Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Colour (2003) by Rose Tremain

Image result for otira gorge road
The Otira Gorge road in New Zealand, location of some of the events of The Colour (before the road was built.)
Book Review
The Colour (2003)
by Rose Tremain

  I love a work of historical fiction set in 19th century New Zealand.  19th century New Zealand was recently in literary headlines when The Luminaries, which shares locations with The Colour, won the Booker Prize in 2013 for it's 28 year old author, Elanor Catton.   Specifically, the interesting event in 19th century New Zealand history is the gold rush, or Otago Gold Rush, which happened between 1861 and 1864.  Both books also share similar elements drawn from the true-life melange of 19th century Gold Rush culture: English immigrants, Chinese immigrants, Maori and even a young catamite for good measure!

   Tremain crams an impressive number of different perspectives into the 360 pages of The Colour.   The events and outlook are almost unremittingly dark, though the conclusion lacks the cringe inducing behavior that peppers the rest of the book.  Some of her characters are better drawn than others.   The sub plot involving the Maori nanny of one of the settler children feels tacked on in the interest of political correctness, and ultimately, I think it's the setting that merited the inclusion into the first 1001 Books list.  Surely it would be replaced by Booker winner The Luminaries if you were to make a list through 2013. 

The World Goes On (2017) Laszlo Krasznahorkai

Book Review
The World Goes On (2017)
 Laszlo Krasznahorkai

   The World Goes On, by Hungarian author Laszlo Krasznahorkai, is the third book from the 2018 Booker International Prize list of nominees, and the second book from the six title short list.  I'm on the waiting list for a third short list title, Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmad Saadawi.  I'm frankly unsure if I'm going to be able to track down the other three titles.   The World Goes On is a collection of short stories, about three hundred pages long, and a terrible, terrible, terrible book to read on a Kindle.  Reading the stories in The World Goes On at time resembles Samuel Beckett, who is actually the narrator of one of the stories in the book.  Another reference point is Portuguese author Jose Saramago.  Stretching back further in time, Borges.

  Listing those three authors as reference points is about as complete a description as I can give without simply description the action (or more often) lack of action in each story.  The marketing and critical material that accompanies this release includes frequent use of the term "apocalyptic," and I suppose you could say the same thing about Beckett, so in that regard, it's true, but for heavens sake don't expect anything exciting to happen.

  Each story has a puzzle aspect that requires the reader to actively consider, what, exactly, is happening.  That is a hallmark of experimental fiction, and a result, The World Goes On fits squarely within that tradition, without innovating- it's like a skilled homage.   Krasznahorkai was omitted from the 1001 Books list- you could argue that taking one of his books, instead of Celestial Harmonies by Peter Esterhazy would be a more fitting representative for late twentieth century/early 21st century central European fiction in a representative canon.   Not this book though.  And I wouldn't think The World Goes On wins the  2018 Booker International Prize, either.

Friday, April 27, 2018

The Dry (2017) by Jane Harper


Book Review
The Dry (2017)
 by Jane Harper

  When I look for new books to read, I'm generally looking either for major literary award nominees or books that border between genre fiction and literary fiction.  The Dry, by Australian crime-fiction writer Jane Harper, is one of those boundary books, clearly a work of detective fiction, but also skillful and deep enough to qualify as literary fiction at the same time.  The Dry gets extra points for being a debut novel AND for taking place in an interesting locale: A small Australian farming community located outside of Melbourne. 

  I managed to obtain the Los Angeles Public Library audiobook after waiting for several months.  I'm positive I heard about it at the end of last year when it made some year end lists- the original publication date was in January of last year.  The narrator had a pleasing Australian accent, truly the performance of an audiobook is a skill in and of itself, often requiring the reader to "do" different voices, ages and genders.  I'm unclear as to whether the accent was regionally specific, but my ignorance didn't detract from the listening experience.

    Jane Harper has already moved on to book 2 in what is now called the "Aaron Falk" series.  Falk, a detective/investigator with the Federal Australian Police in their financial crimes department, returns home to grapple with the apparent murder-suicide of his childhood friend, wife and one of two children and simultaneously deal with the fall out of a mysterious death of his high school (girl) friend.  And while there is nothing particularly original about any of the elements, other than perhaps, the location in rural Australia, Harper shows herself a deft writer, with a solid grasp of literary technique as well as the mechanics of genre.   She creates a double mystery, and the conclusion leaves the reader satisfied.  The Dry is a must both for genre fans of detective fiction and readers of Australian literary fiction. 

Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Scarlet Letter (1850) by Nathaniel Hawthorne


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Demi Moore played Hester Pyrnne in the famously terrible 1995 movie version of The Scarlet Letter.
The Scarlet Letter (1850)
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

  The Scarlet Letter is another fun read from high school English class.   Published in 1850, it is, I think, the first published American novel still widely read. The Last of the Mohicans was published two decades earlier, but I don't think people really read that book anymore. The Last of the Mohicans is also too long to be read in the context of a modern high school schedule, and The Scarlet Letter has almost the perfect length to be read in full by a high school student.

   Listening to the audiobook this time around, I was struck by at just how very dark The Scarlet Letter is.  It's one thing to know that the language is "darkly romantic," another to actually hear the language spoken aloud.  Were it not for the Puritan wilderness location, you could call The Scarlet Letter gothic. And even if The Scarlet Letter isn't technically gothic, you could forgiven for describing it that way.

   Honestly, it's hard to find much of the dialogue comical when heard aloud.  Again, I was struck that listening to The Scarlet Letter instead of reading it raised the possibility of a satirical element that I totally missed reading it in school.  Googling satire in The Scarlet Letter brings up a wide range of sources, so that's one point against high school me.  Like I said, hearing it, the humorous/satirical intent is apparent. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Cry, the Beloved Country (1948) by Alan Paton


Book Review
Cry, the Beloved Country (1948)
by Alan Paton

  I was assigned Cry, the Beloved Country my freshman year in high school, as part of freshman English.  It's very easy for a non-student/non-educator to forget the life-or-death role that schools play in the canon formation process.  The ability of a novel to become a fixture in high school or college English/Literature classes in the United States has become the most important single factor in ensuring canonical status for that work.

  Alan Paton is also one of the great one-hit wonders of 20th century literature.  He emerged form obscurity as an administrator of a provincial South African juvenile reformatory, when on a tour or Western prisons, he handed the hand written manuscript to some American friends.  Those friends were well connected and influential, and before he let the US a few weeks later he had a book deal. The book was an immediate hit in the United States, and to a less degree in the UK (and not in South Africa), the popular success paving the road for it's introduction as a "taught" book.   Along with Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe it is one of the tent-poles of African literature, at least as that term is understood by western audiences.

   Cry, the Beloved Country continues to hold up as a classic,  Reading it this time, I was struck by the similarities between this book and To Kill a Mockingbird.  Stephen Kumalo, the long suffering country parson whose desire to track down his sister and son in the slums of Johannesburg forms the impetus for the narrative, is only one of a dozen memorable characters, black and white (though entirely, it should be said, male.) created by Paton as he realizes his complex vision of apartheid era South Africa.

   Multiple scenes illustrate that South African society was never unilaterally set against the interests of black Africans.  The murder at the heart of Cry, the Beloved Country: by the son of Stephen Kumalo of a well-known white reformer, proves to be a bringer of both blessings and curses to Kumalo's isolated village. The tragedy of Apartheid era South Africa is that it obscured what was some of the most progressive, hands on thinker and doers on the topic of race and economic development.  Unfortunately, many of these people were victims of the very same policies they so vociferously opposed, and over time they either moved into the shadows or actually left South Africa.
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Monday, April 23, 2018

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (1987) by Douglas Adams


Book Review
Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (1987)
 by Douglas Adams

  In Junior High, Douglas Adams was one of my favorite authors, specifically, the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was  a threshold title between Young Adult/Genre Fiction and the headier world of literature.  In my own experience, Adams preceded the Beats and Herman Hesse, and his treatment of philosophical issues, humorous though they might be, spurred my own interest in, "Life, The Universe and Everything"

  I remember the paperback copy of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. I can still remember the cover art from the decade plus it sat on my bookshelf.  I don't have the paperback any longer, so I read the Ebook on my Kindle smartphone app.  This is an almost perfect book for an Ereader- it's decently long but not too long, and the prose is breezy enough to make switching between the book and other apps easy. 

  As for the book itself, not as funny as I remember it, but in 2018, large swathes of the humor industrial complex have adapted to the combination of humor and whimsy that marked this book as distinctive when it was released.  There is even, most improbably, a television version.

The Corrections (2001) by Jonathan Franzen


Book Review
The Corrections (2001)
by Jonathan Franzen

  I've been consciously avoiding reading The Corrections since it was released in 2001.  I was, at the time, a fan of his early novels, Twenty Seventh City, about an Indian-American mayor of St. Louis, and Strong Motion, but the hubbub over The Corrections (Oprah's Book Club, National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist) turned me off, as did the precis of the book about a dysfunctional Midwestern American family.   Finally reading it 2018, it was everything, and more, that I thought it would be vis-a-vis the problems of privileged white folks in mid to late 20th century America.

  Which is not to say that The Corrections doesn't have it moments, particularly in the portions that deal directly with the diminished capacity of the family patriarch and the struggles of his wife and three children to deal with it.  I listened to the Audiobook version which I learned, only afterwards, was a, horrors, abridged version.  Reflecting on the experience though, my horror lessened.  Surely the abridgment was justified. 

  Franzen deserved his success, if only for the fact that he really does blaze new territory in the depiction of the onset of alzheimers/dementia, which I believe is a growth area for literary fiction.  The problems of the children themselves range from unsympathetic to unbelievable, and the mother doesn't come off much better.  Or maybe it all hits a little bit too close to home for his child of Jews who moved from St. Louis to San Francisco within the same general timeline of this book. 

Don't Move (2004) by Margaret Mazzantini


Book Review
Don't Move (2004)
 by Margaret Mazzantini

  I surmise that Don't Move, the 2004 novel by Italian author Margaret Mazzantini made a splash- both in her native Italy, where it sold a million copies, and in English translation, but I missed all that, and it came to me as one of those random selections at the end of the original edition of the 1001 Books list.  The only copy I could locate was the hard copy, no Kindle or Audiobook for this title.

  The plot is something that only makes sense in the context of Europe:  A succesful Italian surgeon sits at the bedside of his adolescent daughter in the aftermath of a traumatic scooter accident.  As he waits for her to recover (or not) he recounts an affair with a slatternly woman named Italia.  They meet, as could only be the case in a French or Italian work of art, when he, the surgeon has car trouble and needs to find a phone to call for help.  Italia offers him the use of the phone in her shack,  He uses the phone, calls for help, then returns shortly thereafter and violently rapes her.  At first consumed with the fear of discovery, he returns to the scene of the crime, rapes her again, and only then realizes that, perhaps, she is into it.

 She is, indeed, into it, and their relationship starts as a series of quasi-violent or actually violent sex scenes and evolves into something...else.   More would spoil the story, which isn't quite a thriller, but more like a morality tale woven into something resembling a thriller.  

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