Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

All the Old Knives (2015) by Alan Steinhauer

Book Review
All the Old Knives (2015)
 by Olen Steinhauer

  The major bottle neck I'm facing in my book intake right now is the 15 book limit that the Los Angeles Public Library system places on holds for Ebooks and Audiobooks.  Waits of 2 to 3 months for new and popular existing releases are common.  I wouldn't be shocked to wait six months for a particularly popular title.   The problem is especially acute for Audiobooks and so inevitably I'm going to forced to expand my reading in genre fiction.  The relevant genres would be crime fiction, science fiction/fantasy and spy stories.   All three genres have spawned canonical authors in recent decades, and detective fiction seems to have particularly influence non-genre literary fiction.  You really can't throw a rock without reading a contemporary work of literary fiction that lacks at least a hint of detective fiction in terms of theme, style or characterization.

  So here I am reading a 2015 novel by the intriguing but still solidly genre bound spy fiction writer Olen Steinhauer.   The benefit of reading genre fiction is that it tends to sell well, and this makes it readily available.  For example, no wait to borrow the Audiobook version from the library (5 of 7 copies available!)   Another benefit of reading genre fiction is that it is not challenging.  The negatives are that genre fiction is, by definition formulaic, and- this is particular to spy novels- it is incredibly white. White and well educated- is there any spy novel in existence that does not have a well educated, white, protagonist?

   That certainly isn't the case for detective fiction, and certainly not the case for science fiction/fantasy, both of which have active minority communities of artists and audiences.   All the Old Knives scores a zero on the diversity meter, but Steinhauer is a cleverer-than-most writer, and the format of All the Old Knives: Two old lovers meet in a restaurant in Carmel-by-the-sea (No one calls it that in California) two discuss the murder of a plane full of passengers by hijackers, an event which happened when both of them were stationed at the Vienna station of the CIA.

   As it turns out, there was a mole feeding information to the terrorists on the plane and the book sets out reveal who done it and why.  Personally, I wasn't surprised by any event on this book, up to and including the plot twists.  I also found the motivation of the mole lacking.  Not really something to discuss without spoiling the third act, but I didn't buy it one bit.   There's a movie version in development.  Interested to see how that turns out.


An American Marriage (2018)by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Tayari Jones, author of the much lauded novel An American Marriage.

Book Review
An American Marriage (2018)
by Tayari Jones

  2018 was a break-out year for American author Tayari Jones.   Her novel An American Marriage was a selection for the Oprah Book Club, was subsequently optioned for a movie version by Oprah, made it onto the best-seller list and made it to the short list for the National Book Award.  A Pulitzer Prize wouldn't seem out of the question at this point.

     I can understand why An American Marriage has elicited such positive feedback.  The story is about a young African American couple, Roy and Celestial, who, seem on track for membership in Atlanta's African American elite in the beginning of the book.  Roy is a first generation college student bursting with ambition, Celestial is a recent arts graduate, the daughter of a wealthy Atlanta area inventor, who has a viable artistic career as a maker of dolls.

    Jones alternates narration duties between Roy, Celestial and Andre, Celestial's childhood friend.  The near-idyllic and brand new (a little over a year) marriage is traumatized when Roy is arrested for raping a white woman in a motel near his hometown in Louisiana.  While Jones is undoubtedly a talented writer,  I found the circumstances leading to his conviction- the only piece of evidence being a cross-racial eyewitness identification by the victim- to be less than compelling.   I'm not saying that cases like this aren't possible, but it just didn't sound right to me.  For example, the utter absence of DNA evidence, the absence of which surely would have exonerated Roy well before trial.

    But of course the reader needs to accept the premises of the author, and it is really the consequences of this wrongful conviction- i.e. Roy's lengthy imprisonment while his appeals make their way through the state and federal court system, which form the backbone of An American Marriage.   Large parts of An American Marriage take place in epistolary format, the rest is first person narration by the three main characters.

   I managed to land a copy of the Audiobook from the library after waiting three months.  Since the entire book is either epistolary or narrated from a first person perspective, it makes for a solid Audiobook, but the emotional content is so charged that I found myself wishing I had the book instead, if only so I could shut it for a moment here and there and give the revelations time to settle. 

Friday Black (2018) by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

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American author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Book Review
Friday Black (2018)
 by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Published October 2018 by Mariner Books

 I've been coming to terms with the need to read more collections of short-stories.  It is, after all, the best way to get a handle on newish type authors who will shortly be releasing novels.   It is also a format that has really come into it's own in the past decade in terms of recognition by the literary prize authorities.   For example, Alice Munro, the Canadian short story writer won the Nobel Prize in Literature a few years ago.  The National Book Award has more or less regularly rewarded short story collections in the past couple decades.  George Saunders, who finally published his first novel after a lifetime of short story collections, won the Booker Prize.

   Saunders taught Adjei-Brenyah when he was attending the Syracuse MFA program, and it is hard not to think of the influence of Saunders on Adjei (and to be fair almost every other short story writer looking to break into the literary big time.     Friday Black, Adjei's debut collection of short stories lands somewhere between Saunders and the dystopian Netflix tv show Black Mirror in terms of his themes.   Many of the stories herein contain a combination of the experience of African American men in contemporary (or slightly post-contemporary) America, and almost all of the stories contain a critique of consumer capitalism.

  Friday Black is worth looking up, and I'm excited to see what Adjei will do next.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Melmoth (2018) by Sarah Perry

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English Author Sarah Perry, 

Book Review
Melmoth (2018)
by Sarah Perry

   Sarah Perry first came to international attention with her second novel, The Essex Serpent, currently sitting on my bookshelf in hard back form, borrowed from a witchy friend of mine.  Her new book, called Melmoth, is a gender inverted, modernized version of the 1820 gothic classic, Melmoth the Wanderer, which itself is loosely based on the story of the wandering Jew. 

   Perry mimics the technique of Maturin, who weaved together a variety of narratives in a method that would strike a modern reader as "post-modern."  Incredibly, Perry and, I suppose, her publisher, seem to assume not only that the reader has not, themselves, read the original, but that they have not even heard of the original book.   In fact, one of the characters refers to the original novel as being essentially lost to modern readers.  That would probably come as a surprise to the publishers of the Oxford World's Classics series, who keep Melmoth the Wanderer in print.  It might also surprise the editors of the 1001 Books list, who included the Maturin book as a core title of their canonical list.

   I didn't particularly like this Melmoth, as indeed I did not like the original, and I positively disliked the Audiobook edition, which I would specifically NOT recommend.   The narrator's voice actually annoyed me and there were several moments- including the reoccurring incident of jackdaws loudly cawing outside a window- which almost made me physically sick.  I've never experienced anything like that reaction for any other Audiobook I've encountered, including the amateur readers of the librivox app.  I wouldn't recommend either book, to be honest.  I have high hopes for The Essex Serpent, which I still intend to read next year.

The Stolen Bicycle (2015) by Wu Ming -Yi

Book Review
The Stolen Bicycle (2015)
by Wu Ming -Yi

   Taiwanese author Wu Ming-Yi is one of a small handful of Chinese-language writers of literary fiction who have managed to find an audience in the West.  Yi's novel The Man With the Compound Eyes was published in English in 2011 and The Stolen Bicycle followed in 2015.   It was also nominated for the Man Booker International Prize, where he lost out to Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, and her elegant collection of interlinked short stories, Flights.

  Compared to that book, The Stolen Bicycle is a much more conventional work, albeit an incredibly interesting example of what you might call "the memory novel," a sub genre of literary fiction where a character retraces the past in an attempt to solve a problem in the present.   Both The Man With the Compound Eyes and The Stolen Bicycle delve deeply into the complicated history of Taiwan. 

  This history includes a diverse indigenous population with linguistic ties to the "Austronesian" family.   These groups were overrun by Han Chinese immigrants beginning in the European middle ages and in the mid 17th century Taiwan came under the control of the Chinese Emperor.  Today, the indigenous population comprises less than 5% of the population of Taiwan.    Leading up the events of World War II, Japan made major inroads in Taiwan, eventually annexing it during the war.  During the early 20th century, Taiwanese were sent to Japan to work and for school, and many indigenous Taiwanese joined the Japanese army.

   Yi manages to integrate this complicated history, narrated by Cheng, a novelist who begins a quest to tie up a loose end surrounding his father's mysterious disappearance when he was a kid.  Yi includes several chapters about the actual development of the bicycle in Taiwan, and during the course of the book Cheng becomes an avid collector-type of bicycle.  The story develops as Cheng talks to different people who bring him closer to what he hopes is the truth.

  The Stolen Bicycle makes for compelling reading, well worth the effort, with interesting detours into the history of the indigenous people of Taiwan and the experience of those people during World War II, fighting in the Japanese army.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

I'm Not Scared (2003) by Niccolo Ammaniti

Book Review
I'm Not Scared (2003)
 by Niccolo Ammaniti

Replaces: The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster (Reviewed April 2018)

 I'm Not Scared is squarely in the "international best seller" category of contemporary literary fiction, written by Italian author Niccolo Ammaniti but going on to sell in more than 20 languages, and spawn a very well received movie version only a couple years after it was published.    I'm Not Scared reminded me of a country Italian version of an early Ian "macabre" McEwan novel.

  The narrator is a young boy, on the cusp of adolescence, who lives in a very small town in rural Italy during the 1970's.   Only 219 pages in the English translation, the never quite bucolic idyll is quickly and rudely interrupted by his discovery of a young boy being kept in a pit on a farm outside his town.   It emerges that the child has been kidnapped by the adults of the village, including his own father,  the third act is filled with action and I'm sure it is that third act/resolution of the plot that catapulted I'm Not Scared to the international sales which marked it's success.

 I'm Not Scared replaced The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster.  Auster is one of the most over-represented authors in the first edition of the 1001 Books project- almost like the editors ran out of ideas near the end of the book.  I did enjoy the Audiobook version, it was read by Auster itself, which is most unusual.

The Darkening Age (2018) by Catherine Nixey

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Journalist Catherine Nixey, author of The Darkening Age, about the negative impact of Christianity on classical civilization

Book Review
The Darkening Age
by Catherine Nixey
Published April 2018 by Houghton Miffin Harcourt

   It is not often that a work of popular history delves into the period now known as "late antiquity," covering "the time of transition from classical antiquity to the middle ages" in Europe as well as the greater Mediterranean.   This is a period of history largely associated with historian Peter Brown who wrote the standard work on the subject, The World of Late Antiquity in 1971.  He has mostly focused on the development of Christianity in this period- his biography on Augustine of Hippo, one of late antiquities most important characters remains the standard work on that subject. 

  Author Catherine Nixey is not a professional scholar, rather she covers cultural affairs for the Times of London. The Darkening Age essentially takes the narrative about late antiquity developed by a generation of post-Brown scholarship and inverts it, using this book to formulate a devastating critique of the impact that the spread of Christianity had on the intellectual achievements of classical society.  She points out, quite rightly, that scholars have continued to defend Christianity for generations after the west developed a tradition of secular scholarship.

  Nixey ably develops her thesis, but The Darkening Age is a work of synthesis, with no new research to share (not that a reader would expect that from a work of popular history.)   Few people who have read Brown and his generation of scholarship will be surprised by anything Nixey has to say, rather it's a question of her looking at the other side of facts already discussed in the specialist body of literature.   Readers without this background may be shocked by the excesses of early Christianity, or maybe not.  

Monday, December 17, 2018

The Club Dumas (1996) by Arturo Perez Reverte

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Johnny Depp played the lead in the Roman Polanski movie version of The Club Dumas by Arture Perez Reverte
Book Review
The Club Dumas (1996)
by Arturo Perez Reverte

Replaces: Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

   The replacement of Tipping the Velvet with The Club Dumas is the first true head-scratcher from the second edition.     Sarah Waters is a trailblazer for LGBT themes in literary fiction, and she has shown a strong grasp of time and place in her historical fiction.  The Club Dumas, on the other hand, is a literary detective novel that was turned into a movie called The Nine Gates, directed by Roman Polanski and starring Johnny Depp.  It's obvious that there was a dramatic under-representation of Spanish language authors in the original 1001 Books list, but most of the authors who have been tapped are straight, white men, and they are often replacing socio-economic feminist and lgbt perspectives, thereby actually decreasing the diversity of the perspectives on the list.

  Which is to say that there isn't anything particularly Spanish about The Club Dumas, which might as well have been written in Italian (a la Umberto Eco), English (America, Dan Brown) or French (The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet).   Truthfully, The Club Dumas is closer to the risible (but best-selling) Da Vinci Code than anything by Eco.   The plot combines a genuine love for old books and 19th century french fiction with a dollop of devil worship and a pinch of sex.   Of course I enjoyed it- glad I'd picked the Audiobook version- even it it was abridged, but I just don't see The Club Dumas as canon-grade.

Book Review: The Heads of Colored People (2018) by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

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Author Nafissa Thompson Spires
Book Review:
 The Heads of Colored People (2018)
by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

  The Heads of the Colored People, a short story collection by author Nafissa Thompson-Spires was longlisted for the National Book Award this year.  I actually saw this book on the shelf at the local public library when I was picking up some other books and recognizing it from the longlist, I thought I would give it a whirl.

  The Heads of Colored People is truly a short-story collection, not a novella with some odds and sods thrown in for weight.  The themes that seem close to Thompson-Spires in this collection is the situation of African American's existed in largely white or multi-ethnic environments and the impact that has on the psyche of the various short story narrators and protagonists.   For readers who share this experience, or a similar fish out of water ethnic or socio economic experience, the response is likely to be nods of recognition.  For those readers without that experience, or with only a limited amount of such experiences, the reaction might well be more one of shock and horror.

I will be excited to see what is next from this author, presumably a novel.

Book Review: Bleeding Edge (2013) by Thomas Pynchon

Book Review
Bleeding Edge (2013)
 by Thomas Pynchon

   Thomas Pynchon is eight years old, and it entirely possible that his 2013 edge of 9/11 detective novel will prove to be his last published work.  If this the case, Pynchon's published novels will fit neatly into two categories, "early" Pynchon,  V.(1963), The Crying of Lot 49(1966) and Gravity's Rainbow(1973): all considered to be classics by critics and audiences alike, all still in print; and late Pynchon: Vineland (1990),  Mason & Dixon(1997), Against the Day(2006), Inherent Vice (2009) and this book.

  If and when Pynchon gets a literary biography, I believe the primary factual question to be resolved is what, exactly he was doing between 1974, let's say, after Gravity's Rainbow had made it's splash landing in the mind of the international reading public, and 1990, when Vineland was published.  The gap corresponds neatly to the amount of time it would take to raise a single child, or the substantial period of several children between the ages of zero and adolescence.

  Later Pynchon has elicited mixed responses.  Vineland is generally the least well regarded of all his books.  Mason & Dixon and Against the Day received canonical level responses from critics but failed to land with popular audiences.   Regardless of the mixed responses, those three books make sense in that they carry a common serious purpose with his early period.   What then to make of Inherent Vice and Bleeding Edge, which are like a pair of coastal detective novels, Inherent Vice representing Los Angeles and Bleeding Edge New York City. 

   Further, Bleeding Edge is the first Pynchon novel to take on what is essentially a contemporary milieu, and the milieu is New York City on the eve of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001.  My personal memory of the release of Bleeding Edge is that it happened with barely a ripple in the public consciousness.  Pynchon, of course, does not do press, let alone participate in social media marketing in public, and nor has he done something like won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

  It is accurate to say that Bleeding Edge alongside Inherent Vice are the only two books that a reader might consider, "fun." It is also accurate to say that Pynchon at his most fun is not very fun. I almost felt out of my depth listening to the 30 hour Audiobook- had trouble keeping track of the galaxy of characters, and at several points stopped the Audiobook to Google references here and there.

  The September 11th attacks were themselves like a Pynchon plot brought to life, and surely the question must have nagged the author as he wrote this book- in which the actual attack happens near the end of the book, and off camera, so to speak.   Bleeding Edge is also, notably, a love letter to prelapsarian Manhattan, as much as Inherent Vice was a love letter to 1970's Venice Beach/Manhattan Beach.  Where both books fit with the rest of the catalog is unclear. Neither book went far enough into what might be considered middle of the road public taste to spark a best-seller level phenomenon, and both plots are detective novels- not literary fiction with detective novel elements, which seems to have alienated the critical audience that more or less stood by him between the old and new periods.

I don't think anyone can read Bleeding Edge and say it in any way damages his legacy, but it didn't win him the Nobel Prize in Literature, making Pynchon second on the list (behind Philip Roth of "most snubbed 20th century American author."  As of this writing it seems pretty clear that he won't win the award at all, a pretty harsh verdict for a titan of 20th century literature. 

Friday, December 14, 2018

Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Image result for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
                                         Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Book Review
Half of a Yellow Sun (2006)
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Replaces: Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee (Read but not reviewed?!?)

  There is no denying that Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of the pre-eminent novelists of her generation, matching critical acclaim (A MacArthur Genius Award!) with best-seller status.   Like trailblazing African novelist Chinua Achebe, Adichie is a member of the Igbo ethnicity, one of the three major ethnicities in Nigeria, alongside the northern, mostly Muslim Hausa and the Yoruba.   The Igbo are largely grouped in the South, and they had a long tradition of small polity democracy up to and through the colonial period, where the British managed to impose a degree of control through the use of "Warrant Chiefs."

  This phenomenon was the subject of Achebe's classic, Things Fall Apart, which is frequently taught to high school and college students in the United States.  Adichie moves forward in time to write her masterpiece about the Biafran  War, AKA the Nigerian Civil War,  and it's precursors and aftermath, from the mid 1960's to 1970.  Adichie splits narrator duties between three characters.  First is Ugwu, who begins the book as the brand new house boy to Odenigbo, an Igbo mathematics professor with strong nationalist sentiment.  Second narrator is Olana, the daughter of a wealthy Igbo Chieftain with significant business interests.   Olana has just returned from England at the beginning of the book, and she settles into life with Odenigbo where they both teach at a brand new Igbo centered university.

   The final narrator is Richard, a white Englishman who is engaged to Kainene, the twin sister of Olana.  Whereas Olana is something of a idealist and would-be revolutionary, Kainene is firmly his father's daughter, entrusted to developing and maintaining his business interests.   The plot shifts into motion when intermittent ethnic violence against Igbo's living outside of the southern homeland.  This in turn spurs the Igbo to attempt to secede from the Nigerian government.

    The Baifran War or Nigerian Civil War follows, and while it doesn't quite have the horror of the more recent Rwandan genocides, there is no question that it foreshadowed many of the post-colonial horrors of the African continent.   Adichie eschews the entirely male central players of the coup- certainly a subject that is well within her authorial reach, to focus on the more marginal figures of the servant boy, the well educated wife and the white boyfriend.   Both Kaniene and Odenigbo seem like typical protagonists, but depriving them of their own voice gives Half of a Yellow Sun a unique perspective.

  It is hard shaking the feeling that the entire enterprise of the Igbo succession was poorly thought out and that the ultimate victims, specifically the 2 million Igbo who starved to death as a result of a Nigerian blockade of supplies, were as much the victims of their own leaders as they were outside forces.

   This was a very good choice in the Audiobook format, with the narrator capturing the African inflected English of the Igbo, it really gave a feel for the time, place and people of Half of a Yellow Sun and I would recommend it.

Fall on Your Knees (1996) by Ann-Marie MacDonald

Book Review
Fall on Your Knees (1996)
by Ann-Marie MacDonald

Replaces: How the Dead Live by Will Self (Reviewed February 2018)

  The most surprising literary genre I've discovered exclusively via the 1001 Books list is "Southern Ontario Gothic" or you might call it Canadian Gothic.  Coined in the 1970's, it describes a literature that is similar in theme and content to American Southern Gothic.  Both genres focus on dark familial relationships and the dark side of otherwise bucolic non-urban environments (though many of Flannery O'Connor's short stories take place in a "town" environment.)

  I thought for sure that Fall on Your Knees would be considered a canonical representative of Southern Ontario Gothic, even though it takes place in Newfoundland.   Fall on Your Knees arrived in the first revision of the 1001 Books list as an "international best-seller" member, the Audiobook I listened to had "Oprah's Book Club" selection on the small jpeg that serves as a cover within the library audio app.   It is a little puzzling that it wasn't selected for the original edition, since it was published in 1996, a decade before the first 1001 Books edition was published.

  The book it replaces, How the Dead Live is an excellent candidate for de-selection since it scores an absolute zero on the diversity index, is very lengthy and not the best work of author Will Self.   Fall on Your Knees turned into a surprisingly good listen but readers with some kind of incest trigger condition will want to avoid this book.  

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Snow (2004) by Orhan Pamuk

Book Review
Snow (2004)
by Orhan Pamuk

Replaces:  Youth  (2002)by J.M. Coetzee (Reviewed March 2018)

    Orhan Pamuk is one of those authors who seem destined for a Nobel Prize in Literature.  Pamuk is prolific but maintains a high level of quality.  He is a very public intellectual who faced charges in his native Turkey for espousing politically unpopular opinions (about the Armenian genocide and crimes against Turkish Kurds.  Before his Nobel win, he was translated into English but not particularly well known by global Audiences.

  His win, in 2006, was a surprise victory over Syrian modernist poet Adunis.   Snow, translated into English in 2004, happens to be the last novel he published before the Nobel Prize win, and even though the Prize is not awarded for a specific work, writers like Pamuk tend to seen an immediate elevation of their most recent book onto best seller lists in many nations.   It's hard to imagine a generic American reader of literary fiction delving into Snow absent the Nobel Prize win.  It's a nearly 600 page book about a Turkish poet who has spent over a decade in exile in Germany, returning to the Turkish border city of Kars amidst an epidemic of young women killing themselves.

  The young women, called "the suicide girls," have all been banned from attending public schools for wearing head scarves.  Ka, the exiled poet and part time narrator, quickly gets entangled in local politics as he seeks to woo an old flame, recently divorced from her husband.  This all takes place in the city of Kars, scarred by a century of tit for tat ethnic reprisals, and in the case of the Armenians, wholesale ethnic cleansing bordering on genocide. 

  The political/military landscape in Kars is divided uneasily between the secular military (in power), jihadist guerrillas and Kurds, some jihadist and others Marxist.   The plot shifts into high gear when a theatrical impresario takes the opportunity of a timely snow storm cutting off the outside world to pull his own coup.   As the coup takes shape, scores are settled with the local radical Muslims and rebellious Kurds, and Ka navigates between the parties.

  Pamuk also moves back in time to discuss Ka's history and time in Germany, and forward in time, after Ka has been assassinated after his return to exile, after the events of Snow take place.  Snow replaces Youth, J.M. Coetzee's memoir of growing up in South Africa.  It's the second Coetzee title to get bumped off the 1001 Books list in the past week.  Like Elizabeth Costello, Youth is a minor work and came late in his career, and the replacement  title represents the sole Turkish representative on the 1001 Books list. 

Vernon God Little(2003) by DBC Pierre

Book Review
Vernon God Little(2003)
by DBC Pierre

Replaces Shroud by John Banville (Reviewed March 2018)

   I could take or leave either of these books.  Vernon God Little, written by Australian writer DBC Pierre, is what I found to be a risible "satire" about a near illiterate teen, living on the Texas border, who is accused of aiding and abetting his friend in a high school shooting massacre.  Amazingly, Vernon God Little actually won the Booker Prize in 2003, and it seems to me the strongest argument in favor of doing what they actually ended up doing: Opening up the competition to American authors.  After all, if you can give the award to an Australian who writes a book about Texas, you can give the award to a Texas who writes about Texas.

  Almost more amazingly, Vernon God Little was Pierre's first published novel, and I think you can see the trajectory of his career in his Wikipedia page: A prize winning first novel from 2003, a follow-up in 2006 that merits it's own Wiki page, and then three novels that don't have a single Wikipedia entry between them.  If a novelist who has won the Booker Prize can't even rate a stub Wikipedia entry for his fourth book, it tells you that no one is reading him. 


A Ladder to the Sky(2018)by John Boyne

A Ladder to the Sky(2018)
by John Boyne
Published November 13th, 2018

   Irish novelist John Boyne is another of those writers who exists somewhere between the firmament of international prize winning novelists and the more earth bound variety.  He is prolific, with 16 titles published since his first novel was printed in 2000.  One of his YA novels, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, made it to "international best seller" status, with a decently received but financially unsuccessful movie version.

   I was drawn to A Ladder to the Sky by a brief description that mentioned the theme of literary ambition, "A young would be novelist takes advantage of those around him to get what he wants."  The marketing material and some of the critical plaudits have identified it as a book with an LGBT theme, but such a theme, like the protagonist himself, is deeply ambivalent.

  That protagonist is Maurice Swift, from the north of England, who, at the beginning of A Ladder to the Sky, is young, good-looking, and working as a waiter at a fancy restaurant in Berlin.  There, he meets Erich Ackermann- also the first of several narrators in the book- an aging, semi-closeted novelist from Berlin.  Ackermann has made it to the canon via one very well received international best-seller type book and several lesser well known but very well written other novels.  Comfortable as a Professor at Oxford University, he sees Swift as a potential literary protege.  Less clear, at least for this first chapter, is how Swift views Ackermann.

  After an interlude featuring Gore Vidal and his palace on the Amalfi coast, Swift's English-Caribbean wife, Edith, takes over as narrator, before being replaced by Swift himself for the end.  A Ladder to the Sky is very susceptible to spoilers, and I would also recommend the Audiobook, which featured Richard E. Grant voicing Swift himself in the denouement.  

Friday, December 07, 2018

2666 (2008)by Roberto Bolaño

Book Review
2666 (2008) by
Roberto Bolaño

Replaces: Elizabeth Costello (2003)by J.M. Coetzee (Reviewed March 2018)

   2666, published after the death of the author from liver disease, seems destined to be one of those epochal books that many know and few have read, and fewer...understand.  Nearly 1100 pages in the Spanish original and over 900 in the English translation,  Bolaño left instructions that the single book published as 2666 was meant to be five different books, corresponding to the five interrelated parts.

  The central part is part four, the "Part about the Crimes" the crimes being the hundreds of femicide murders that plagued the Ciudad Juarez area in the 1990's.   Ciudad Juarez appears as Santa Theresa in the book, and it is clear that the murders described are meant to resemble the crimes from that city.
 Two of the other four parts, the first and the last, concern the mythical German language novelist Archimboldi, the first part "The Part About the Critics" being about a group of Archimboldi scholars who try to track him down, Archimboldi himself having lived in Salinger/Pynchonesque obscurity for his entire life.  The last part is written about the life of Archimboldi himself.  The other two parts are a part about an African American journalist, last name Fate, who comes to Santa Theresa to cover a boxing match, only to discovery the horror of the murders.  The final part (third in order) is the part about Amalfitano, a Barcelonan professor of philosophy, widowed, with a teenage daughter, who moves to Santa Theresa for work, and who slowly declines into madness.

    Like many of the maximalist titles of 20th and 21st century literature, simply finishing the book is enough to impart a belief that said book is "a classic."  After all, what is the point of reading 1000 pages (or listening to a 40 hour Audiobook, in my case) and saying it was just ok.  Once again in the case of a book longer than 500 pages,  I felt like an Audiobook was the right choice.  While Bolaño's background as a poet made me initially question whether I might be missing some kind of nuance from the printed page, the style of 2666 is shambolic, and admittedly so, since both the foreword and postscript point out that the author died before he finished working on the manuscript.

  Certainly 2666 has it's poetic moments, but it has also has journalist/police report style pages documenting over 100 murders, every single one of them involving the sexual violation of women, and often involving crude methods of murder: stabbing, dismemberment, strangulation.  It is enough to make the reader want to throw up, or at least to make even the most hardened true crime fan a little nauseous.   The central question, left unanswered is, "who was responsible?"

  Based on 2666 there appear to be several answers, and also several causes, but the social disruption caused by the young, female factory workers of the maquiladora industry of Santa Theresa, coupled with the status as that same place as a center of the international drug trade appear to be major contributing factors.  It seems unlikely that there was a single perpetrator, instead, some women are killed by jealous spouses, others appear to be the victims of (likely more than one) sexually violent criminal gangs.  The most outlandish theory, that the women are kidnapped, raped and murdered by wealthy businessmen and drug barons also seems to have some element of truth.

   Amazingly, the use of DNA evidence never comes into play at any point, including the introduction of an American retired FBI agent who is brought in as a last ditch effort to get some answers.  I would think, at least, that the question of DNA would at least have been raised during the 500 pages that Bolano devotes to "the part about the crimes" in 2666.

   Compared to the part about the crimes, the other four parts pale in comparison, though Bolano does indeed manage to tie things together in the final part, about German novelists Archimboldi.   2666 replaces Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee, another writer who is grotesquely over-represented in the original 1001 Books list.  It is truly a no-brainer switch.  I highly recommend the unabridged Audiobook, it was excellent.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Bartleby & Co. (2007) by Enrique Vila-Matas

Book Review
Bartleby & Co. (2007)
by Enrique Vila-Matas

Replaces: Schooling (2001)by Heather McGowan (Reviewed March 2018)

  Bartleby & Co is  a real delight and discovery, by Barcelona/Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas.   It takes the form of a series of footnotes to a non existent text, mostly about the "literature of no" as exemplified by the Bartleby of Herman Melville's short story(which is not on the 1001 Books list, fyi.)

  I was enraptured by Bartleby & Co, both by the delightful all footnote format, but also by the very real observations about the literature of no over the years, decades and indeed, centuries.  The narrator of Bartleby & Co, a dwarf clerk working anonymously in Barcelona, is a Borges short story come to light, and it's hard to consider Bartleby & Co a very Borgesian exercise.  It's a very satisfying replacement for Schooling by American writer Heather McGowan.  McGowan hasn't done much since, and the school girl lolita motif with a heavy dose of modernist stream of consciousness narration does not add up to a canonical pick in my mind.  Bartleby & Co, on the other hand, is a genuine delight and worth looking up.

Small Island (2004) by Andrea Levy

Book Review
Small Island (2004)
by Andrea Levy

Replaces: London Orbital by Iain Sinclair (Reviewed October 2018)

   Andrea Levy has only published a few novels.  Three before Small Island really put her on the map, and she solidified her position in 2011 with The Long Song, which won the Walter Scott Prize and  made the Booker Prize Shortlist.  Small Island won the Orange Prize, Whitbread Book of the Year and the Commonwealth Award.   She also has firm roots in the literary world of London while representing the viewpoint of Jamaicans, and specifically Jamaican emigrants to the United Kingdom. 

 Small Island fictionalizes the experiences of her parents, who came over as part of the "Windrush" generation, so named for the boat which offered passage (and admission) to the United Kingdom from Jamaica after World War II.   Levy deftly deploys four different narrators: the two characters standing in for Levy's own parents and the white woman who takes them in, and her husband, who is absent for most of the book.  Small Island shuffles between "the present" which is in 1948, and flashbacks for all four of the narrators.  For the two parent figures, this past is in Jamaica- for the mother, and in Jamaica and as a driver in the Royal Air Force, for the father.   The white husband, the last of the four narrators to get his shot, is largely concerned with his time serving in the English army in India. 

  The most memorable and significant characteristic of Small Island is the straight forward, virulent racism of English society in the 1940's.  On the other hand, the legal regime was quite fair, unlike the United States, where public and private attitudes often mirrored one another.  Thus, Hortense and Gilbert, the Levy parent figures, behave in a way that is both familiar and different to readers more experienced with the racial mistreatment of early 20th century America.

  Gilbert actually experiences Jim Crow America during his service in the Royal Air Force, where he is forbidden to make a pick up of supplies because the location is in the state of Alabama.   Small Island is very much in the category of the "international best seller" which manages to strike a chord across international borders.  Certainly, Small Island was read by a large swath of the audience for literary fiction in the UK, and it scored a BBC TV version.

  It also looks like her 2010 novel, The Long Song might also be 1001 Books material, perhaps as a replacement for this book.  Small Island replaces London Orbital by Iain Banks, which is a prime representative of the psycho geography movement, but not a huge hit, and it didn't even get an American publisher- I had to buy the English edition off Amazon, and it wasn't in the Los Angeles Public Library.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

The Savage Detectives (2007) by Roberto Bolaño

Book Review
The Savage Detectives (2007)
by Roberto Bolaño

Replaces:  At Swim, Two Boys (2001) (Reviewed March 2018)

 I'm only twenty titles into the first revision of the 1001 Books list (2008), but the major trend is already clear:  The introduction of large numbers of new authors from underrepresented regions of the globe.  I've flagged a wave of Japanese titles that made it into the pre-1700's portion of the list.  At the other end of the timeline, it is Latin American authors.  Chilean poet-novelist Roberto Bolaño  ranks at the top of this list, solely based on this book and 2666, his posthumously published epic about the femicide murders of Ciudad Juarez during the 1990's.

  If 2666 is his Naked Lunch, The Savage Detectives is his On The Road, a quasi-memoir that arrives at the intersection of Kerouac and Borges and proceeds to spin doughnut holes on the street like a participant in an Oakland sideshow.  I bought a paperback copy of The Savage Detectives at a used book store down the street.  It's almost 600 pages, but the On The Road informed style makes for an easy journey for the reader.   Sparkling and stuffed with the life of bohemia, as experienced by Spanish speaking intellectuals across countries like Chile, Argentina, Mexico, Spain and France, all of which make appearances during the frenetic, restless travels of the various characters- mostly poets and fellow travelers, The Savage Detectives spans the 1970's, 80's and 90's most often taking the form of oral history where various characters relate stories about the two major characters- Arturo Bolano, a stand in for the author, and Ulises Lima.  Bolano "himself" narrates the early adventures in Mexico City, after that the oral history format dominates.

  The Savage Detectives is filled with sex, drugs and literature, often in that order.  It is not a detective story except in the most oblique sense of that phrase (concerning the mid 1980's disappearance of Lima during a Central American conference of poets.

  The Savage Detectives replaces At Swim, Two Boys, which is great, but really, it's no comparison.  Bolano is a force of nature, he comes from an underrepresented region in the original books, and it is impossible to deny the life force of one vis a vis the other.

Gravity's Rainbow (unabridged audiobook)(2014) by Thomas Pynchon

Audiobook Review
Gravity's Rainbow (unabridged audiobook)(2014)
by Thomas Pynchon
Read by George Guidall
Penguin Audio

Book Review: Gravity's Rainbow  (1973)by Thomas Pynchon (Reviewed 2017)

 Audiobooks have been overshadowed in the past five years by the Podcast, but there is no reason to think that the Audiobook shouldn't see a kind of explosion in audience size as more and more people migrate to the world of unlimited online data.   At a very basic level, an Audiobook is much smaller than a real book, less expensive (or should be) and just as available, if not more available, from your local library for free.  Not every book gets the Audiobook treatment, and the industry essentially developed after 1970, in an iteration known as "books on tape."  This evolved to books on CD, and what was originally limited to genre books and award winners has extended down to debut works of literary fiction, non fiction, current affairs and of course, genre fiction.

  Like many new art-forms, the declasse nature of it's origins have led to a delay in acceptance and acknowledgment that an Audiobook is anything other then cheating on a regular book, but if you've actually spent any time listening to Audiobooks, you know this is untrue.  The fact is, and this particularly true for longer books,  you can get a lot more out of the Audiobook equivalent of a 500 page or more title.  Trying to read a 5, 6, 7 hundred page book is a chore, requiring the reader to set aside blocks of time in a place where it is convenient to bust out an enormous book. 

  Thus, for a long work of literary fiction, the existence of an Audiobook version expands to potential audience dramatically, even among people, like me, for example, who actually do read long works of literary fiction.  Many people do not, and it seems to me that Gravity's Rainbow as a 40 hour Audiobook is a much easier pitch than the 800 page paperback.   The Audiobook of Gravity's Rainbow is the third time that I've made my way into what Robert Newman, in his 1987 book, Understanding Thomas Pynchon called, "the epitome of the male labyrinth novel."

  Newman also compares Gravity's Rainbow to Ulysses- a reference I made in my 2017 reading for the 1001 Books project.   As I said in 2017, and Newman said in 1987, if Ulysses is the greatest novel of the twentieth century, then Gravity's Rainbow is a strong number two.   Newman identifies 11 major themes:

 (1) the heroic quest for knowledge for self-growth and for the salvation of the quester's society
(2) the ambiguity of such knowledge in an uncertain world
(3) the meaning of freedom
(4) the paradox of mutability being the only stable concept in life
(5) the betrayals that occur between generations
(6)  the consequences of repression
(7) the uses and misues of language
(8) the dangers of solipsism
(9) the perversions generated by man's misuse of nature
(10) the connections between the natural and supernatural worlds
and (11) the consequences of ignoring those lessons. - Newman 95-96
I would add a 12th theme, which is the duplicitous nature of international capitalism.

   Pynchon develops these themes through close to 450 characters.  I found the Audiobook preferable to the text in many different ways, and while the text, for a book like this is indispensable, the Audiobook stands on it's own as an important achievement.   For example, Pynchon frequently makes use of songs, rhymes (he loves a good limerick), slang and argot, and reader George Guidall is able to give voice to these moments without the reader needing to puzzle it out.

  40 hours appears to be an absolute limit for Audiobook length- Cryptomonicon by Neal Stephenson is 40 hours.  War and Peace by Tolstoy is 40 hours.  If you've ever read a long book, you can listen to a long Audiobook.  As described as above, it is simply a more manageable commitment, never more now then one can listen to it on an App on a smartphone. 

Friday, November 30, 2018

A House for Mr Biswas (1961) by V.S. Naipaul

Book Review
A House for Mr Biswas (1961)
by V.S. Naipaul

   Death functions as a critical milestone in the canonization process of literary figures.  First, we all know there will be no more original works.  Second, death spurs the publication of obituaries which  in their very nature function as a career retrospective. Third, audiences are reminded of the existence of said author, and the reasons why the author may or may not be canonical.

   Although a Nobel Prize in Literature isn't exactly a guarantee of immortal literary fame, it does certainly work that way for native writers of the English language.  Naipaul won his Nobel in 2001 and he died in 2018, almost the perfect length of time between winning and death, giving him and his representatives almost two decades to get things in order.   Naipaul has also attracted a great deal of criticism from literary critics which generally posits Naipaul as an "Uncle Tom" type figure, imitating the English upper class and adopting their intellectual perspective on his own people. 

   A House for Mr Biswas was Naipaul's break-out book, commonly read as a love and hate filled ode to his own father, represented in this book as Mohun Biswas.   Mohun is the youngest son of a family of Brahmin immigrants to Trinidad.  The immigrant experience of Biswas and his family is distinctive, combining aspects of the slave/migrant laborer experience with aspects of the "white European/Latin American" immigrant experience.  Biswas' family is desperately poor, as is, basically, their entire community, but they have high status within that community by virtue of their Brahmin heritage and the tools (literacy, community support, lack of legal impediments) to "make a go of it" in their adopted homeland of Trinidad.

  Biswas embodies this contradiction, a self educated man who manages to marry into the local gentry (albeit it at a low level) and develop himself as a journalist in the colonial capital.   The title refers to the desire of Mr. Biswas for a house of his own, where he is free from the influence of his overbearing in-laws.   His struggles are bitter sweet, with an emphasis on the bitter.  This is not the kind of rose-colored memoir of struggle rewarded ingrained in the mind of the reading public.

 Instead, it seems clear that the only logical conclusion that the reader can draw from the experience of Mr. Biswas is that one should strive to escape such a fate, and it is best done by succeeding academically and leaving Trinidad entirely.   Considering the criticism that has dogged Naipaul even after his Nobel Prize win (especially after?) I can understand why projects like the 1001 Books list might exclude Biswas in favor of his later, less obviously self-loathing projects.  In my mind, there is nothing wrong with a little self-loathing and in fact it is typically a part, small or large, of any immigrant narrative anywhere, but I can see why a canonizer might avoid it.  Biswas is also very long, over 500 pages, making it a less attractive prospect for someone looking to dip into the Naipaul oeuvre.

The Melody (2018) by Jim Crace

Jim Crace at the 2009 Texas Book Festival.
English Author Jim Crace has two Booker prize shortlists and a host of lesser prizes.

Book Review
The Melody (2018)
by Jim Crace
Published June, 2018
Nan A. Talese

  There are a very few number of writers of literary fiction who manage to "make it" without having a break-out international best-seller (or American best-seller).  These writers make it to the short list of the major literary awards and win lesser awards.  They usually have multiple publishers and universally positive reviews but are less impressive when it comes to actual sales or recognition outside of the precincts of literary fiction.

   Jim Crace is a classic example from this group, with two Booker shortlists and a Whitbread win in 1997.   He established his reputation writing historical fiction- deep historical fiction, with books set in a Neolithic village (The Gift of Stones) and the Judean desert 2000 years ago (Quarantine.)  In more recent books he has moved into the present, perhaps because he feels more secure as an established author of literary fiction.  I mention all this because The Melody is very much the work of an established author, dealing as it does with the psychological minutiae of the artist in decline, very much an insiders work of theme and topic.

  Said artist is Alfred Busi, a semi-popular, semi-famous singer and musician, living by himself (after the death of his wife) in a semi-abandoned villa overlooking the Mediterranean sea (I actually managed to listen to the entire Audiobook under the impression that the location was inside England, perhaps on the southern coast.)   One night, Busi is attacked near his garbage bins by an unknown creature- he can't say whether it is animal or man, though he settles on describing the attacker as a feral, male child.  This attack sets off a precipitous decline, which sees additional attacks on his person from various sources and the abandonment of the twilight of his professional career.

   You might call this a hard sell, and certainly there is a whiff of the sales pitch in the advertising copy which focuses on the attack itself without mentioning that this activity is just a trigger for 300 pages of ruminations by Busi.  Crace is, of course, a brilliant novelist, but The Melody was a bit of a slog, and left me wanting to go back and read his break-through, award nominated books.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Money To Burn/Burnt Money (1997) by Ricardo Piglia

Book Review
Money To Burn/Burnt Money  (1997)
 by Ricardo Piglia

Replaces:  Nineteen Seventy Seven (2000) by David Peace (Reviewed March 2018)

  Money to Burn is a straight crime fiction swap for Nineteen Seventy Seven- South America (underrepresented) for regional England (overerepresented).  Piglia (who died last year) was Argentinian and he generally gets credit for introducing "hard boiled" crime fiction to that country.  Money to Burn most closely resembles the movie Reservoir Dogs: a group of cons pull off a heist only to be cornered by authorities in their hideout.    Piglia delves into the back stories of the gang members- similar to the method employed by Peace in Nineteen Seventy Seven: the reader knows how things are going to turn out, and the interest is generated by the complexity of the normally one dimensional cops and robbers. 

Carry Me Down (2006) by M.J. Hyland

Book Review
Carry Me Down (2006)
 by M.J. Hyland

Replaces: The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd

  English author M.J. Hyland is better known in the UK, where she writes a column on writing for the Guardian, teaches and often appears as a public intellectual. Carry Me Down is her Booker shortlisted novel from 2006, about an autistic Irish boy living in a pre-autism awareness society.  John Egan is never properly diagnosed during the course of the highly dysfunctional events of the book.  Living with his paternal Grandmother and parents- a dad who refuses to work and mother who is increasingly terrified of her incomprehensible son.   Egan has characteristics that are obviously autistic: he believes that he is a "human lie detector," is obsessed with the Guinness Book of World Records and has an almost total absence of social skills.

  Besides the issues surrounding Egan's undiagnosed Autism, the rest of Carry Me Down is standard post-Kitchen Sink Realism albeit in Ireland not England.   It is hard to argue with Carry Me Down replacing The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd, a minor work by an author better known for non-fiction than fiction, and one who scores negative points in terms of biographical or thematic diversity.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Troubling Love (2006) by Elena Ferrante

Book Review
Troubling Love (2006)
by Elena Ferrante
Replaces House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (Reviewed May 2018)

   Ferrante didn't really break out until the last year or so in the United States, mainly on the success of her four volume work known as the Neapolitan Novels, the first of which, My Brilliant Friend, is currently receiving the prestige television treatment on HBO.  Troubling Love is NOT part of that set, but is her first novel, about a middle aged Italian woman trying to unravel the scandalous details surrounding her mother's untimely death.

 Troubling Love is the work of a first time novelist who is already at the top of (presumably her) game, in the sense that Troubling Love is a work of literary fiction that both delves insightfully into the human conditions while creating a story of suspense and revelation for the reader.  Ferrante richly evokes the world of mid 20th century Naples, which I think is the setting of many if not all of her books.

  Her replacement of House of Leaves by American author Mark Z. Danielewski in the first revision of the 1001 Books list seems like a fair swap. House of Leaves is an eccentric work which hasn't aged particularly well, and the bulky, mixed media nature of the book itself doesn't lend to canon stature.   Troubling Love, on   the other hand, is brisk, manageable, and introduces a regional Italian viewpoint essentially absent from the canon before her arrival.

Northland (2018) by Peter Fox

The Northland- from the artist's own Kickstarter page.
Book Review
Northland  (2018)
by Peter Fox
Published by WW Norton & Co.
July 3rd, 2018

   Borders are one of my non-fiction subjects of interest.   Not simply in a theoretical sense, but practically.  Part of the interest stems from my day job working as a criminal defense attorney in the San Diego area, where the border, and crimes taking place on or near the border constitute the bulk of my day-to-day work, but also it's just a native interest of mine, part of a larger interest in what you might call psychogeography, the study of the interaction of mind and place.

  In recent years, I've been spending some time closish to the northern border: multiple trips to mid-coast Maine and a trip to the Duluth/Bayfield Wisconsin area, and those visits have drawn my attention to what Porter Fox calls our neglected Northland. Enormous in terms of physical size, but minute in terms of the role it occupies inside the American weltanschauung.  Fox seeks to rectify this, adopting the breezy combination of personal narrative and fact based research that should be intimately familiar to anyone who delves into travel based popular non fiction or PBS/History channel type documentaries about trips.

  His material involves many canoes, many conversations with educated but cantankerous locals, and a good amount of historical research about the creation of the border itself.  Nothing, it turns out, is particularly mind blowing, and Fox never gets too crazy with his back and forthing between the United States and Canada, this being a post- 9/11 northern border.  In fact, if there is a central theme of Northland, it is the way that the recent intensification of all American borders has negatively impacted the lives of the people who live and work there.

  Northland is 100% focused on the American side of the border, which seems almost as arbitrary as the border itself.  Surely, the story of one side of a two sided border is a story only half told.

Scribe (2018) by Alison Hagy

Image result for alison hagy
Author Alison Hagy

Book Review
Scribe (2018)
by Alison Hagy
Published by Graywolf Press
October 2nd, 2018

   Scribe, the new novel by author Alison Hagy, takes place in an Appalachian flavored dystopia, that runs somewhere along the lines of Cormac McCarthy in his blood-soaked westerns. Hagy blends together many themes of apoca-lit, "migration, pandemic disease and the rise of authoritarianism" according to the copy on her publisher's page.   Scribe is narrated by a nameless young woman, who lives in a (see above) world where the most distinctive characteristic is the disappearance of universal literacy.  The narrator is a writer of messages, which she memorizes and repeats by travelling to the location of the intended recipient.

  The basic story involves the appearance of a mysterious stranger- albeit in a world where all strangers are mysterious.  The narrator exists by trading her literacy for favors, food, work on her land.  She also manufactures paper, which apparently has some independent value of it's own accord.  Narrator has twice inherited her land, first from her deceased doctor father, and second from her witchy-healer older sister, whose death is a substantial part of the story that unspools.   Hagy does a solid job of keeping what sounds like a very R rated world PG-13.  It is basically a frontier world lacking modern technology or government (or literacy) but still plentiful in terms of food and clean water.

  Hagy keeps the action moving, and the choice to keep her narrator nameless isn't distracting, this being the kind of world where everyone knows your name, so to speak.  Scribe isn't quite YA, but it does exist at the border of YA and literary fiction.  The central device of her first writing down the letter of her patrons and then having to personally deliver the contents of said letter seems a stretch to me, but it is the mechanism driving the story, so the reader either takes it or leaves it. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Boomer1 (2018) by Daniel Torday

Book Review
Boomer1 (2018)
by Daniel Torday

   I'm finding it hard to keep enough Audiobooks lined up to get me through my weekly driving around for work.  Most of the books picked by the editors of the 1001 Books project for the initial revised 2008 edition are obscure enough to not have an Audiobook version available on the Los Angeles Public library app.  After that, I'm looking for newly released literary fiction, but wait times are often measured in months.

   Narrated by American actress Maggie Siff, Boomer1 is the first Audiobook that I actually didn't like.  I'd hate to think it was because I didn't like the voice of the reader, a woman.  It was more because I didn't like the book itself, a "satire(?)" about the "rise" of an anti-Baby  Boomer terrorist organization founded by internet savvy millennials.  I've read in various places that Boomer1 is supposed to be funny on some level, but if so, I didn't get it.  In fact, I found Boomer1, and the characters of Boomer1, to be some of the least amusing characters I've come across in recent years.

  Today splits narration duties between Mark Bloomfield, bluegrass musician, professional failure and terrorist, his ex girlfriend Cassie Black (nee Claire Stankowitz) a fiddle playing, bi sexual hipster and his Mom Julia, also a fiddle player. Of the three, Cassie was the only one who kept my attention.  Sad Mark and sad Julia don't make for a compelling mother/son literary duo, the mother literally (and metaphorically!) unable to hear, the son unable to listen.

Friday, November 09, 2018

Show Review: Tyler Childers @ The Troubador

Tyler Childers performs at legendary Los Angeles venue, the Troubadour.

Show Review:
Tyler Childers
@ The Troubador

  It must be hard for middle aged major label record label executives these days, especially those from the rock era.  I'm not saying that I feel sorry for them, but you can't help but wince on their behalf when you look at the artists who have captured the pop star/rock star label in the internet era.  Take, for example, the micro genre turned chart topper world of internet rap:  drug addicted young adults, funded by gang money, topping the charts without a physical record, let alone an album or a major label backed album campaign.

   I'm pretty sure that there is no coming back from the precipice opened up by the streaming era.  Soundcloud rap provides strong evidence that if one is simply popular enough, you can leverage the rest of it. I'm not sure that really was the case before Soundcloud rap started storming up the actual charts, the model was more that one would bring oneself to the attention of the "real" music industry via promotional tools like Soundcloud, not that one would actually use those formats to become a top 200 most popular artist in the world type person.

  The thing is though, is that all those rock and roll guys are still around.  The way the cultural industrial complex works, if you make a lot of money for a large corporation over an extended period of time, you get to stick around.  If you don't make anyone money, you are out, but if you do, you get to become one of these guys (very few are women).  My point being that there were a LOT of these guys there.   

   Specifically, Ian Thornton, the Huntington West Virginia based manager of Tyler Childers.   When I walked in with Amy (Monotone) he was with Bill Bennett, former Warner Bros Nashville exec and current Hollywood/country fixer.  They were shortly joined by others from Monotone, and label executives from Interscope, RCA and Sony. zero mentions on Stereogum  Also present was Jeffrey Azoff, son of Irving Azoff.  So, to be clear, Ian Thornton manages Tyler Childers.  Tyler Childers does not have a record contract.  Many people are both interested in managing Childers and signing him to a record contract, and it is clear that he a) has a manager and b) perhaps isn't that interested in signing a record contract.

  All of this took place in the front bar of the Troubadour, during the set of opening act Blank Range.  There was also a description worthy mix of fans, guy in an NRA shirt under his denim vest, Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend, a guy wearing a "Make Nashville Rock Again" hat. And women! It was not the sausage fest of a Jamey Johnson or Sturgill Simpson concert.  I honestly don't know if Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend is a fan or if he just decided to hang out with his manager Ian (Montone, not Thornton).

  It was a lot of what might be called "feeling out," but there is no question that Thornton is running that ship. The show itself was a triumph.  Not the immortal triumph of his first appearance at the Ryman Auditorium, opening for Margo Price, earlier this year, but a triumph.   The buzz in the audience was palpable.  Childers opened with his hit, Whitehouse Road, which seems like something he didn't have to do.  I sensed that he was nervous, and a little bit unsure of the crowd.  It was different at the Ryman Auditorium, which he owned like he was born to play there.    If I had a chance to say something to him, I would have told him not to worry, that the crowd was with him and that he could do no wrong.

    I would say that his live show is not quite as developed as Stapleton or Margo Price, but that he is better life than Sturgill Simpson, who I've now seen in "jam mode" twice.   I think ultimately it is the quality of his voice, as supposed to his lyrics- which are really good- or the band- which is just ok, that has given him his viral quality.  He is an astonishing internet era story of an artist from the most outsidery of outsider places, who has developed outside any publicized "scene."

  Even more astonishing that he nets a total of zero mentions on Pitchfork, zero mentions on Stereogum, only Brooklyn Vegan has been tracking his unlikely rise.   It is both shameful and embarrassing that Pitchfork has slept so long on Childers.  Certainly, if you are going to cover artists like Willie Nelson, Chris Stapleton, Margo Price and Sturgill Simpson, you have to include Tyler Childers on that list.  He belongs there, unquestionably, beyond debate.

    How incredible, also, that, like Price and Simpson (but not Stapleton) he has come from wholly outside the formidable Nashville music industry.   This really is THE indie/local music scene story of this decade, in my mind.   It is something that is really happening, generating interest among audiences and professionals/corporations alike.  That is the succesful combination that you need. 

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Flight (2018) by Olga Tokarczuk

Image result for Olga Tokarczuk
Polish author Olga Tokarczuk won the 2018 Man Booker International award last year and is nominated for the new National Book Award translated fiction prize this year, for her book Flight.
Book Review
Flight (2018)
Translated by Jennifer Crost
by Olga Tokarczuk

  It has been a big couple years for literary fiction translated into English.  First, the Man Booker Prize changed their international award to award a specific book, instead of giving it to a particular author.  Second, the National Book Award announced a new award for works translated into English, starting this year.   Olga Tokarczuk has been the big winner so far from both of these changes.  First, she won the Man Booker in translation award last year.  Second, she is the prohibitive favorite among the works selected for the National Book Award shortlist.

   Tokarczuk then, is the face of this new trend towards appreciating books translated into English.  Good for her, and us, too, because Flight is an inventive work of fiction, part "flash fiction," part short story collection, part novella, part novel, part roman a clef.  In other words, Tokarczuk has taken well familiar forms and created something new.  Her characters range across time and space, and in puzzle like fashion, the reader is asked to either figure out how they all connect, or I suppose, ignore connections and appreciate the whole of the work.

  I checked out the Audiobook edition, simply because I couldn't lay hands on a hard copy, and I wasn't disappointed, but I would have enjoyed reading the actual book.  It would have been easier to "unlock" the puzzle. As an Audiobook, I was simply swept along by the current. 

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

The Bitter Glass (1959) by Eilís Dillon

Book Review
The Bitter Glass (1959)
by Eilís  Dillon

   There are some obscure authors left in the 44 odd titles left on the original 1001 Books list that I have yet to review here.  Obscure authors, and the authors I've already read, often with books I actually own, those are the two remaining groups.   Certain nationalities are over represented  among the category of obscure authors, Irish and Korean stand out.  Mainly they are obscure for my purposes because they are not in print in the United States.  We take for granted that in the internet era, everything is available always, but that isn't really true outside of thin band of books and film that people continue to return to over time.  Music is different these day, but you would probably be surprised at how few books are really available.

  Dillon, for example, is almost wholly out of print.  You can get many of her books on Kindle, but recently, only her children's books have been reprinted (in 2016, by the New York Review of Books children's lit department.)   The copy of The Bitter Glass I tracked down looked like the first and only copy the Los Angeles Library ever bought- from the 1970's.   Set after the war of independence but during the Irish Civil War which followed, it follows a group of young people, sent ahead to the country house by elders, who are separated by one of the two sides blowing up the railroad between their location and the nearest town (Galway).  Isolated, they are asked to provide refuge to a group of rebels and their seriously injured cohort, while the child one of the travellers is caring for sickens and dies.

  And that is about it.  You would think that the events of the Irish War of Independence and subsequent Civil War would draw more attention from the editors of the 1001 Books list, but I think this is the only work of fiction that addresses the Irish Civil War, which I didn't even know was a thing until I read The Bitter Glass.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Dreamland (2018) by Sam Quinones

Book Review
Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic (2016)
by Sam Quinones

  The road to hell is paved with good intention, and I was reminded forcefully of that proverb reading Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones.  In this case, the good intentions were a group of doctors who overturned a century of anti-pain medication bias in the medical profession.  In the past, American doctors had been reluctant to prescribe adequate levels of pain medications, often for entirely non-scientific reasons having to do with early 20th century bias against narcotics.

  Dreamland begins with those doctors, and their efforts to help people like war veterans, cancer patients and the dying manage their sever levels of pain.  Of course, this book would not have been written if everything had gone to plan.   What began as a genuinely good hearted attempt to rectify non scientific reasons for keeping people in severe pain was quickly taken advantage of by a handful of pharmaceutical companies who ended up earning billions of billions of dollars selling pain medication to the non-sick.

 The dramatic increase in market size of Americans addicted to opiates in turn opened doors for heroin traffickers.  In Dreamland, those traffickers are the Xalisco boys, a loosely affiliated consortium of heroin manufacturer/distributors who pioneered lo-conflict telephone ordering of heroin in dozens of regional cities in the United States during the past two decades.   Two years after the publication of Dreamland, the dynamic which Quinones describes:   People start with getting addicted to pain pills and gradually migrate to heroin, is even more advanced, as the spigot of "legally" prescribed pills has been turned off by the Feds, while the amount of heroin, and deaths caused by said heroin, continues to spiral upward.

   Quinones takes 400 pages to tell the story, but it can really be summed up in the paragraph above, just add your own memories of news stories or things you've read on the internet.   One of the amazing facets of the current opiate crisis is that it is inside out- affecting those places which have typically been hit hardest by new drug epidemics, i.e. the inner cities of the major coastal metropolises.  The reasons for this are almost as interesting as those that underlie the crisis itself.

 The new Mexican heroin distribution groups avoided places with already existing networks of heroin dealers- New York City, Baltimore, instead focusing on less travelled areas like Ohio, Portland Oregon and the northeast. Also, Mexican dealers simply refused to sell to African-Americans out of prejudice.  It's a crisis that is barely visible where I live. If I wasn't a criminal defense attorney who practices in Federal Court an represents people caught trying to smuggle heroin into the United States, I wouldn't see any evidence of it all here.   However, in many parts of the country, it is the leading cause of death. Period.  This book tells you how that happened.

Fallling Man (2007) by Don Delillo

Book Review
Fallling Man (2007)
by Don Delillo

Replaces:  Saturday by Ian McEwan (Reviewed 4/18)

  It is hard to fathom how Falling Man, Don Delillo's forgettable post-9/11 take on the impact of those events on those in and around ground zero, made it into the first revised edition of the 1001 Books list.  Delillo is himself over-represented in the first edition, Falling Man isn't even a top five title in his bibliography, it didn't sell, critics didn't like it.

   Considering that it was published only months before the revised edition went to press in 2008, it's entirely possible that it was the last book added, in which case it is a clear example of how time and distance are required before anyone can judge which book may or may deserve inclusion in any particular canon.  You can see where the editors might guess wrong, Falling Man is by a recognized author about an important subject (9/11 attacks) that had not (and still has not) received the kind of canonical treatment that one expects from literature in the 21st century.

  For all the pedigree, Falling Man is not that book.  Instead, it is a lesser work by Delillo, who is well familiar with the themes of the consequences of terrorism on the mental functioning of survivors, as judged by the importance of that theme in several of his books.   Perhaps Delillo anticipated these attacks, since he was certainly aware of the state of anxiety which preceded them.  In Delillo's universe, and the universe of his characters, there can be little suprise about the severity of the 9/11 attacks.   There is no for surprise in Falling Man, let alone the unexpected delight often discovered in works of great literary merit.  I didn't, and I simply can't imagine anyone taking pleasure in the reading of Falling Man, and if there is to be no pleasure, the author might as well have something to say about his subject, and Delillo, apparently, does not.  Or at least nothing different then what he said in books like Libra and Underworld.  The world is a dangerous place.  Innocent people are hurt for no reason, other innocent people are not hurt also for no reason, and perpetrators of mind-numbing violence have their own reasons, with motives similar to those innocents they harm.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Fruit of the Drunken Tree (2018) by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

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First time novelist Ingrid Rojas Contreras, author of Fruit of the Drunken Tree a bildungsroman about life in the time of Pablo Escobar
Book Review
Fruit of the Drunken Tree (2018)
 by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

  Fruit of the Drunken Tree  is another debut novel by a young American author with much promise.  Although most of Fruit of the Drunken Tree is set mostly in Colombia, Contreras wrote in English, and she lives in San Francisco. Contreras was raised in Bogota, and while fiction, this book draws heavily on her girlhood in Colombia.  The central narrator and author stand in is Chula, a perceptive seven year old who lives in an upper middle class neighborhood with her older sister Cassandra and her Mother, a rare example of a woman from the slums who has ascended into the middle/upper class.  Their father, an engineer who works on an oil platform, is present less often.

  The plot arrives in the form of Petrona, a teenage maid from a near by slum.  Petrona shares narrating duties with Chula, and it is through her that the reader grasps that harrowing events are in store for Chula and her family, while Chula herself remains unaware, and even hides facts from her mother and sister which may have prevented the dangerous events of the second and third act.

    It is clear from the first chapter, which makes clear that Chula and her family have left Colombia permanently for the United States, that something terrible will happen, but it is the genius of Contreras from guessing, what, exactly is afoot until it is actually happening in the book.  It's authorial craft at it's finest and I'm sure that it is the pacing that has drawn much of the positive attention paid Fruit of the Drunken Tree by critics.

 You might call Fruit of the Drunken Tree a good example of the late 20th/early 21st century kriegbildungsroman or "war education novel" a twist on the traditional coming-of-age novel which defines the bildungsroman formula.  A kriegbildungsroman is a coming-of-age novel set against the backdrop of armed conflict, either international or civil, and it finds its roots in the aftermath of World War II, when authors in all parts of the world, but especially Europe and the colonial south: Latin America, Africa, Asia, had the life experience of coming of age in the midst the mechanized horror of mid to late 20th century armed conflict. 

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