Dedicated to classics and hits.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017 by Jesmyn Ward

Book Review
Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017)
 by Jesmyn Ward

    The 2017 National Book Award ceremony is next week, November 15th (Watch it live on Facebook!)  Sing, Unburied, Sing is the last of the five nominees, and the only one of the five books I actually bought. Jesmyn Ward is the only one of the five nominees with a prior win, in 2011, for her novel Salvage the Bones.  The National Book Award isn't big on repeat winners- unless I'm missing something it looks like Saul Bellow (3 times) is the only repeat winner.

  To recap, the other four nominees are Dark at the Crossing by Eliot Ackerman, The Leavers by Lisa Ko, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and Her Body and Other Stories by Carmen Machado.  Only Her Body and Other Stories (short story collection) isn't a novel.  The National Book Award has given out multiple awards for short story collections, so this isn't a disqualification for actually winning, but it is for me.   Both Pachinko and Dark at the Crossing are written by American authors, but neither book has much to do with America itself.  Pachinko has nothing to do with the United States at all, except for the nationality of the author.  Dark at the Crossing features an Iraqi-American protagonist, but the book takes place on the border of Turkey and Syria.

  Looking back at the list of recent winners, only Europe Central, by William T. Vollmann stands out as a book whose only connection to the USA is via the nationality of the author.  I would say that lack of sufficient connection to the United States via the setting or characters is a reason not to give the prize to those nominees.  That leaves Her Body, The Leavers and Sing, Unburied, Sing.  It's pretty hard to fathom- considering the lack of repeat winners in the past history of the National Book Award- to imagine that Ward will break that trend.  The Leavers is what remains.  Before I wrote this post, I would have said my two favorites were The Leaver and Sing, Unburied, Sing.

  Sing, Unburied, Sing is wild: Set in the under-class of rural Mississippi in the present day.  There are a collection of narrators- a young interracial boy with a black Mom and a white Dad.  The child is the primary narrator, but he is joined by the voice of the Mom, the voice of the black/Native American Grandfather and, this being 2017, a ghost or two.  In fact, ghost narrators seem to be very in vogue in the upper echelons of literary culture at the moment- see Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, which just won the 2017 Booker Prize in the UK.

  Ward ranks high both in terms of her descriptive realism and her inventive technique.  It's not exactly magical realism, but the spirit world is omnipresent.  The Leavers, on the other hand, is a conventional bildungsroman about an ethnically Chinese boy who is adopted by white American parents.   That is a most conventional set up- only the novelty of the viewpoint, particularly the chapters written from the perspective of the Mom elevate The Leavers into the orbit of a potential prize winner.  So The Leavers- that would be my pick/guess.

The Master of Petersburg (1994) by J.M. Coetzee

Book Review
The Master of Petersburg (1994)
 by J.M. Coetzee

  So very many J.M. Coetzee novels in the 1001 Books project.  It's like they ran out of ideas in 1988 and just decided to pitch a dozen Coetzee titles into the mix.  I mean, sure, the Booker winners, OK, I get it.  And throw in another books a decade- what is that- five titles?  The 1001 Books project has like, a dozen Coetzee books in the first edition.

  The Master of Petersburg uses Dostoyevsky as his narrator and main character, returning to Russia during his German exile to investigate the circumstances behind the untimely death of his estranged step son.   As it turns out, his son has fallen in with a rag tag bunch of (real life, historically based) Nihilists and he bounces between them and the Czarist investigators, who suspect his son of being involved with said nihilists.   The version I read was an American paperback edition released after his 2003 Booker Win- in line with the idea that The Master of Petersburg is a second-tier Coetzee novel, which still makes it good enough to be in the 1001 Books project.

The End of the Story (1995) by Lydia Davis

Book Review
The End of the Story (1995)
 by Lydia Davis

  Lydia Davis is mostly known as the creator and master of "flash fiction;" stories that are one or two sentences in length.  Here is an example:

The Outing
An outburst of anger near the road, a refusal to speak on the path, a silence in the pine woods, a silence across the old railroad bridge, an attempt to be friendly in the water, a refusal to end the argument on the flat stones, a cry of anger on the steep bank of dirt, a weeping among the bushes.

    Davis was also married very briefly to Paul Auster, and is also a well known translator of French fiction, including Proust.  She's been a finalist for the National Book Award (2007) and she won the Man Booker International Prize in 2013- kind of a lifetime achievement award for otherwise non-qualifying (American) authors.  All that said, The End of the Story was a drag- a middle class white woman tale of woe- about an academic who is trying to recall an affair with a much younger man.  Literally everything about The End of the Story is sad, presumably on purpose, but I think the melding of the European style philosophical novel with the anomie of educated white women in the late 20th century is a disastrous formula for literature. 

    At this point, I could go half a decade without reading another European style philosophical novel/post modern novel written by a white, educated American.  There simply isn't a lot of interest there, from a literary viewpoint, that hasn't been done a million times before.  Add into the mix the emergence of a mulitiplicty of non white/educated/American voices within the space of the novel, and it just makes book like The End of the Story feel like a waste of time.  Sad educated white woman, maybe read a Toni Morrison novel and tell me about sad then.

  Also, flash fiction sounds dumb to me.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Her Body and Other Parties (2017) by Carmen Maria Machado

Book Review
Her Body and Other Parties (2017)
by Carmen Maria Machado

  Her Body and Other Parties was a surprise nominee for the National Book Award this year.  The debut short-story collection by Carmen Maria Machado was published by a small, regional press in Minneapolis with support from the Minnesota state government and Target Corporation.   Beyond that, Her Body and Other Parties is edgy and dark, many of the individual stories containing elements like unreliable narrators, post-apocalyptic back drops, participation by super natural forces in every day life- you know, spooky shit.

 So in that regard, the commercial angle seems pretty clear cut- there is potential interest from genres like speculative fiction, LGBT fiction (Machado is a lesbian, as are almost all of her narrators) and then there is also the literary pedigree of Donald Barthelme and the post-modern short story- or George Saunders, to use a more recent example.

  Does Her Body and Other Parties read like a National Book Award winner? No.   But just the nomination has to be a career maker for Machado, and I'm sure she'll get a deal with more books.  It's just, for me, a collection of shot stories will always lose out to a novel, that the only reason I don't see it as a potential winner.  But the National Book Award does give out the fiction award to short story collections frequently, so that bias doesn't apply to them. 

The Folding Star (1994) by Alan Hollinghurst

Book Review
The Folding Star (1994)
 by Alan Hollinghurst

  It bears repeating that when it comes to embraces LGBT culture, the United Kingdom has lagged behind other English language countries like the United States.  The "normalization" of gay male life in the British isles had to wait until well into the 20th century.  Alan Hollinghurst is the premiere contemporary novelist representing the viewpoint of a "normal" gay man from England living in the late 20th century.  His career has been representative of a serious literary author who hasn't had a break out cross-over hit.  He's not well known in the United States.  He did win a Booker in 2004, for The Line of Beauty, which is thematically similar to The Folding Star, in that it covers the experiences of a young gay man with a middle class background who grew up in England.  A major difference between the two is that prize-winning The Line of Beauty takes place inside England and The Folding Star takes place in Flanders.

  In Flanders, he falls for a variety of guys, a Moroccan street hustler type, his young tutee (he is making a living tutoring students in English.),  a Dutch hustler who makes his living with dirty videos and phone sex.  There is a healthy portion of unflinchingly depicted gay sex, perfectly normal, with no moral overtones.  The sex though is just an aspect of the author's realism, refreshing, coming as it does during the great hey-day of post-modern lit. No narrative tricks, difficult to follow plot or multiplicity of voices.  Hollinghurst does a good job of integrating his fictional present with accurate historical details about the role of the local community in World War II. 

  Flanders is the capital of the northern part of Belgium, which is Dutch speaking and has historical ties to the very idea of "greater Germany" that Hitler was so insightful to exploit.  It's an area where questions of 20th century ethnic identity are very much at issue, and perhaps Hollinghurst is trying to draw a comparison to contingent ideas about gay rights evolving over time.  

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