Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Sister Carrie (1900) by Theodore Dreiser

Book Review
Sister Carrie (1900)
by Theodore Dreiser

 Sister Carrie ushered in a new era in American fiction, call it realism, or naturalism, roughly akin to the French writers of the nineteenth century like Balzac and Hugo. This movement was the true coming of age of American fiction writers as a global force, culminating in Sinclair Lewis winning the first American Nobel Prize in Literature 30 years, or essentially, one generation, after Sister Carrie was published.

  The story of Caroline Meeber- an internal migrant who leaves life in small town Wisconsin to make her way, first in Chicago, then in New York represents a kind of birth of modern America- in that she exists in a world where she is freed from moral judgment, and allowed by Dreiser to pursue a course of conduct that would traditionally lead a 19th century author to condemn her by the end of the story.  At the same time, Dreiser isn't exactly what you would call a feminist, a point made very clear when you listen to the 16 hour audio book version, which is how I revisited Sister Carrie, having read the book a decade ago.

  The shock of Sister Carrie is that Caroline Meeber ends up a success, and it is only her ex-lover, the despicable George W. Hurstwood, who pays the ultimate price for immorality.  When it was initially published Sister Carrie was controversial simply because Caroline Meeber cohabited with more then one man without the benefit of marriage, there is nothing difficult in the sense of modernist fiction.  Indeed, the omniscient third party narrator is clunky today, and it means that Sister Carrie is more relevant as a work of history vs. being a compelling work of fiction.

The Double (2002) by Jose Saramago

Book Review
The Double (2002)
by Jose Saramago

  Jose Saramago is not a good choice for an Ebook read.  His sentences spin and sprawl, a modern version of a Borgesian language labyrinth, meaning that one Ebook page might not even contain a full sentence.  It's not the plot that is complicated, a fairly standard "man discovers he has an doppelganger in the world and becomes obsessed" riff that is weighed down by the layers of self reflection that dog haunt Tertuliano Maximo Alonso, the history teacher and protagonist.   I find a common reaction reading Saramago is that I want the characters to do something, anything, besides reflect.

   Like, the The History of the Siege of Lisbon, which turns on a momentary decision by a translator to insert a "not" into a single sentence, The Double turns around a single moment where Alonso sees his double as an extra in an rented video cassette.  His obsession is understable but Saramago's obfuscation of every possible action or conversation left me unmoved.  The Double was written after his Nobel Prize in Literature, so he was writing after having his greatness confirmed and to me, The Double read like an author who has no more points to make.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Master (2004) by Colm Tóibín

Book Review
The Master (2004)
by Colm Tóibín

   I genuinely I got more out of The Master by listening to the audio book than I would have if I read the book itself.   If ever there was an author who needs a little help to "come alive" for contemporary readers such as myself, it is Henry James, to whom the title refers.  The Master captures a time in James' life, after the failure of his play on the London stage, when he was taking stock in his life, and most of The Master consists of lengthy recollections by James as he intricately examines past episodes in his life.

   Much of what concerns James in his recollections is his obsession with the hidden self and the manner in which his personal reticence, particularly as it relates to his relationship with his deceased sister, Alice, and the novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson, who perhaps killed herself after being abandoned by James in Venice.  James also spends ample time reflecting on the nature of literary fame and fortune- including the opening chapters featuring the failure of his play, and a late encounter with his brother, famous psychologist and scholar William James, where his brother urges him to write a historical drama that "everyone can understand." 

  In the hands of Tóibín, Henry James"comes alive" in a way I had previously thought impossible, and it left me looking forward to revisiting his books on my way back through the canon.  The Master is also the second book, chronologically, on the "core" list.  I fully agree with that decision.   The Master by Colm Tóibín

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) by Arthur Conan Doyle

Image result for sherlock holmes
English actor Benedict Cumberbatch is the most recent to play Sherlock Holmes on screen.

Book Review
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)
 by Arthur Conan Doyle

   No one would argue that the Sherlock Holmes mysteries written by Arthur Conan Doyle were Literature, capital L, but it would be equally hard to argue that Doyle created the most memorable fictional character in 20th century fiction.  Any canonical status for a selection from the original Sherlock Holmes mysteries is surely based on the enduring popularity of the fictional character, rather than a fondness for the writing of Arthur Conan Doyle.

  I've read The Hound of the Baskervilles at least two or three times, and I've seen a movie/tv version at least once, so I thought I would try the re-read on Audio book, my new, most favorite way to take in a book.  I sense, from the limited discussions I've had with peers about that the format, that it is frowned upon by serious readers, but I think, in many cases, it provides a better experience for the reader/listener, particularly when the text is familiar to the reader.  Unless the writing is particularly challenging, little is lost from not having the written text available.  When listening to an audio book, there is ample time to consider the mechanical elements of the plotting and the relationship between character and story.

  Out of the original Sherlock Holmes mysteries, The Hound of the Baskervilles was likely selected because it is widely considered to  be the "best" original story about Holmes.  It was the first story wrote after apparently consigning Holmes to death in The Final Solution, written sometime after the first group of stories brought the stories to the attention of the reading public.  The gap between that first group and Baskervilles was approximately 8 years, long enough to give Doyle ample time to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of his character. 

Monday, March 19, 2018

Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) by Nathanael West

Book Review
Miss Lonelyhearts (1933)
 by Nathanael West

  I'd convinced myself that I had actually read Miss Lonelyhearts, when in fact, what had happened, is that I had owned a book which combined Miss Lonelyhearts with his other hit, Day of the Locust, read Day of the Locust, never read Miss Lonelyhearts, and then lost the book.   That is how Miss Lonelyhearts became a skip in the 1001 Books project, remedied today via an audio book version I checked out from the Los Angeles Public Library.

  Miss Lonelyhearts is dark, dark, dark, decades ahead of it's time in terms of the tone, which is called "expressionist" because it was written in 1933 and expressionism was the avant-garde art movement of the time, maybe also because the quasi-hysterical affect of the main character, the unnamed male newspaper columnist in charge of the Miss Lonelyhearts column for a New York tabloid.   You'd have to jump ahead to William Burroughs and Hubert Selby to find writers who depict urban America with such grotesque regard.


Sunday, March 18, 2018

Shroud (2002) by John Banville

Book Review
Shroud  (2002)
 by John Banville

  Irish author John Banville won the Booker Prize for his next novel, The Sea (2005) and Shroud similarly finds him in peak form, with a densely woven story about a Jewish Belgian who assumes the identity of a Nazi sympathetic non-Jewish classmate who dies during World War II. Shroud is squarely in the category of literature that treats World War II and the Holocaust as a symbolic, rather than personal event.    Shroud is part of a trilogy of novels from the "Alexander and Cass Cleave Trilogy" but the only one of the three to be included (the first novel in the trilogy was published in 2000 and the last in 2012.

   If I haven't said it before, I'll say it now- Banville is Literature capital L, like, decent odds to win the Nobel Prize in Literature type prose.   All of his books, I'm sure (except maybe the crime fiction he writes under a pseudonym) bear careful and even multiple readings.  I was comforted to read after finishing that Banville considers his main character "despicable," I was worried he was supposed to be sympathetic.  Shroud takes the form of Axel Vander, famous man of letters, reminiscing about his past as he prepares for a confrontation with a young woman (Cass Cleave) who is going to expose not only his assumed identity, but also pro-Nazi editorials written by the real Axel Vander before he died.

  Writing it in summary form as above does not do justice to the density of the prose. In fact, it's again hard to really appreciate Shroud without having an understanding of the plot outline before you start. When you are dealing with Literature capital L, making use of study aids before and during reading is perfectly acceptable. 

Schooling (2001) by Heather McGowan

Image result for balthus painting
Thérèse by Balthus, used as the cover illustration for Schooling by Heather McGowan.
Book Review
Schooling (2001)
 by Heather McGowan

  Schooling is the debut novel by American writer Heather McGowan.  It was published in 2001 to general acclaim, including being named the 2001 Newsweek Book of the Year. Adorable! Who knew such a thing existed?  McGowan didn't really make a career out of it- she's got a stub Wikipedia page and no Facebook page.   That's just evidence that she doesn't have much of an audience, not that those things matter in particular. 

  Like all other stream-of-consciousness style novels I've ever read, Schooling is not fun, despite the distinct impression of naughtiness conveyed by the decision by the publisher to use Thérèse (above) by Balthus as the cover illustration.    All I'm going to say is, that, the use of the cover illustration and some of the text leads me to the conclusion that thirteen year old Catrine Evans has sex with Mr. Gilbert, the piano teacher. Is that a spoiler? Not if you understand the context of the Balthus painting they use as the cover illustration.  That painting pretty much signifies child sex, even if in an artsy sense.   After I finished Schooling, I went online and read reviews- something I should have done BEFORE or DURING the reading, because there were major plot elements that I just missed entirely.

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