Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Choke (2001) by Chuck Palahniuk

Book Review
Choke (2001)
by Chuck Palahniuk

  Looks like I'm going to come up about 150 short on first pass through the 2006 edition of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.  Some of those are the pre 18th century section books- I just skipped those in the beginning.  The rest are books that I skipped, mostly because they were multi-volume with all the volumes indicated, or too long, or foreign, or all of those.  The other major category of the skips are books I've already read, particularly from about 1960 onward.  Actually, the already read category is likely the biggest of the 150 or so title that will remain after I've done the first pass.

  I'm not a big re-reader but, that too, is something I want to address by completing this project.  I'm not sure I should have left all these books for the end, but there you go.  Choke I college?  After Fight Club the movie (1999) came out.  I never actually read Fight Club, and I didn't like Choke when I read it in college. Fact is, I don't like Chuck Palahniuk, and like Paulo Coehlo readers, I'm pretty sure I don't like his fans, either.  Choke, with its themes of sexual addiction and mental illness, unsympathetically addressed, has not aged well. 

  Perhaps you can call him a prophet of the Trump era to come- only a decade or so in advance of the trends that congealed in his election.  To me, there is a clear, direct, line between Choke and the election of Trump as President.  That's not a reason in and of itself to dislike Palahniuk or Choke, but you add that to the fact that I didn't like this book when it came out, it's enough. Fuck this guy. 

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Life of Pi (2001) by Yann Martel

Image result for life of pi movie
Life of Pi (book) was an unexpected hit in 2001.  A decade later, the Ang Lee directed film made 600 million world wide.
Book Review
Life of Pi (2001)
by Yann Martel

  Life of Pie was THE left-field break out hit in the field of literary fiction, originally published by Knopf Canada (Martel is Canadian) and going on to sell over 10 million copies world wide.  It also won the Booker Prize in 2002 making Life of Pie a rare concurrent popular and critical hit at the time it was originally published.  The success of the book was mirrored by the success of the movie, a 120 million dollar budgeted, Ang Lee directed spectacle that was probably the first and only Booker Prize winning novel to have a movie that was screened in IMAX 3D.  Life of Pi, the movie, grossed 600 million world wide, 80 percent of that amount outside of the United States.  Truly, Life of Pi is a perfect example of the modern phenomenon of the "international best-seller" with all the bells and whistles.

  I've personally been avoiding everything to do with the Life of Pi for no good reason than it's popularity.  I instinctively distrust best-sellers, and I wasn't even aware of the Booker Prize win until I finished listening to the 12 hour audio book version I checked out from the Los Angeles Public Library using their excellent Overdrive app.  An app, I might also mention, which allows you to listen at anywhere from .6 to two times the speed of the narration.  Being able to speed up an 11 hour audio book is crucial, particularly when hours of it feature a young Indian boy alone on a raft in the middle of the Pacific, with only a tiger for company.

   I would be honestly embarrassed to read a book version of Life of Pi at this point, so the audiobook was a god send.  Speeding it up using the Overdrive app made it a pain free experience, and Life of Pi certainly has it's moments.   Life of Pi is something like a Robinson Crusoe tale.  Press materials play up the fantastical elements, but that fantasy only goes about as far as Jule Verne or H.G. Wells- no wizards, fairies or interplanetary travel, just a kid on a raft with a tiger.

  There is also a healthy introduction detailing Pi's childhood in the former French colonial city in India, Pondicherry, where Pi's dad owns a Zoo.  I found myself wondering, four or five hours in, when he was going to actually get onto the raft with the Tiger.  Once it happened, however, I could see where Martel won over both critics and fans.  "Serious fiction with a heart and a sense of wonder!" I can almost hear readers exclaiming.

   I can also understand why the Wikipedia page leads with the fact that several publishers passed on the chance to publish Life of Pi before Knopf Canada picked it up.  If you got the elevator pitch for Life of Pi you might snort in disbelief.  Especially when you heard that the writer was Canadian and not Indian.  But it all works, Pi, the character is just charming as hell, and Martel has done such a good job with his research, and has such a thorough understanding of his prospective audience, that I could only shake my head in wonder when I got to the end- of the audio book- I still wouldn't be caught dead with the book in my hands.

Fury (2001) by Salman Rushdie

Book Review
Fury (2001)
 by Salman Rushdie

 The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999) marks a new phase in Salman Rushdie's career, where he transitioned from a serious literary author to a global media celebrity.  The Ground Beneath Her Feet is an alternate universe rock and roll phantasia, largely set in New York City with characters who spend their adult lives as international media celebrities.  Two years later, Fury comes out, featuring an older male professor who has invented an international media property based on a doll.  It's more complicated than that, but also not really.

 Malika Solanka, a Bombay born, Cambridge educated, millionaire-professor-inventor, has decamped to New York city, abandoning his wife and young son in England. A serial killer stalks the streets of New York, praying on young socialites, Solanka takes a vow of celibacy but promptly falls for not one but two "manic pixie dream girls."

  Rushdie, by virtue of talent and celebrity, has earned his lifetime audience, but Fury really is not his best work.  The "older man rejuvenated by sex with a much younger woman" is tedious beyond belief, particularly after the focus on the abuses of men with power in the entertainment industry.  Surely, everything that can possibly be said about this dynamic has been said.  Best to just draw a line under the genre with The Human Stain by Philip Roth being the last one through the gate, before the gate is shut.  Horny old men, obsessed with sex with young girls and their prostate.

  Fury is another 1001 Books selection from the final decade that feels random, merely reflecting the fact that Rushdie put out a book in 2001.  Picking in 2004 and 2005, they would only have a vague idea which titles might be canonical and they got it wrong with Fury.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Under the Skin (2000) by Michel Faber

Image result for under the skin scarlett johansson nude
Scarlett Johansson did her first ever nude scene for the movie version of Under the Skin.  The movie was a gross simplification of the book.
Book Review
Under the Skin (2000)
by Michel Faber

   Author Michel Faber was born in the Netherlands, moved to Australia as a child and writes his fiction in English.  Under the Skin was his first novel, and it was followed, two years later by The Crimson Petal and the White, which was a smash hit.  Under the Skin got a movie version featuring Scarlett Johannson in the lead role, but the movie bombed, and that has hurt any claim for canonical status.   I've seen the film in bits and pieces over the years, 15 minutes on an airplane here, half an hour on the television there.  I think, unsurprisingly, the movie flattened out the book and in doing so reduced Under the Skin to a monster movie.

  Under the Skin is most emphatically not a horror genre exercise, although the story, about an alien brought to Earth in order to lure humans into a meat processing facility for export to the home planet, is horrific.  The aliens call themselves "human beings," and look something like dogs or foxes, in terms of facial features, being on all fours and being covered in fur. The protagonist has been surgically altered to look human, supplemented with daily full body shaving and huge coke bottle glasses to prevent humans from seeing the small size of her eyes.

  The best parts of Under the Skin involve descriptions of the planet where these aliens come from- dry- people living underground, manufacturing oxygen in giant pits of decaying vegetation.  The alien human hunter- called Isserley - who works by picking up male hitchhikers near the meat processing facility in rural Scotland, is privileged to be the only being from her planet that is free to move on Earth.  This experience is brought into focus when the wealthy scion of the owner of the food processing corporation shows up at the farm and starts asking questions similar to what an animal rights activist would say today about industrial farming techniques.  The visitor reveals that the people on Isserley's home planet think that humans, called vodesels by the aliens, are told that humanity are dumb animals, incapable of communication.

  Under the Skin lends itself to many different readings, whether centered on immigration, gender or class.  I think it works on all those levels, and despite the Scottish locale,  is as generically international as a book can be.

The Body Artist (2001) by Don DeLillo

Book Review
The Body Artist (2001)
 by Don DeLillo
Simon and Shuster Audio Book
Narrated by Laurie Anderson

   I went through a decent period of listening to audio books six, seven years ago, public domain books from the 18th and 19th century, using the Librivox app. It had some benefits- free books for one, but the quality of the reading ranged from ok to fucking terrible- often times it sounds like people were reading to help improve their English.  Now, I have finally figured out that you can get audio books and listen to them via the public library system.  BOOM.

  The Body Artist is a nicely put together audio book- certainly by the sad standards of public domain librivox- the narrator is none other than Laurie Anderson.  Clocking in at a little under three hours- The Body Artist is more like a novella than a novel, about the experiences of Lauren Hartke, a 30ish performance artist known as "The Body Artist" dealing with the aftermath of the very sudden suicide of her 60ish film maker husband, Rey Robles. The Body Artist is mostly stream of consciousness narration by Hartke, with brief, third-party interruptions written in print journalism style, about Hartke the artist.

  I actually listened to the entire audio book thinking it was by Paul Auster, now learning that it's actually by DeLillo the sparse, minimalist prose style and believable female character does more seem thin something DeLillo would do.  Like many of the books the editors of 1001 Books selected from 2000 and after, The Body Artist seems plucked at random because it an interesting book by an established author.  I would call it one of his minor works- certainly behind White Noise and Underworld- both of which are unreviewed here because I read them in school, and also I would rate it behind Libra (1988)- his Lee Harvey Oswald book, and Mao II (1991).  No doubt DeLillo was over-represented in the first edition of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Feast of the Goat (2000) by Mario Vargas Llosa

Book Review
The Feast of the Goat (2000)
 by Mario Vargas Llosa

  Mario Vargas Llosa's Nobel Prize in Literature win in 2010 was a big one.   Llosa's international profile before the Nobel win was obviously confirmed by the win, but the win secured his reputation as first among the many Latin American writers of the so-called "Latin American Boom."  It places him as the direct successor to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nobel Prize in Literature winner in 1982.  Llosa's career is not identified with a single literary movement in the way that Gabriel Garcia Marquez is synonymous with Magical Realism.  Before the Nobel win, that probably hampered the degree to which English language audiences were willing to embrace him.

  The Feast of the Goat is based on the life and times of Dominican Republic "caudillo" Rafael Trujillo.  In English, he'd be known as a dictator, assassinated in 1961, but not before he spent 30 years directing the government of the Dominican Republic with an iron, fiercely anti-communist fist.  Trained by American Marines in the Dominican Republic to establish a national army, he rose to power in early 1930, ending a period of endemic low-level civil war.   His signature move in his early career was the parsley massacre of 1937, where Trujilo's national army murdered an indeterminate number of Haitian "illegal immigrants"- variously estimated at between five and twenty thousand.

 Support for Trujillo was always strong in the United States.  During the height of the Cold War he was like a counter-balance for Castro, and the Dominican Republic had the largest economy in the area.  By the late 1950's and early 1960's, the Cold War was cooling off, and Trujillo was being castigated by the Catholic Church for his admittedly grotesque human rights abuses.

 Llosa approaches this story from three different angles: The return of the daughter of a disgraced (but still living Trujillo cabinet member known as "the egghead," the narrative of the dictator himself nearing senescence and the multi-perspective narrative of the assassins who kill the Dictator in 1961 and what came immediately after, told from several perspectives.   The Feast of the Goat is impressive technically, and is also interesting in terms of the story of Trujillo, a true 20th century military-political monster- not quite Hitler/Mao/Stalin level but impressive for his day and time, and also closely linked to the US by his training and politics. 

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