Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, August 31, 2018

The Three Body Problem (2006) by Liu Cixin

Book Review
The Three Body Problem (2006)
by Liu Cixin

   This "hard sci fi" classic was translated from the original Chinese into English in 2014.  In that guise, it promptly swept that year's English language fantasy/sci fi multiple awards, and just this March, Amazon announced that it is adapting the trilogy into a one billion dollar television version. Even though the original publication date is 2006, the audience is still growing, and the prospect of a future big budget Western television version extends the time horizon for that growth out for years.  I believe it would also be the first work of Chinese genre fiction to make it so big in the United States, which is itself a cultural milestone for the integration of Chinese literature into the world canon.

  Western reviewers often compare Cixin to canonical genre authors like Asimov and Bradbury, but there is no denying that there is something extra about Cixin, specifically his grasp of the "hard" subjects of science fiction, which still sound as fresh in 2018 as they must have to a Chinese language audience in 2006. Surprisingly to me, The Three Body Problem does not ignore recent Chinese history, with the major "villain" being a victim of the excesses of the cultural revolution against intellectuals.   This intriguing backdrop animates the characters, giving The Three Body Problem a depth that is more consistent with literary fiction than genre fiction.

  The bare outline of The Three Body Problem is that it is a "first contact" narrative written from a contemporary Chinese point of view, heavy on the actual science of SETI.  From a western television perspective, the Cultural Revolution back story seems like an easy fumble, since most Americans simply don't know what happened, period the end.  The sensitivities of the current Chinese administration are another level of complexity, but The Three Body Problem trilogy has a status in China that requires official endorsement. 

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Nausea (1938) by Jean Paul Sartre

Book Review
Nausea (1938)
 by Jean Paul Sartre

  Nausea is the first novel by Nobel Prize decliner Jean Paul Sartre.  It's also the first existentialist novel, and indeed the single text that introduced the most people to the idea of existentialism.   It's common to associate existentialism with the post World War II period, but for Sartre and the other existentialists of the early 20th century it was the experience of the first World War and the subsequent post War crisis of faith that shaped their perspective. 

 Antoine Roquentin, the existentialist anti-hero, is living in a thinly veiled version of the French port city of Le Havre, where he suffers from a crisis of faith where being in society, in public, causes him to be nauseas.  He consorts with a variety of low lifes, including his friend, "the self taught man," who spends his days reading indiscriminately at the local library.

  The plight of the existential hero is so familiar 80 years after Nausea was published that it is difficult to plug in the excitement that it must have caused at the time.  It's also unclear how far Nausea penetrated in translation- with the major current English translation dating from 1965, 25 years after it was first published in French. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (1988) by Douglas Adams

Book Review
The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul (1988)
 by Douglas Adams

  Douglas Adams placing three books in the first edition of the 1001 Books list is risible. Going back and looking at some of the one book authors- it boggles the mind that the editors could have let three of Adams books make it while basically all of literature from East Asia is excluded.  For sure, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy makes a good case for itself, simply because of the influence it displayed on the growth of the internet, the combination of science fiction and humor and a continued audience for the book itself.   Perhaps, the case can be made for a second title, Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, but a stronger case is that if the list is going to make only a cursory attempt to include detective fiction, the inclusion of a contemporary work parodying detective fiction is unnecessary.

  The inclusion of The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, the sequel to Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency is almost wholly inexplicable except by way of the overrepresentation of recent authors and English authors.  The events of Long Dark Tea-Time are classic Douglas Adams: rogue Norse Gods, a detective who operates by karmic chance and a female lead who is poorly characterized. Honestly, it's hard to make any kind of honest case for including it in the first place.  So few sequels make the list as separate entries!

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Less Than Zero (1985) by Bret Easton Ellis

Image result for rip less than zero
James Spader played Rip, Julian's drug dealer/expoiter in the terrible movie version of Less Than Zero.
Book Review
Less Than Zero (1985)
 by Bret Easton Ellis

   I bought an original-cover paperback copy of Less Than Zero in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco when I was home from my freshman year of college, which would have been 1995.  I still own that copy- pulled it off the shelf in my office yesterday, in fact.  It is the oldest book in my library that I actually remember purchasing.   Less Than Zero would qualify as one of my top ten favorite books of all time, and I always felt that it perfectly captured the attitude of well-off young people from California living in the early 1980's.

   Ellis isn't a one hit wonder, not with American Psycho, Rules of Attraction and Glamorama to his credit, but you could argue that he is a borderline washed-up embarrassment, and that his best work is literally decades behind him at this point. Certainly, he hasn't come close to capturing the attention of a mass audience since American Psycho became a genuine cultural phenomenon.

   This time, I read it as an Ebook- it was a good Ebook pick, short, terse, familiar.   I had forgotten just how shocking some of the material was: Muriel shooting up heroin while people film her, the dead body found in a Hollywood alley and the 12 year old sex slave being plyed by heroin.  I had also forgotten that the book has a scene where Clay watches his friend get sodomized by a closeted midwestern business man for several hour- the cut away from the scene being, "He rolled Julian over..."

  Twisted stuff!  Details obscured by the film, which is a Reagan era anti drug homily with none of the transgressive charm of the book.

Foucault's Pendulum (1988) by Umberto Eco

Book Review
Foucault's Pendulum (1988)
 by Umberto Eco

  Foucault's Pendulum has to be one of the most unlikely international best-selling books of the 20th century.  Written by an Italian semiotician and theorist, albeit one who had already struck international best-seller gold with his earlier book, The Name of the Rose (1980), Foucault's Pendulum was quickly translated into English and rose on the best seller list.  In 2003, author Dan Brown wrote a similar-but-different book, The Da Vinci Code, which drew heavily on many of the themes and historical events.  Today, Foucault's Pendulum is often called "The Da Vinci Code for people who aren't idiots," but really it's only the common theme of a secret conspiracy perpetrated by the Knights Templar that bind the two books together.

  Above all other things, Foucault's Pendulum is what I call a brick, i.e. a work of literature that runs 500 pages plus (650 pages in this case).  Bricks present special problems to the reader, but mostly it's just the fact that a brick can only be read seriously due to the size and weight of the book itself.  The hardback edition I checked out of the Los Angeles Public Library was huge, big and rectangular, and weighed several pounds.  It wasn't a book I would want to own, and I was vaguely embarrassed the one time I read it in public.   The brick is a genre of literary fiction that had a peak roughly in coincidence with the rise of mall-chain book stores, Crown Books, and later Barnes and Noble and Borders.   Foucault's Pendulum is what I call "peak brick"- among the 650 pages you find literally page long lists of occult organizations read out of a mailing list.  Don't tell me that this portion was somehow central to the narrative or the book itself- it is filler. 

  Maybe not to Umberto Eco, who has his reasons, or utter lack of reason, for his decision, but for the publisher that bought the book this way, published it this way and made a mint on the back of those decisions.   It's easy to imagine a universe where Foucault's Pendulum is either 350 pages long or doesn't exist in English translation at all, but here we are. 

Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Milkman (2018) by Anna Burns

Book Review
The Milkman (2018)
 by Anna Burns

  Due a quirk of the rules, books published by Irish publishing houses were excluded from the Booker Prize, which covered, I guess, only books published in Commonwealth countries, so an Irish writer published by an English company was fine, but not an Irish author published in Ireland.   This was corrected around the same time that the rules were amended to include writers from the United States.  For the last couple years, the United States has been dominant, but Ireland has three representatives including, The Milkman, written by Anna Burns, from Northern Ireland, and published in the United Kingdom, not Ireland, where the other two authors were published.  If Burns is included with the two authors published in the Republic of Ireland, Irish authors out class Americans this year, 3 to 2.

  A writer like Burns even getting a sniff of a mass American audience can only be a blessing.  The Milkman itself is dark and stylish, like the past two decades of Scottish and regional English fiction filtered through a Lynne Ramsay film.  For one thing, none of the characters, or very few rather, have actual names, calling each other names like "maybe boy friend" "third brother in law" etc.  In a brief aside,the narrator, an 18 year old Northern Ireland woman who belongs to a family of "Renouncers" (of the British government), explains how every name is a political act, revealing the sympathies of the bearer and thus better avoided.

  The Milkman is clearly set in Northern Ireland, during the troubles, probably Belfast, although it could be a secondary Northern Ireland city (Burns is from Belfast.)  Again, no names are used, so there is nothing specific to tie the events of The Milkman to a specifically Northern Ireland scenario.  The use of this style elevates The Milkman from an interesting but not spectacular work of regional British fiction to something much darker and stranger, more like Ishiguro, and more clearly a work with a potential international audience.

  On the one hand, The Milkman is an obvious longshot for shortlist status vis a vis the 2018 Booker Prize, on the other hand, it's exactly the kind of distinct, memorable book that comes from nowhere to take the literary world by storm.   I'm only three books into the 13 books longlist, and it looks like I'll only get to maybe one or two more titles before the short list. 

Warlight (2018)by Michael Ondaatje

Book Review
Warlight (2018)
by Michael Ondaatje
US publication May 2018 by Penguin Randomhouse

  Among the thirteen books longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, only two- this book and The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner, can be located in your average local/chain/indie bookselling establishment.  Kushner, because she is an American author with a history of short list nominations for major literary awards, and Warlight by Canadian author Michael Ondaatje, because he wrote The English Patient, which is one of those canon-level international best sellers that make up a significant portion of the 1001 Books list from 1990 to 2006.

  The English Patient is one of those cross-platform winners that had a huge popular audience (Best Seller on Six Continents!), critical acclaim (Booker Prize win), and a movie version that also had a huge popular audience and critical acclaim in its own right.   Although The English Patient wasn't Ondaatje's first novel, it might as well have been as far as his popular audience was concerned.  Since then, Ondaatje has kept writing novels, but none of them have really landed, certainly nothing anything close to what happened with The English Patient.

  His appearance on the 2018 Booker Prize longlist isn't exactly a shock, since he's a past winner, but if you peruse the summaries of the novels he's published since The English Patient, it looks like his most viable book in terms of a potential popular audience/succesful movie in literally decades.   Warlight is both a bildungsroman and a psycho-geographical historical novel about London during the second World War.

 Nathaniel, the narrator, is suddenly abandoned by both his parents, who disappear mysteriously during World War II for unexplained reasons.  With his sister, Rachel, he is left in the care an "only in London" character called "The Moth" who does it isn't clear what, and introduces Nathaniel and Rachel to a panoply of characters located at the nexus of secret war work and criminal enterprise.  At the end of the War, his Mother returns, and then the rest of the book is spent teasing out the implications of that childhood abandonment.

   The Audiobook I listened to was particularly well done- the narration in the voice of Nathaniel is very smooth heard out loud, almost like listening to someone tell you a story- which is not always the case for Audiobook narration, whether the fault of the writer or reader.   I'd have to say that Warlight is a favorite for the Booker Prize shortlist, given his status as a prior winner combined with his decades long absence, "Ondaatje is back!" seems like a good guess.  Ondaatje is also one of those authors who could surprise with a Nobel Prize- if you look at his books since The English Patient, they almost sound like they were written with the Nobel Prize committee in mind: international in scope and serious in intent.  I think it's pretty clear that the Nobel Prize committee despises the non-literary "best-seller" and has a limited sense of humor in any language.  

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