Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

London and the South-East (2008) by David Szalay

Book Review
London and the South-East (2008)
 by David Szalay

  David Szalay had a break-out book in 2016, All That Man Is: A Novel, which made it to the 2016 Booker Prize Short-list.  Cue the American re-issues of his earlier books which didn't get an American publisher when they were originally released.

   London and the South-East is Szalay's first novel, published in 2008, finally published in the United States in October of last year. All That Man Is: A Novel, drew attention for it's experimental technique, with some critics going so far as to say it wasn't, in fact, a novel.  London and the South-East, on the other hand, is very much a novel, a bildungsroman of a sort, set among the world of sales men specializing in selling ad space in trade magazines to international corporations.  Szalay tips his thematic hand early on, when the narrator Paul Rainey, described as a "hapless anti-hero," makes a lengthy series of observations about the movie version of Glengarry Glen Ross and makes it clear that all the sales-men he runs with, a grotty bunch, as they might say in England, are equally influenced by the "example" of Glengarry Glen Ross.

  You might accurately observe that London and the South-East is best summarized as "Glengarry Glen Ross meets the Office (UK version."   Szalay, English though he may be, doesn't write in a recognizably English fashion, in the sense that he is not trying to portray a specific socio-economic-ehtnic group.  Paul Rainey is recognizably English, but he is relatable to a potential American audience.   I mean he doesn't have a drivers license, but still.

GrayWolf Press, his publisher, is a non-profit, so he is outside the orbit of the big three (big two?) of American publishing, but at least he's here.  Maybe his next book will get a "major label" release in the US.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Omensetter's Luck (1966) by William H. Gass

Book Review
Omensetter's Luck (1966)
 by William H. Gass

  William Howard Gass died on December 7th of last year.  As for all artists, death provides an opportunity to re-evaluate (or evaluate for the first time) the published works of the dead artist. It's macabre, if you stop to think about it, but it is also very true.  Gass is typically grouped among the first generation of American post-modernist writers of fiction.  He wasn't just a novelist- he held down a professorship in philosophy at Washington University for several decades, and he only published three novels and two collections of shorter works of fiction.  He was more verbose when it came to non fiction, putting out a dozen more academic works, ranging from literary criticism to philosophy.

  He never really found mainstream acceptance, in terms of a celebrity level media profile or a single book that broke out to a broad, general audience.  Of what is there, Omensetter's Luck, Gass' first novel, is generally considered his most readable- which is saying something about the other two- because Omensetter's Luck is hardly readable.  Literary reputation as a post-modernist aside, it was hard for me to grasp, what exactly, was post modern about Omensetter's Luck, vs. the high modernism that it actually appears to be.

  High modernism in the sense that Gass employs a very strict stream of consciousness technique for the middle hundred pages of a three hundred page book.  High modernism in the sense that nothing is explained to the reader.  There is none of the humor or mischievousness of post-modernism here, only strict historical (meta?) fiction. Gass, writing a half century after high modernism's hey day, was plugging into an aesthetic that would have been appreciated by the critical audience of the mid 1960's, but high modernism, even in it's own day, rarely had what one would call a popular audience.

  Omensetter's Luck is "about" the eponymous Brackett Omensetter, who moves down the river in 19th century Ohio.  After a brief introduction, the main part is the stream of consciousness of Jethro Furber, the local priest, who become obsessed with Omensetter's "luck" and gradually disintegrates mentally as a result of the strength of his hatred.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

How the Dead Live (2000) by Will Self

Book Review
How the Dead Live (2000)
 by Will Self

  Crazy story about How the Dead Live- I checked out a free Ebook version from the Los Angeles Public Library and opened it in the Kindle app on my Samsung Galaxy phone.  It had a button to buy the unabridged audio version, over 15 hours long, for forty dollars, and reader, do you know I accidentally bought it?  I tried to undo the transaction but was thwarted, then I thought, well, for 15 fucking hours of audio book, why not? 

  The, "Why not?" would be, "Why not? Because this is 15 hours about death, death, and dying.  Lily Bloom, the narrator of How the Dead Live, is already dead, she is what the Tibetans would call the Bardo- the spiritual half way house between death and the release from the wheel of consciousness. It's hard not to think about the 2017 Booker Prize winner, Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, which explicitly utilized the Tibetan Bardo concept.

  In How the Dead Live, Self doesn't make his after-death life specific to a denomination, though it becomes clear to everyone BUT Lily Bloom that the idea of after-death is to release your self and free yourself from the cycle of existence.  Bloom , suddenly dead at 65 after a lightning fast battle with breast cancer, is obsessed with her two daughters, particularly Natasha, a beautiful but broken junkie- and by junkie I mean heroin addict who shoots heroin, and her other less interesting daughter, married to the succesful owner of a chain of stationery shops.

  It's hard not to read some Joycean aspirations into the last name of the main character.  Anyone even vaguely familiar with Ulysses will see that book echoed in How the Dead Live.  I wouldn't be the first person to observe that Self can be more witty than deep.  How the Dead Live, with it's dark, dark, subject matter is hardly breezy fun but it is fun of a sort.  I thought, going in, that 15 hours by one reader would be tough- but the reader of the audio book version was obviously a trained voice actress and she did different accents- the American accent of Lily Bloom, the English accents of her daughter, even the accent of Lily's aboriginal spirit guide.


The Devil and Miss Prym (2000) by Paulo Coelho

Book Review
The Devil and Miss Prym (2000)
by Paulo Coelho

  Brazilian author Paulo Coelho has an astonishing 30 million fans on Facebook.  That is pretty insane, considering that there are many recent Nobel Prize winning level authors who don't even have 10,000.  With Coelho, any claim to canonical status starts with his extraordinarily large reading audience, rather than any kind of critical acclaim.  The Alchemist is his best known book, much beloved by the type of people who hang "Live/Laugh/Love" type signs above their beds and place credence in astrology.  In the mid 1990's, The Alchemist secured his international audience, but he's done nothing to disappoint since then, churning out a new book every couple of years.

  I've consciously avoided reading any Paulo Coelho books before now.  I've consciously avoided talking to people who read Paulo Coelho books, to the extent that I'm able.  The Devil and Miss Prym, about a wealthy stranger who shows up in a remote Italian(?) village with a chilling proposition: If one person in the isolated village is murdered in the next three days, the village will receive ten gold bars, buried nearby.  The visitor selects Miss Prym, an outsider working at the village inn, to convey the message to the village.

 The Devil and Miss Prym was published in 1992, two years before the 1994 break out year for The Alchemist, which was itself published first in 1988.  The US publication of the English translation arrived in 2000, a clear result of the success of The Alchemist in 1994- publishers go back and find earlier books that haven't been released in the United States, then release them in the US as if they are new works.

  The whole book seemed ridiculous and I thought Coelho's non-specific internationalism was vague and dissatisfying in the same way a Hollywood movie can be vague and dissatisfying when it comes to portraying place.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016) by Madeline Thien

Image result for madeleine thien
Canadian author Madeline Thien made it the Booker Prize short-list in 2016 with Do Not Say We Have Nothing, her epic family drama about the cultural revolution.
Book Review
Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016)
by Madeline Thien

  Do Not Say We Have Nothing was the break-out novel for Canadian author Madeline Thien. Specifically, when it made it to the Booker Prizer short-list,  This was followed almost immediately by the release of her 2011 novel, Dogs at the Perimeter, in the United States, in 2017.    Dogs at the Perimeter covered the impact of the Khmer Rouge on survivors,  Do Not Say We Have Nothing covers similar psychic territory, but on a grander scale, tackling China and the impact of it's cultural revolution and the events at Tienanmen square.

  I'm convinced that the cultural revolution is THE literary event of 20th century China.  What makes it so interesting is that so many people who were caught up in the process of arrest and re-education returned to power, from the top down, including Deng Xioaping, who has to be seen as the hero of 20th century Chinese history.  Do Not Say We Have Nothing is the kind of sweeping, multi-generational work of historical fiction that is content to simply narrate some amazing personal histories without showy post-modern narrative techniques.   That makes her Booker Prize short-list even more surprising- the only "angle" on Do Not Say We Have Nothing is that it is about China, with a light over-lay of contemporary Canada. 

  While there are dangers to embracing fiction as history, it's also a great starting point (fiction) for getting a general sense of historical events.  Especially if you are talking about reading about history outside of school- you don't really need history books themselves per se, it's just a question of finding the right fiction.   Do Not Say We Have Nothing is not a short book- I read it on my Galaxy phone Kindle app, via the ability to borrow Ebooks through the Los Angeles Public Library system.  Most major US library systems have signed up for that.  You can also get almost every new Audiobook, as well.  They only have a few copies of each title but unless it's brand new demand is low for literary fiction.

 I'd actually consider buying a copy of this book if I saw it in a store, like a hardback edition.  It would look good on a book shelf I'm sure. Impressive- at 450 pages- a drag reading on my phone- it actually tells you that the book takes a normal reader almost nine hours.  I managed it in half that but that still is a long time to be reading on your phone.  But reading on your phone opens up time to read when you can't reasonably pull out a book- and is also good if you have the television on and lighting is low.

The Heart of Redness (2000) by Zakes Mda

Book Review
The Heart of Redness (2000)
 by Zakes Mda

    Zakes Mda is the kind of author I had in mind when I started reading all 1001 Books from the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list.  He is South African. I'd go so far as to say that he is little known inside the United States, with a higher profile in the UK.  He's won some awards in the UK, particularly for this very book, which is about the amaXhosa people of South Africa and their past and present.  Mda's narrative switches between the awakening of Camagu, a Westernized amaXhosa who has recently returned from 30 years of life in the United States to find his way in post-liberation South Africa.

  Disappointments in the city related to his status as a returnee ("Where were you when we danced the freedom dance?" is the line that Camagu uses as short-hand fr his failure to land a job) lead him to the township of Qolorha-by-Sea, the point of origin for the Nongqawuse movement- a milenarian cult that led to the slaughter of large amounts of cattle by the amaXhosa in preparation for the imminent arrival of an earthly paradise.  Camagu arrives in the late 20th century to find the people still split between "Believers" and "Unbelievers."

  This disagreements are pushed to the fore when investors from Johannesburg arrive with plans to turn the unspoiled coast into a casino-resort.  Meanwhile, Camagu finds love with Qukeswa, daughter of the leader of the Believers (those who still hold with the prophetess from the 19th century).  Prominent in the local community is Dalton, the son of an English military officer, who speaks the local language better than many locals. 

  While Mda's prose style can be clunky, there is no missing the sophistication of his portrayal of this familiar debate of the development of special natural places.  He links past to present in unpredictable ways and he avoids all of the prat-falls that accompany a century of white western Europeans writing about what dark-skinned people think.


Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Human Stain (2000) by Philip Roth

Book Review
The Human Stain (2000)
 by Philip Roth

    The most amazing aspect of Philip Roth's career, aside from the fact of his never winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, is his late period productivity.  Within the first edition of the 1001 Books list, he is represented by Portnoy's Complaint (1969), his breakthrough.  From 1972 the editors decided to include The Breast.  Then, bam, it's the 1990's, and Roth has Operation Shylock (1993), Sabbath's Theatre (1995), American Pastoral (1997), this book and The Plot Against America (2004).  He lost four of those titles in the first revision.  It makes sense in that almost every author who is represented by four or more titles in the first list loses half of those en route to the second, no doubt to allow more diverse voices into the canon making exercise.  Replacing four Philip Roth novels between editions makes sense, the first list represents a kind of "before," and then subsequent revisions represent reactions to that first list.

  The Human Stain, along Portnoy's Complaint are his two books that are considered "core" i.e. never removed, titles from the whole run of 1001 Books revisions.   That would make The Human Stain Roth's best book, since Portnoy's Complaint is his first.  "Best and First" might be a maxim for would-be canon creators seeking to eliminate multiple works from the same creator.   The Human Stain is a "Nathan Zuckerman" novel, as is American Pastoral.  Nathan Zuckerman is the main narrator in this series of Roth books, a Roth-esque- though not actually "Philip Roth"- that's a different set of Philip Roth novels, represented in the first edition of the 1001 Books list with Operation Shylock.

  Zuckerman, in both The Human Stain and American Pastoral is a succesful writer living in semi-retirement in rural New York, in the vicinity of a small liberal arts college. He is single, no children, impotent and incontinent as the result of prostate cancer surgery.   In the Nathan Zuckerman novel he relates the stories of people he encounters.  In The Human Stain that person is Coleman Silk, the long-time Professor and Dean of nearby Athena College, recently retired in the aftermath of a "only in the 90's" struggle over Silk's use of the word "spook" to describe two perpetually absent African American students.

  His disgrace is followed shortly by the death of his much beloved wife.  Silk takes up with a local woman, an illiterate former run away who works at his former school as a janitor.  This relationship causes an uproar in the small community.  Silk, meanwhile is concealing a life time secret, and one known to any reader who knows anything of this book- he is black, born black, and has lived his life as a white man.

 More apparent in The Human Strain than in American Pastoral is the extraordinarily sophisticated use of Nathan Zuckerman as both a major character, narrator and WRITER of the text presented to the reader.  This last bit allows the insertion of entire chapters written from the perspective of characters besides Zuckerman- giving The Human Stain incredible depth, while also maintaining the strong narrative voice of Zuckerman himself.   Thus, Silk's secret- that he is African-American passing for white, is revealed first in a chapter from the final book written by Zuckerman about the events of The Human Stain- written from the perspective of Silk itself.  Later, close to the end of the book, Zuckerman the character hears from Silk's sister the narrative that allows him to write the earlier portion of the book from the perspective of Silk himself.

  The Human Stain also seems to be a kind of commentary on the career of Roth himself, by Roth, through Zuckerman.  It's hard not to compare the kind of politically correct insanity that results in a professor being persecuted for using the term "spook" in class seems linked to the the failure of the Nobel Prize committee to recognize Roth's achievement.

 Or, you know, maybe not. I'm sure Roth himself would laugh at that last observation.


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