Dedicated to classics and hits.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Valhalla (1980) by Newton Thornburg

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Original hardcover edition of Valhalla by Newton Thornburg
Book Review
Valhalla (1980)
 by Newton Thornburg

  One of the most surprising authors on the core list of 600 some odd books that comprise the 1001 Books List, i.e. those authors who have never lost their status for a particular volume throughout each revision of the book from 2008 to today, is American mostly-crime fiction pulp novelist Newton Thornburg, whose down at the heels, post-Vietnam War kidnap/revenge story, Cutter and Bone, is a core title of the 1001 Books list.

   What is surprising is that Thornburg is essentially forgotten in the United States, in the sense that he doesn't even have an authors Facebook page, let alone a long term publisher with a vested interest in raising his posthumous status. Set in Santa Barbara, just up the coast from Los Angeles and San Diego, Cutter and Bone was a true discovery of the 1001 Books project- an author based out of my cultural back yard, an area I'm interested in and travel to every few months, from a recent time period, and wholly unknown to myself, and really, unknown to everyone I know.  Finding authors like Newton Thornburg ny chance is essentially the whole long-term point of the 1001 Books project.

  Naturally I wanted to read more, and when I saw a description of Valhalla, Thornburg's very poorly received borderline racist post-apocalyptic survival novel, I just had to get my hands on a copy- which I finally did via an Ebook (though not a Kindle Ebook) that was available through the Los Angeles Public Library.   There is, indeed, much to despise in Valhalla, but it also entertains, and it gives voice to a part of our culture rarely immortalized in canonical level fiction.  Which is not to argue that Valhalla deserves canonical status, because,  it doesn't.  But it is fun and far different from what one reads in contemporary apocalyptic fiction, whose survivors tend to espouse the kind of values popular with the people reading said books.  In fact, what is amazing about the current crop of apocalit is how bland and anodyne the apocalypse can be in the hands of an author more determined to tell a story about characters and relationships. Not so here- Thornburg's "Mau Mau" street gang inspired post apocalyptic barbarians are anything but politically correct, and the sex and violence describe push Valhalla to an "only for adults" level.


Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Severance (2018) by Ling Ma

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American author Ling Ma makes a bold debut with Severance, her combination of post-apocalyptic zombie thriller and first generation American bildungsroman. 
Book Review
Severance (2018)
by Ling Ma
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Augst 2018

   You could call this book "#Apocalypse" or "Apocalypse, Meh," and both suggestions would convey the tone, if not depth, of Severance, the first novel by first generation American author Ling Ma.  Narrator Candice Chen, the daughter of Chinese immigrants who settled in Salt Lake City, is the last woman out of New York City, after a fungus inspired disease renders nearly every human on Earth, "fevered;" a state which resembles that of a zombie lacking ill intent.

   The book switches back and forth between the present, where Candice falls in with a group of (the only) survivors travelling to a well stocked "facility" partially owned by group leader Bob. In between is a fairly straight forward bildungsroman about Chen's experience as the daughter of immigrants, and her work and love life in New York City as a lower level editor of Bibles at a company that handles outsourced printing jobs in China.

  The almost universally laudatory reviews posit that Severance is more than the sum of its parts, though I would reduce the number of those parts to two: the post-apocalypse narrative and the more conventional first generation American bildungsroman. Like Ma's writing, the idea is clever.  Whatever the ultimate verdict on the literary merit of Severance- this was another title I thought might be on the National Book Award for fiction longlist announced earlier this month, there is no denying that Severance is funny and thoughtful at the same time, and it makes fresh what otherwise is heavily trodden territory (post apocalyptic literary fiction and American immigrant bildungsromans.)

  I would join the chorus of recommenders, and make a plug for the Audiobook- because the only weakness- Ma's choice to rely exclusively on a single voice for narration- translates perfectly to the Audiobook format, which favors such books where there is a single narrator or lengthy spoken monologues, and does less well with a diversity of narrators and conversational dialogue.



Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Smila's Sense of Snow (1992) by Peter Hoeg

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Actress Julia Ormond played the half inuit/half Danish protagonist Smilla in the move version of Smilla's Sense of Snow
Book Revew
Smila's Sense of Snow (1992)
 by Peter Hoeg

  I was 16 in 1992, when Smila's Sense of Snow was published, 17 the next year when the English translation came out.  It was a minor literary sensation back then, before The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series catapulted scandi-noir into the consciousness of the literate English speaking public.  Indeed, Smila's Sense of Snow is almost a template for the elements of Dragon Tattoo:  A young, female outsider protagonist, a mystery that involves the intertwined relationship between Scandinavian business and society and a distinct sense of outrage about the moral calculus of capitalism.

  I distinctly remember the hard cover edition my parents bought, this time I read it as an Ebook, on my Kindle app. There, it was more evidence of the difficulty have reading on my Kindle cell phone app.  It took me almost the entire 21 day borrowing period, and I barely finished before the library check-out expired automatically.   Not because Smila's Sense of Snow as a bad choice as an ebook, quite the opposite: Anything that involves genre or is already familiar to the reader is going to be ok to read as an Ebook.  Rather, it is the fact that the cell phone presents so many other options to engage me when I'm using it.  Compare that reading experience to an actual book or listening to an audiobook, both of which more or less require undivided attention.  I end up flipping back and forth between the Ebook and Instagram, going to Facebook, reading articles in my feed, refreshing my email, sending text messages, anything but reading.  My whole idea is that I would increase my efficiency and spend less time doing useless stuff on my phone, but the useless stuff, really any distraction whatsoever, is enough for me to close the Kindle app on my phone.

   Like many canon level works of detective/crime fiction, Smilla's Sense of Snow holds up well, both in terms of the book itself and the setting: early 1990's Copenhagen and bits of Greenland.  If someone told me that Smilla was published last year, instead of in 1992, I wouldn't be surprised.  The editors obviously prefer Hoeg to Dragon Tattoo author Larsson, who has never been selected in any edition.    

Monday, September 17, 2018

The Incendiaries (2018) by R. O. Kwon

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R. O. Kwon, author of The Incendiaries

Book Review
The Incendiaries (2018)
by R. O. Kwon
Published July 2018 by Riverhead Books

 The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwon has been tabbed as an auspicious debut novel, and the backing of Riverhead Books, the prestige imprint for PenguinRandomhouse in the United States, certainly can't hurt.   One of the major advantages of the novel as an art form is the adaptability it has displayed over the nearly four centuries that it has dominated literary output.   A format that works for many different writers, the bildungsroman, for example, a narrative about the growth between childhood and adulthood,  was pioneered in early 19th century Germany, popped up in every major national literature in the mid 19th century onward, and provides a disproportionate number of "first" novels, both good and bad.

  The bildungsroman is also a genre that blends well with other genres: almost the entire corpus of fantasy novels as a genre is some kind of coming of age story.    The bildungsroman, or "coming of age story" in English, has also been hugely influential in other art forms, television and film, to name two.  So for each new voice that comes along, a bildungsroman is a well understood step to bridge the gap from unpublished novelist to hot young novelist.

  Kwon writes about a small group of Korean-American students attending a non descript college on the East Coast.  Although Kwon switches perspectives around to build suspense, the major narrator is Will, a recovering religious fanatic(?) who has abandoned his west coast bible college in favor of a new start.  His love interest is Phoebe, a "manic pixie" dream girl, who harbors a tragic secret.   John Leal is the third major player- a half Korean- half white student religious leader who turns into the fulcrum of the plot.  Kwon delves into the back stories of the major character- not Leal- just Phoebe and Will, both of whom reflect different aspects of the experience of childhood from the perspective of an assimilated Korean-American.

   I didn't know the gender of the author of The Incendiaries and based on the main narrator being a man, I wrongly assumed the gender of the author.  At the same time, I wasn't at all surprised.  There is no rule that says a bildungsroman narrated by a man has to be written by a man, and indeed Kwon's bold choice has paid off in terms of the critical applause and best-seller status, recently obtained.  Having read The Incendiaries, I'm surprised it didn't make the National Book Award fiction longlist, but it was a down year of Asian American nominees, after last year.

  It is fair to observe that none of the critical and popular applause is due to The Incendiaries being a typical bildungsroman, of course there is something more, but you certainly have to read to find out what.


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