Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, June 08, 2018

Another World (1998) by Pat Barker

Book Review
Another World (1998)
by Pat Barker

  Pat Barker was fresh off her Booker Prize win (1995 for The Ghost Road, the last book in her Regeneration trilogy about the impact of World War I on soldiers and those who cared for them.)  Any thorough evaluation of Barker's career will have to wait years, decades perhaps, since she is still publishing, at a pacer of one new novel every three years.  Unlike the historical fiction of the Regeneration trilogy, Another World is a work of domestic fiction, about a "blended family" of middle class English living in the suburbs in the late 20th century.

  Another World closely resembles decades of literary fiction on both sides of the Atlantic.  English, Canadian, American and African analogues comes to mind, when it comes to depicting the dissatisfactions of modern life as experience by relatively well off white people living in the present or former United Kingdom.   The major theme in this particular book is that of the "bad child," a child whose unexplained bad behavior effectively ruins the lives of the parents.   There is never any reasons for it, certainly not something the parent protagonists did.

 For my money, it is pretty tedious stuff. I know being a parent is hard, even though I'm not one.  I know it from listening to my own parents, my friends, etc.  Popular culture, the media, social media, newspapers, yes, I get it, it is hard to be a parent, hard to be a mom, hard to be a dad.  Show me a book where that isn't the case, that would be interesting to me.

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Nowhere Man (2002) by Aleksandar Hemon

Book Review
Nowhere Man (2002)
by Aleksandar Hemon

  I believe Aleksandar Hemon is the type of writer you would call a "writer's writer." I.E.: critically beloved, but lacking the kind of break-out popular hit that often separates canon members from also rans in the 20th and 21st century.  A Bosnian immigrant who learned English as an adult, Hemon is frequently compared to Conrad (mmm,,maybe.) and Nabokov (closer).  The constants in his oeuvre are immigrant characters from the ex-Yugoslavia, an obsession with the impact of those wars on said characters, and a clever way with the English language- setting him apart from many native born writers.

  In Nowhere Man, apparently named after the Beatles tune, Josef Pronek- a character from his earlier short story, Blind Josef Pronek and Dead Souls, gets his own novel.  The three segments of Nowhere Man deal with three separate periods in Pronek's life: The first is his childhood in pre-war Sarajevo, the second, his student days in the Ukraine and the third, his present as a low paid solicitor for Greenpeace.   Nowhere Man ends with a digression into the life of  Russian army officer and his life in Shanghai.

  Hemon's personal back story fairly cries out for something more Conradian- an exploration of the darkness of southeast Europe, perhaps.   Two books into his catalog, my only observation is that he is largely engaged with the minutiae of day-to-day existence, and the struggles of characters on the periphery of society.  Call it the immigrant experience.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Like Water For Chocolate (1989) by Laura Esquivel

Book Review
Like Water For Chocolate (1989)
 by Laura Esquivel

   Like Water For Chocolate is another fine example of the "international best seller": Not written in English, but appealing to a broad, English speaking audience, Like Water For Chocolate, was, for my money a pretty pedestrian paint-by-numbers example of magical realism set on the border of Mexico and San Antonio.  Tita, the main character, is told by her hateful mother, Maria Elena, that her destiny is never to marry, to take care of her, Maria Elena until her death. If you've read any books in the area of magical realism, you have a good idea of what happens next.

  The book here is that each chapter has a recipe, and much of the action of the book involves cooking the recipe listed at the beginning of each chapter, interspersed with love, hate, rebels, rape, love making and lots and lots of passionate arguing.  Seems to me that the ideal audience would be someone who was totally unfamiliar with the classics of magical realism, because for that reader, Like Water For Chocolate would be pretty fresh and original.

A Kestrel for a Knave (1968) by Barry Hines

Book Review
A Kestrel for a Knave (1968)
 by Barry Hines

  A Kestrel for a Knave, about a young, working-class boy living in a coal mining area of England, is regularly taught to students in the UK, where it was also the basis for a very well regarded film by director Ken Loach.  In the US, the blend of English working class concerns circa the early 1960's and falconry is less accessible, but certainly the story of a boy and his bird carries enough universality to appeal to the interested USA residing reader.

   Billy, the protagonist, lives in a shanty with his slatternly mother and vile older brother, Jud.  He attends the local grammar school, where he has a bad reputation: half slacker, half criminal, and is regularly bullied both by teachers and other students.  Billy is the kind of kid, who, when asked to write a work of fiction, chooses to write about what others would call an ideal family live, with hot meals and a present father.  That sort of world is Billy's fiction, and his reality is a go nowhere existence, where going into the mines is presented as an excellent career.

  Hines writes squarely within the "angry young man/kitchen sink" genre of British prose.  All the characters speak in dialect.  Economic circumstances are dire. The kestrel becomes a force for good in Billy's dim, uneventful life and A Kestrel for a Knave largely boils down to waiting for someone to come along and ruin it.

Monday, June 04, 2018

The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886) by Leo Tolstoy

Book Review
The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886)
 by Leo Tolstoy

  If you want to limit canonical authors to a maximum of three titles using early/middle/late as the three categories, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, written after Tolstoy's religious conversion, would be the "late" representative from canon mainstay Count Leo Tolstoy.  In addition to being a good example of his post-conversion work, it is also a novella, and clocks in at several hundred pages less than Crime and Punishment or Anna Karenina.

  Almost unrelentingly grim, particularly when you listen to the Audiobook while you are running, The Death of Ivan Ilyich tells the story of the eponymous Ilyich, a provincial court judge in Russia, who spends the entire story dying in his bed, wracked by guilt and tormented by the meaninglessness of life.  His wife is unsympathetic, his Doctor isn't helping him, and for most of the story Ilyich is wracked by indescribable pain and torment.   As I said: it's grim.  Psychologically acute, but grim. Grim, grim, grim. 

Dining on Stones (2004) by Iain Sinclair

Book Review
Dining on Stones (2004)
 by Iain Sinclair

  Psychogeography would probably be more popular in the United States if it had been developed by writers in New York and Los Angeles.  As it is, the Paris and London roots of this contemporary socio-literary movement doom it to a struggle for relevance in the reading rooms of American audiences.    Even worse, most of the London based psychogeography is focused on East London, which, if it means anything to most American readers, brings associations of cockney speaking gangsters.   Iain Sinclair, one of the foremost proponents of psycho geography, is very focused on East London.  In Dining on Stones he moves down the river to the coast, East Sussex, specifically, where his avatar-narrator follows in the footsteps of Joseph Conrad, who famously, and tortuously, wrote Nostromo here.

   To quote the Guardian review, Dining on Stones is, "pretty free of plot, if not story."   Almost all the book is not-quite-stream of consciousness, with frequent interpositions of pop culture references and literary criticism, mostly focused on the aforementioned Conrad and psychogeography fellow traveler J.G. Ballard.   One of the principles I've synthesized out of the psychogeographical texts I've read is attention to the ignored spots in the landscape:  Let's have a paragraph about the detritus on the side of a motorway, or the pattern of stains in the parking lot of a petrol station.   This attention to the ignored isn't solely the province of psychogeographical writers- I can think of a half dozen photographers with work stretching back a half century who have made careers out of these kind of places- starting with Robert Frank, and attention to place is a frequent feature of succesful literary fiction, but not in the way that Sinclair and his fellows pay attention to place- not the same places.


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