Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Enduring Love (1997) by Ian McEwan

Book Review
Enduring Love (1997)
 by Ian McEwan

  The problem with writing about the books of Ian McEwan is that he specializes in the third act twist, and any casual discussion risks ruining the pleasure the reader might derive from McEwan's expertise in plotting.  Enduring Love, about two strangers, both men, whose lives become intertwined after they jointly witness a horrific ballooning accident, falls squarely into this description.   Joe Rose, 47, a failed physicist and successful writer of "pop science" non fiction, is having a quiet picnic in the countryside with his Keats-scholar girlfriend when they see a hot-air balloon with a small child in the basket, threatening to escape the grasp of the operator.

   Rose, along with several other men in the area, try to stop the balloon from flying away.  One of the would-be good Samaritans continues to hold onto the rope while all the others, including Rose, let go.  The man who remains holding onto the rope plummets to his death from a great height shortly thereafter.  In the aftermath, one of the other witnesses, a sad loner named Jed Parry becomes obsessed with Rose and this obsession drives the rest of the book. 

  The third act twist, when it comes, is as satisfying as any. Reading McEwan is always a pleasure.  His achievement is to write books steeped in dread and bad feeling that are easy and fun to read.  His successful combination of literary function and the pleasures of genre fiction mark all of his books.

The Elementary Particles (1998) by Michel Houellebecq

Book Review
The Elementary Particles (1998)
 by Michel Houellebecq

   French author Michel Houellebecq is the reigning bad boy of French literature.  His most recent novel, Submission, was an exercise in speculative fiction which imagined a France that has willingly capitulated to a vocal Muslim minority.  It led to howls of protest from certain quarters of the literary establishment, but such howls are par for the course for Houellebecq, a pattern he established with the success of The Elementary Particles (called Atomised in the UK edition), his second novel, and the work that established him as one of the only writers from France in the 1990's who got his books translated into English, and read by audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.

   It is easier to describe The Elementary Particles than to say what, exactly it is about.   Two half brothers are essentially abandoned by their mother, a pleasure seeking 1960's era hippie type, with money, who is only interested in herself (after this book was published, Houellebecq's actual mother made a huge stink about how she was nothing like the mother in The Elementary Particles.  One son, Bruno, becomes a pleasure obsessed sybarite, with the whole of his being focused on obtaining sexual pleasure.  Michel, the other son, becomes a scientist, whose research leads to the extinction of the human race in favor of a sexless successor race.
  The ending makes the rest of the book sound super science fictiony, but that is not the case.  Rather, The Elementary Particles reads like a depiction of the anomie of contemporary existence among the educated classes of France, with a science fiction ending tacked on to the back.   The Elementary Particles was controversial in France for the frank depiction of sex.  That said, the sex is so empty and ultimately meaningless that it makes The Elementary Particles the opposite of pornography.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

My Absolute Darling (2017) by Gabriel Tallent

Book Review
My Absolute Darling (2017)
 by Gabriel Tallent

   This debut novel from Northern California born author Gabriel Tallent packs an emotional wallop- the kind of wallop that endears an author to a critical audience and potentially alienates the broader popular audience (we're talking about the popular audience for literary fiction here, not the broader "reading public.")  It's the kind of book that gets people talking, and piques the interest of potential audience members because of the strength of reaction that it evokes from those that have read it.  In short, My Absolute Darling has all the makings of a career establishing hit.  At the same time, the subject matter is NC-17 and explicitly deals with sexual subjects that are still, vaguely, beyond the pale of polite discourse.

   Julia "Turtle" Alveston is the only daughter of Martin Alveston, a Mendocino county recluse.  Martin mixes a love of automated weapons with a healthy distrust for authority figures.  He is also indisputably mentally ill, in ways that become apparent almost from jump street. Mom is nowhere to be found, allegedly having disappeared "diving for abalone."  People actually do die that way, but it seems clear that it is equally likely that Martin killed Mom and covered up with the abalone story.

  Turtle is torn between a real love for her father, who has his good moments, and an almost feverish desire to escape, tempered by her knowledge that "Daddy" as she calls him, would not take her departure well.  Further discussion of the plot risks spoilers, but I found the location detail (the wild Mendocino coast) richly observed, as well as the detail about what it actually means to be a wacko survivalist, or at least the child of one.  Rest be assured, Turtle knows her way around a firearm, and she is also chock full of survival skills... of all types.  Ultimately it becomes clear that Turtle is the only real survivalist in the family but the ride to get that point is so harrowing that it might turn off the weak of heart among potential audience member.s

Monday, January 15, 2018

Tipping the Velvet (1998) by Sarah Waters

Book Review
Tipping the Velvet (1998)
by Sarah Waters

  The auspicious first novel by Welsh author Sarah Waters, Tipping the Velvet introduced her successful formula of blending historical fiction with LGBT issues.   Tipping the Velvet was a clever idea: a picaresque novel, typically associated with 18th century literature, taking place at the turn of 20th century, written on the cusp of the 21st century.  In doing so, she solves one of the reoccurring problems with literature in the late 20th century.  When new groups emerge with new voices, they run up against the deep pessimism of serious literature.  "Happy endings" in the realm of literary fiction are few and far between.  In fact, the mere depiction of a conventional resolution in serious fiction can be reason enough for an audience to reject that book.

   At the same time, Authors seeking to establish a new viewpoint in literary fiction don't want to create characters consumed with hatred and self-loathing.  Frequently, the solution is to start with early struggles and end with some kind of resolution involving the stable maintenance of the particular situation being depicted.  By utilizing the picaresque format, which typically features a narrator who exists outside of conventional moral behavior, she neatly sidesteps the self-hatred that infects most 20th century literature.   Nan, the show girl turned prostitute turned kept woman turned content housewife to a union organizer, is the real picaresque article- no pretense of moral growth here, as a reader would expect in a bildungsroman.  The picaresque format also frees her from looking the tragic aspects of 19th century lesbian life in London in the face.  After all, picaresque is pre-realism, so an educated reader, recognizing that format, will release Waters from 20th century expectations about characters and their moral activity.

  The most important fact to recognize about Tipping the Velvet is that it is readable and entertaining, long but not overlong, challenging but not difficult.  By focusing on her depiction of lesbian life in London in 1890's, she is returning to an era which was rich with incident but poorly depicted because of conventional morality of the Edwardian era.

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