Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, October 05, 2018

Upstate by (2018) James Wood

Book Review
Upstate  (2018)
 James Wood
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

  James Wood is the head book critic for the New Yorker.  He also writes fiction and non-fiction.   Indeed, it's not hard to imagine Upstate starting out as a New Yorker short story, what with it's well educated, white, relatively well-off characters suffering from a variety of real and imagined maladies.  The three main characters are Alan- a moderately succesful property developer in the Newcastle area of the UK, and his two daughters, Vanessa, a basket case/assistant professor of philosophy at a small liberal arts college in Upstate New York and Helen (older sister), a record label executive working for Sony out of London. 

 Alan and Vanessa head to Vanessa's college town after getting a message of distress from Josh, Vanessa's younger boyfriend, and the four converge on Vanessa's spacious home:  LET THE TALKING COMMENCE!  This was an actual book where I would preferred the Audiobook- almost all of the text is either dialogue or internal monologue.   Even giving Wood some leeway for using Upstate as both a metaphor and a place, the place part of Upstate  isn't particularly well evoked.  Alan seems some similarities between this place and his home of northeast England, but Upstate is minimally represented by some religious neighbors and a gregarious bartender.

  Unless one is a die-hard fan of wealthy white people and their problems, Upstate is unlikely to wow, but it may evoke nods of recognition among similarly situated people.   Me, I've read enough stories about well educated young white women with issues ranging from anxiety to depression- they are like the anti-manic pixie girls.   "Cheer up!" I want to yell at Vanessa- I've spent a life time trying to deal with these sorts of women, and now they pursue me into the realm of fiction.

The Friend (2018) by Sigrid Nunez

Book Review
The Friend (2018)
by Sigrid Nunez
Riverhead Press 2018

 The Friend by Sigrid Nunez is another 2018 National Book Award longlister.  Sigrid Nunez is a literary fiction lifer, with several novels under her belt, some minor awards, and a lengthy list of "visiting professor at" and "writer in residence at" type achievements.   She seems like the type of author with a strong reputation inside the community of literary fiction, but still seeking the kind of mass-market audience that one presumably gets when you win the National Book Award for fiction.

   It isn't clear to me why this particular Sigrid Nunez book got the longlist nod.  The elements are classic "inside the bubble" literary fiction:  A protagonist who is a writer/teacher, living in New York City, mourning the suicide of a complicated white-male writer/mentor after he commits suicide.  The Friend of the title is a Great Dane, who "wife number three" dumps on the narrator after disclosing that the suicide identified her as a likely target. ("She's single, lives by herself, doesn't have to be away from home very much.") 

  Nunez is a clever writer- much of the best bits in The Friend involves asides by the narrator referencing current student culture and literary culture.   The major plot, about the narrator and her relationship with this elderly dog, was less compelling for me, but I can see what she was shooting for, and the National Book Award longlist designation would seem to indicate that she succeeded.  Doesn't seem like a shortlister let alone a winner, but who knows- Nunez has obviously paid her dues.


Thursday, October 04, 2018

The Kindly Ones (2006) by Jonathan Littell

Image result for jonathan littell
French-American author Jonathan Littell
Book Review
The Kindly Ones (2006)
by Jonathan Littell

Replaces:  Adjunct by Peter Manson (UNREAD)

   It's curious how The Kindly Ones, published in French in 2006 but not in English until 2009, made it into the first revision of the 1001 Books list.  That first revision was published in 2008, after the French language publication but before the English translation published in 2009, meaning the inclusion was based on reading the French original.   The stay on the 1001 Books list was brief, The Kindly Ones was dumped in favor of a new Paul Auster novel in 2010.

  The book it replaces, Adjunct by Peter Manson, is the most unreadable book in the original 1001 Books list, and also wholly unavailable in the United States- lacking even a listing on Amazon.  It's one thing for a book to be out of print on Amazon, quite another for Amazon to never have heard of said book, particularly one that was published as recently as 2009.  It seems like unattainability should be a disqualifier for a book that is judged to be a reading "must," and excluding Adjunct from the first revision on this basis seems entirely fair to me.

  The Kindly Ones, on the other hand, makes sense, it's a Prix Goncort (French Pulitzer, basically) winner, written by an American author in the French language.  It is about that favorite subject of early 21st century European fiction, the Nazi's, specifically, the perspective of Nazi's themselves. Maxmillien Aue, the well educated, literate narrator- writer, really, of The Kindly Ones, is reflecting on his experience in World War II as a member of the SS.  As he writes the book, we know that he has survived World War II and lived out a life as a Belgian silkmaker.

  The Kindly Ones is his memoirs as a kind of Nazi SS Forest Gump- present at all the hits of the German atrocities of World War II in his status as first as a direct participant in the messy, early stages of Jewish elimination in the Ukraine, and then as an analyst in the Ukraine, a survivor of the decisive battle of Stalingrad, where he is shot clean through the head and survives, then as a special advisor on the problem of using Jewish labor for economic purposes instead of just killing them all.

  Aue has a personal life as "interesting" as his professional life- specifically a still-dedicated sister fucker- his twin no less, a vast, poorly understood hatred for his Mother, and a non-existent relationship with his proto-Nazi father, who disappeared before Maxmillien had a chance to form a relationship.   It won't surprise anyone to learn that Aue is also an active pursuer of being the receiving partner in anal sex, with boys he seeks out on the streets and bars of pre-war Berlin.   All of these elements twist and turn over the almost 1000 (992) page, and I felt like my choice of the nearly 40 hour Audiobook was a solid selection over the actual book or an Ebook (impossible!) edition.

   Littell spares no detail in the underlying research, which, inserted into the narrative, forms a non-fiction narrative about the events and motivations of major participants in the anti-Jewish extermination process by the Germans, from the perspective of the actors.  Aue, despite his misgivings about the choice of extermination, believes it to be a "done deal," and thus beyond his pay grade to question.  He is also a committed National Socialist, in the sense that he also despises the Prussian aristocracy which dominates German society in the early 20th century.

  It is worth pointing out that much of the contents of The Kindly Ones are terribly disturbing.  Littell does not shy away from describing the mechanics of massacring a village of Jews with hand guns, and his febrile dream sequences are replete with enough coprophagia and anal sex to make the Marquise de Sade blush.   It also is worth pointing out fictional narratives about genocide from the perspective of the perpetrator have their value in the sense that they add to the diversity of narratives about important historical events and thus add to the chance that the memory of such events will remain alive in the memory of the descendants.


Wednesday, October 03, 2018

The Cloven Viscount (1952) by Italo Calvino

Book Review
The Cloven Viscount (1952)
by Italo Calvino
Book one the Our Ancestors trilogy.

  The Cloven Viscount is book one of Italo Calvino's "Our Ancestors" trilogy.   The entry for the first 1001 Books list is under the title of the trilogy- as Our Ancestors.  However, this trilogy was a drop from the first revision, and I honestly don't appreciate any of the books of Italo Calvino.  Perhaps something is lost in the translation, though I doubt it, since Italian and English are reasonably close.  Certainly, there is a lack of appreciation on my end.  Despite many of his books being described as either science fiction or fantasy, none of them make sense to me, and the prose style is erudite but convoluted, like reading a book from the 18th century.

   Also, I don't know anyone who has ever read Calvino, let alone in depth, and I've never met a soul who has referenced any work of Calvino.   He is one of those authors who I would consider revisiting, perhaps in the context of a biography.  The story of The Cloven Viscount- about a knight who is cut and off and then becomes two people, sounds promising when I read the Wikipedia page, and promising in terms of length (barely 100 pages) but I was hardly able to gather a single impression from my reading, and I've no intent of reading books two and three in the trilogy.  I'm done with Italo Calvino!   If someone wants to wake me up to his merit, please get at me. 

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Tirant lo Blanc (1490) by Joanot Martorell

Book Review
Tirant lo Blanc (1490)
 by Joanot Martorell

Replaces:  Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578) by John Lyly (Review August 2018)

  Any replacement would be an improvement on Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit, by 16th century English writer John Lyly. Euphues borders on being the most incomprehensible of all the books on the 1001 Books list.  I suspect that is because most of the 15th and 16th century cultural reference points that Lyly uses are opaque to any modern reader who doesn't possess a classics degree from Oxford University.  A reader would need to take a class to "get" Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit, and that is a strong argument as to why it shouldn't have made the original list.

  Tirant lo Blanc, on the other hand, is a good natured romp- written by a regional Spanish author- highly popular in its time and deeply influential on Miguel de Cervantes when he wrote the first book of Don Quixote. Tirant lo Blanc has other factors going for it: exotic locations, intricate battles and a decent love story.  The characters aren't quite modern but they also aren't the cardboard cut outs of your typical chivalric tales.   Tirant lo Blanc is about the knight of that name, who becomes embroiled in a convoluted series of battles between the Byzantine Empire and the Turks, which takes him to Africa and back to Europe, fighting and winning battles, both on land and sea, and often overcoming ridiculous odds.

  Like Quixote, Tirant lo Blanc is long, though not as long as Quixote itself, with its two volumes.  Unlike Quixote, there is nothing self-reflexive or meta-fictional about Tirant lo Blanc- he is just a knight who single handedly saves the Byzantine Empire.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian (2005) by Marina Lewcyka

Book Review
A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian (2005)
by Marina Lewcyka

Replaced: The Colour (2003) by Rose Tremain (Review April 2018)

   I probably would have kept The Colour, Rose Tremain's excellent historical novel about 19th century gold fever in New Zealand, but is also to see what is attractive about A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, which is an English language book written by a Ukrainian immigrant to the UK, and deals with elder care issues as well as the issues of immigrant families in a way that is both humorous and sophisticated. 

  The Short History of the title refers to an always in progress monograph of family patriarch Nikolai, recently widowed by the death of his wife for over half a century, and worried over by his two daughters, Nadezha, the narrator, and her older sister, Vera.  The plot is set into motion when Nikolai announces his intention to marry Valentina, a thirty something recent immigrant from the Ukraine.  The daughters, who have been nursing a family feud for decades, unite against Valentina and in the process Lewcyka delicately addresses the mixed emotions that confront children with aging parents.

   Lewcyka ads further depth to the narrative by including flashbacks from Ukraine, which shaped the development of older sister Vera but were too early for Nadezha to experience.  These stories, related by Vera to Nadezha at quiet moments during the events of the anti-Valentina campaign, link Nikolai and his family to the larger, more horrific currents of the 20th century.

Julie, or the new Heloise (1761) by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Book Review
Julie, or the new Heloise (1761)
 by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

  Woooo- last 18th century book on the original 1001 Books list.  Also, only one book from the pre-18th century section (Arabian Nights.)   It's been just over a decade since I started this project- the first 18th century book from the 1001 Books list was Tom Jones- published on September 24th, 2008.   Julie was last because it is an epistolary novel, 600 pages long, and written by Rousseau, who is not my favorite prose stylist. 

  I'm sure there is much to be gained from a careful reading of Julie but I was mostly concerned with actually finishing it.  PS- SHE DIES AT THE END!  In the first 1001 Books revision, the 18th century is a big loser- with I think, only one book added and several subtracted in favor of books written before the 18th century- mostly Japanese and Chinese books from the Western Middle Ages.

  The epistolary (letter format) novel is an important historical step for the development of the novel, particularly as it relates to the thoughts and feelings of adolescent women seeking to navigate the complex currents of 18th century gender politics.  The epistolary format, however, is boring as hell, and nothing ever happens- just people writing letters and describing thoughts, feelings and past events.   Also, lengthy.   

Monday, October 01, 2018

S: A Novel About the Balkans (2001) by Slavenka Drakulic

Book Review
S: A Novel About the Balkans (2001)
by Slavenka Drakulic

  S: A Novel About the Balkans was published as As If I Am Not There in the UK, and it is under that name that it made the first edition of 1001 Books.  If you are looking for a book detailing the experience of non-Serbians in Serbian run death camps during the Bosnian you need look know further.

  S, the narrator, is giving birth to her camp-rape baby in a hospital in Stockholm, where she is a refugee/immigrant.  From her bed, she recalls her experiences, beginning when she is cleansed out a Bosnian mountain village, where she has temporarily located from her life in Sarajevo, spelling a teacher out on maternity leave.  S. is the child of a Bosnian-muslim father and a Bosnian-Croatian mother, but all that really matters for the purposes of the Serbian militia is that she is not Serbian.

  The prose is matter of fact and her narrative memorable.  It's hard to read S: A Novel About the Balkans and think about narratives concerning other 20th century totalitarian death camps.  The Serbian edition seems above the Nazi's (they didn't murder women and children) but below the garden-variety Russian and Chinese type camps. The focus here, of course, is not on the mass murder of the men of Muslim Bosnia but rather the sexual exploitation faced by S. and several other women in her camp. 

  The treatment this particular group of women is rough- several women are essentially raped to death and one teenager has her back carved up by an old friend from her village- she later dies from blood loss and shock.  S: A Novel About the Balkans is not based on a personal experience, but Drakulic knows her source material- she has also has written several well received non-fiction volumes with a focus on the sexual abuses of the Bosnian war and the treatment of women by Serbian armed forces.

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