Dedicated to classics and hits.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Blonde (1999) by Joyce Carol Oates

Portrait of Monroe aged 20, taken at the Radioplane Munitions Factory
Marilyn Monroe was originally "discovered" working in a factory during World War II.
Book Review
Blonde (1999)
by Joyce Carol Oates

  I think everyone wants Joyce Carol Oates to be a canonical author, but it could be that the decision of which, if any, of her actual books is representative is very much in doubt, primarily because she is not done yet but also because she has been so prolific in her career that even a motivated general interest reader would have trouble keeping pace with only her fictional output, without touching her also notable non-fiction work. However two books stand out, THEM, her break out book and only National Book Award winner and Blonde, her "fictional biography" of Marilyn Monroe, which was a prize winner finalist, a bestseller and by far the longest book Oates has ever written (730 pages).  Oates actually has four books in the first edition of 1001 Books, but she lost two of them in the 2008 revision, leaving her with Them and Blonde.

  Reading Blonde, it's a wonder that Oates didn't write more novels with this kind of scope.  Perhaps she was aided by the fact that she was writing about a series of relatively well documented events, Marilyn Monroe's rise to movie super-stardom and untimely death at the age of 36.  You wouldn't have to read Blonde that Monroe suffered horribly, no artistic license required to show that.  The mere facts of her life and the nature of her death are a clear testament to the misery that success can inflict on a person.

  What stood out to me is that Blonde works almost as well as a biography of post World War II Hollywood/America as it does of Monroe.  Oates writes about Los Angeles with a practiced hand.  Her descriptions of  Monroe's childhood in Los Angeles capture that place and time as well as any non-fiction history book I've read.  Oates does not shy away from the messy details of drug abuse, the casting couch and her relationships and marriages.

  It is a powerful story and it could be that this is one of those situations where the truth was stranger than any fiction, but this fiction is pretty strange, and I think, very true in capturing the woman underneath the myth. 

Sunday, January 28, 2018

The Power (2016) by Naomi Alderman

Book Review
The Power (2016)
 by Naomi Alderman

   Naomi Alderman is an English author, and The Power was published in the UK in 2016.  In  the fall of 2017, The Power got a big United States release.  The Power is firmly in the wake of the smash hit TV version of A Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.   Atwood and A Handmaid's Tale are splashed all over the marketing material, Alderman thanks Atwood in the afterword for being her inspiration and mentor.  Less acknowledged, but I think, equally influential is the very not-literary multiple-platform smash, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, by Max Brooks.   The Power exists between those two extremes- a well regarded writer of literary fiction extending her gaze into the realm of speculative fiction (Atwood) and a hack with a good idea launching a multi-platform international intellectual property juggernaut (Brooks.)

   The fact that The Power even got the big American release is proof that this is a property destined for bigger things.  According to the still brief Wikipedia entry, the television rights have already been sold after an, "11 way auction."   Alderman adopts the "peak tv" technique of spreading her story out amongst a handful of lead character whose paths intersect and diverge. She includes a mock historical introduction that presents the main narrative of The Power as itself a work of speculative fiction written by a male scholar five thousand years down road, long after the events depicted in the novel.  Alderman also includes illustrations of "artifacts" that illustrate the central event of The Power:  Seemingly overnight, all women develop the ability to harness electricity using a new muscle/organ called "the skein." 

  What, Alderman asks, would happen next?  While there is simply no doubting that Alderman has a multi-national hit on her hands, I found the similarities between The Power and World War Z  telling.  Ultimately though, The Power lands on the literary fiction side of the sense.   She tells an R-rated story, no talking around the state of power relations between women and men in this book.   The picture she presents of the consequences of this evolutionary development is neither Utopian nor dystopian.  Her use of the framing narrative evokes both classic 19th century narrative but also the conventions of genre fiction in the 20th century.

  I think the best argument for reading The Power is that you are likely to hear about the television version in the future, so best to get ahead of the curve.


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