Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013) by Robert Flanagan


Book Review
The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013)
by Robert Flanagan

   The Narrow Road to the Deep North, the six novel by Australian author Robert Flanagan, won the Booker Prize in 2014.   I purchased a hard back copy shortly after the win.  After that, my hard back copy sat on the shelf for three years, until I read it during summer of last year.   It is unclear why it took me so long to read such an eminently readable (320 pages) book about an interesting subject: The experience of Australian POW's building the Burma Railway in 1942.   Notably, Flanagan also includes the lives of the captors, including both Japanese officers and Korean enlisted men among the dramatis personae.

  The horrific experience of the POW's during the war occupies only a portion of the narrative- the rest of it moves backwards and forwards in time, as Flanagan explores the causes and consequences of the inhumanity of the Japanese to their captors (and to their own soldiers, it must be said.) The "hook" of The Narrow Road to the Deep North is this multi-dimensionality.  Although I can think of at least a dozen World War II era POW books, not a one uses characters from both sides, or at least not to the extent that Flanagan does here.


   The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a must for fans of 20th century war narrative, less so for others, but rewarding for those who take the plunge.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Plague (1947) by Albert Camus


Book Review
The Plague (1947)
by Albert Camus

  Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area in the aftermath of the 1960's, it seemed normal that French intellectuals like Jean Paul Sartre, Simone Beauvoir and Albert Camus had a role to play in the intellectual development of a curious adolescent reader.  Reading The Plague, probably the best novel to come out of the French existentialist was de rigeur, and I can remember discussing it after class in the still-legal-to-smoke cafes of Berkeley.  I hadn't revisited The Plague, or even though of Albert Camus, until I recently checked out the Kindle ebook copy from the Los Angeles Public Library.

  Reading it again as a forty year old, I now marveled that such a dry, dour tale penetrated so far into the consciousness of the American audience.  Certainly, the fact that Camus won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957, the second youngest writer to ever win the prize, and the added fact that he died in a tragic car accident not four years after he won the prize, did something to cement him as a figure of note to would-be tragic adolescents. Reading an ebook, whatever the other advantages and disadvantages, is 100% less romantic than reading a moldy paperback in the back of a college-town cafe.  Half the pleasure of reading The Plague is letting the people around you see you holding the book, reading  the book.

  Shuffling through the e-pages, I found The Plague a bore.  The magic of that high school era encounter was lost in the ebook.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Modern World by Maya Jasanoff


Book Review
The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Modern World
 by Maya Jasanoff
Published November 2017

   I love Joseph Conrad, and so does author Maya Jasanoff, the excellent Harvard Professor of European History.  Jasanoff begins The Dawn Watch, which is a combination of literary criticism and literary exploration, by apologizing for liking Joseph Conrad, even though his books feature racism in a prominent position.   Her answer to, "Why Conrad?" boils down to an argument that Conrad was instrumental in helping the world places see places: colonial Africa, Asia and Latin America that were blank places on the map, as far as literary imagination went.

  I agree with Jasanoff, and I've said on this blog- before reading this book- that the pleasure of Conrad is the pleasure of discovering these new places.  Conrad did we might call "raise awareness," and by doing so he set the stage for the explosion in the literature of the global south.  I found a particularly telling moment near the end, after Conrad died, when Virginia Woolf, arch-modernist, penned a hateful obituary in the Times Literary Supplement.  When Jasanoff quotes her, you can hear the sneering voice of the high modernists across the decades.

 I listened to the Audiobook version- my first non fiction Audiobook, but Jasanoff is such a skilled writer, and the subject is so interesting, that I felt like I was listening to a work of fiction.  I would recommend The Dawn Watch for anyone interested in Joseph Conrad, his life and his works.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Independent People (1935) by Halldor Laxness


Book Review
Independent People (1935)
by Haldor Laxness

   I've never been to Iceland, despite being asked to go at least a half dozen times.  I've turned down offers to attend the Airwaves festival, a personal invitation from a long-time San Diego neighbor who relocated, and requests from two significant others to go.  My sense is that few, if any of the American's I see posting photos on social media about their Iceland trip have read Independent People, written by Iceland's Nobel Prize in Literature winner, Halldor Laxness.   I read Independent People for the first time a decade ago, when my Icelandic neighbor lent it to me after I expressed interest in knowing about the "real" Iceland- beyond the landscape photos and Bjork.

   I'd admit that Independent People is a tough sell for a casual visitor to Iceland. It is almost 500 pages long, and focuses almost solely on the life of a small time sheep herder, living on a marginal farm on the edge of Icelandic civilization.  The title, Independent People, translates in the original Icelandic to "self-standing"folk, and it a concept near and dear to Bjartur, the peasant-farmer, who takes possession of an allegedly haunted holding and renames it "Summerhomes" in much the same spirit that the original Viking settlers dubbed "Greenland."  Summerhomes is allegedly haunted by a pre-Christian/medieval witch and a pagan demon.

  Pre-Independence Iceland was an incredibly impoverished place- not even indpendent until 1944, so much of Independent People takes place during the late colonial period.  For all that modernity intrudes into the initial portion of the narrative, it could have been seven hundred years ago, but eventually modernity rudely arrives at Summerhomes.  This really is THE book to read if you are heading off to Iceland itself, but maybe give yourself a couple weeks before you take off, lest you not finish before you leave.

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