an allegory for the very 20th century problem of ethnic cleansing and internecine civil war.  Telling a potential reader that fact does nothing to defeat the magic of the story, which revolves around Axl and Beatrice, an older couple living in a Britonic community.  They want to visit their son, who lives several days away by foot (only mode of travel in that period).  On the way they get pulled into various adventures, featuring several recognizable legendary Arthurian characters.  And, you know, based on him winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, you'd have to say that critics were wrong about it being a boring waste of time.  I was quite engrossed by the story.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Trainspotting (1993) by Irvine Welsh

Image result for kelly macdonald trainspotting

Book Review
Trainspotting (1993)
 by Irvine Welsh

   Trainspotting is one book where the reader never need feel ashamed that he only read it after seeing the film.  IN FACT, Trainspotting the book wasn't even published in the United States until the movie version came out in 1996.  The book, like the movie, is known for it's affectionate, comedic look at a decidedly unaffectionate, uncomedic milieu, that of Scottish junkies and casuals during the AIDS era.

  I was a fan of the film- saw it three, four, five times?  Twice in the theater in the United States, once in the theater in London (the Prince Charles in SOHO), maybe twice on DVD.  The affection I felt for those lovable Scottish junkies in college has diminished over the years.  The book did not particularly impress me, specifically I've also been reading some James Kelman novels, and he does basically the same thing with much more swagger.

  The book is unsurprisingly rougher than the hit film.  In particular there is an omitted plot about the revenge one of the characters seeks against another street punk who infected his girlfriend with AIDS.  Much of the dialogue in the film is drawn directly from the book.  To me, there was little difference between the two.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The 7th Function of Language (2017) by Laurent Binet

Book Review
The 7th Function of Language (2017)
by Laurent Binet

  Whether or not you are a good candidate to read Laurent Binet's detective novel about the death of Roland Barthes in 1980 likely depends on 1) You knowing who Roland Barthes is 2) You being interested in him, and other similar figures like Foucault, Derrida, J.L. Austin and other real life figures from French and American Academia in the 1970's and 80's.  One needs a passing familiarity with this world to derive any pleasure from The 7th Function of Language and actually getting all the "jokes" requires more than that.

  I think it is possible to read The 7th Function of Language as a kind of history of this time period- this "time period" being the period in the 1970's and 1980's when French semiologists were in direct and sometimes bloody conflict with Anglo-American analytic philosophers.  It was a war fought in the halls of American Academia and the stake were control of the so called "linguistic turn" which more or less sought to place a detailed and dense discussion of language at the center of the humanities.  All sides agreed that language was crucial to understanding the larger questions of philosophy.  On one side, Anglo-American analytic philosophy said that it WAS possible to derive some kind of ultimate meaning from the usage of language by humans, with the French taking the opposite side- more or less.

  Binet tucks this real historical debate into his work of fiction- into the title, even, The 7th Function of Language, which refers to a 'magical' or 'performative' function of language that allows "words to do things."   In the book, Barthes is supposedly murdered after a meeting between him and would-be French President Francois Mitterand to discuss the usage of this function in the upcoming French election.  Investigator Bayard quickly picks up a French graduate student/professor as his guide, and together they delve deeply into the world of Foucault (smoking cigars, getting his dick sucked, and lecturing the reader at the same time), Althusser, Derrida as well as their American counter parts, during a third act trip to Cornell University.

  In addition to knowing, generally, who all these people are, it also helps to know some of the underlying controversies- to which Binet frequently refers.  For example, much of the French cultural theory from this period, typically known as semiotics, was based on  detailed analysis of 17th and 18th century French literature which is completely absent from the English canon.   Another example, almost all of French cultural theory is based on the ancient tradition of rhetoric.  In fact, you can't understand any of the mentioned authors if you don't have a basic grasp of what rhetoric was, and the very mechanics of the plot- involving a group of ferocious debaters called the Logos Club, requires an appreciation of the centrality of rhetoric to the European philosophical discussion.

  So if you've made it to the end of this review, and understand what I said, you will probably enjoy The 7th Function of Language, and if you don't, just forget it.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

History of Wolves (2017) by Emily Fridlund

Book Review
History of Wolves (2017)
 by Emily Fridlund

  The 2017 Man Booker Prize gets handed out on Tuesday.  History of Wolves is the longest of long shots- a first time novel by an American author, written about far northern Minnesota.  History of Wolves is squarely in the genre of 'creepy lit'- in it's North American guise History of Wolves closely resembles Annie Proulx and The Shipping News in the way the "exotic" landscape and story share space in the narrative.    The plot elements of History of Wolves are both alien and familiar:  A failed commune, Christian Scientist belief.   The narrator is a woman, looking back on a formative child hood experience.  Fridlund doesn't play hide the ball- there's a dead child at the center of it all, and this information is revealed on the second page.

   This is the only entry on the 2017 Booker Prize shortlist that surprised me via its inclusion.  I mean it's good no doubt- and I was actually in this area- well- as far North as Duluth, anyway, this year- so I get the appeal, but the book itself didn't stand out and my personal feeling is that the creepy lit genre is a tad on the dowdy side.

  Fridlund also weaves in what can only be described as a "sub plot" about a teacher/student sex scandal, and I found that bit frankly to be not compelling.  Also, I was left wondering what the two plots had to do with one another.  A good piece of regional fiction to be sure, but not a prize winner.

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