Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, December 07, 2018

2666 (2008)by Roberto Bolaño

Book Review
2666 (2008) by
Roberto Bolaño

Replaces: Elizabeth Costello (2003)by J.M. Coetzee (Reviewed March 2018)

   2666, published after the death of the author from liver disease, seems destined to be one of those epochal books that many know and few have read, and fewer...understand.  Nearly 1100 pages in the Spanish original and over 900 in the English translation,  Bolaño left instructions that the single book published as 2666 was meant to be five different books, corresponding to the five interrelated parts.

  The central part is part four, the "Part about the Crimes" the crimes being the hundreds of femicide murders that plagued the Ciudad Juarez area in the 1990's.   Ciudad Juarez appears as Santa Theresa in the book, and it is clear that the murders described are meant to resemble the crimes from that city.
 Two of the other four parts, the first and the last, concern the mythical German language novelist Archimboldi, the first part "The Part About the Critics" being about a group of Archimboldi scholars who try to track him down, Archimboldi himself having lived in Salinger/Pynchonesque obscurity for his entire life.  The last part is written about the life of Archimboldi himself.  The other two parts are a part about an African American journalist, last name Fate, who comes to Santa Theresa to cover a boxing match, only to discovery the horror of the murders.  The final part (third in order) is the part about Amalfitano, a Barcelonan professor of philosophy, widowed, with a teenage daughter, who moves to Santa Theresa for work, and who slowly declines into madness.

    Like many of the maximalist titles of 20th and 21st century literature, simply finishing the book is enough to impart a belief that said book is "a classic."  After all, what is the point of reading 1000 pages (or listening to a 40 hour Audiobook, in my case) and saying it was just ok.  Once again in the case of a book longer than 500 pages,  I felt like an Audiobook was the right choice.  While Bolaño's background as a poet made me initially question whether I might be missing some kind of nuance from the printed page, the style of 2666 is shambolic, and admittedly so, since both the foreword and postscript point out that the author died before he finished working on the manuscript.

  Certainly 2666 has it's poetic moments, but it has also has journalist/police report style pages documenting over 100 murders, every single one of them involving the sexual violation of women, and often involving crude methods of murder: stabbing, dismemberment, strangulation.  It is enough to make the reader want to throw up, or at least to make even the most hardened true crime fan a little nauseous.   The central question, left unanswered is, "who was responsible?"

  Based on 2666 there appear to be several answers, and also several causes, but the social disruption caused by the young, female factory workers of the maquiladora industry of Santa Theresa, coupled with the status as that same place as a center of the international drug trade appear to be major contributing factors.  It seems unlikely that there was a single perpetrator, instead, some women are killed by jealous spouses, others appear to be the victims of (likely more than one) sexually violent criminal gangs.  The most outlandish theory, that the women are kidnapped, raped and murdered by wealthy businessmen and drug barons also seems to have some element of truth.

   Amazingly, the use of DNA evidence never comes into play at any point, including the introduction of an American retired FBI agent who is brought in as a last ditch effort to get some answers.  I would think, at least, that the question of DNA would at least have been raised during the 500 pages that Bolano devotes to "the part about the crimes" in 2666.

   Compared to the part about the crimes, the other four parts pale in comparison, though Bolano does indeed manage to tie things together in the final part, about German novelists Archimboldi.   2666 replaces Elizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee, another writer who is grotesquely over-represented in the original 1001 Books list.  It is truly a no-brainer switch.  I highly recommend the unabridged Audiobook, it was excellent.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

Bartleby & Co. (2007) by Enrique Vila-Matas

Book Review
Bartleby & Co. (2007)
by Enrique Vila-Matas

Replaces: Schooling (2001)by Heather McGowan (Reviewed March 2018)

  Bartleby & Co is  a real delight and discovery, by Barcelona/Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas.   It takes the form of a series of footnotes to a non existent text, mostly about the "literature of no" as exemplified by the Bartleby of Herman Melville's short story(which is not on the 1001 Books list, fyi.)

  I was enraptured by Bartleby & Co, both by the delightful all footnote format, but also by the very real observations about the literature of no over the years, decades and indeed, centuries.  The narrator of Bartleby & Co, a dwarf clerk working anonymously in Barcelona, is a Borges short story come to light, and it's hard to consider Bartleby & Co a very Borgesian exercise.  It's a very satisfying replacement for Schooling by American writer Heather McGowan.  McGowan hasn't done much since, and the school girl lolita motif with a heavy dose of modernist stream of consciousness narration does not add up to a canonical pick in my mind.  Bartleby & Co, on the other hand, is a genuine delight and worth looking up.

Small Island (2004) by Andrea Levy

Book Review
Small Island (2004)
by Andrea Levy

Replaces: London Orbital by Iain Sinclair (Reviewed October 2018)

   Andrea Levy has only published a few novels.  Three before Small Island really put her on the map, and she solidified her position in 2011 with The Long Song, which won the Walter Scott Prize and  made the Booker Prize Shortlist.  Small Island won the Orange Prize, Whitbread Book of the Year and the Commonwealth Award.   She also has firm roots in the literary world of London while representing the viewpoint of Jamaicans, and specifically Jamaican emigrants to the United Kingdom. 

 Small Island fictionalizes the experiences of her parents, who came over as part of the "Windrush" generation, so named for the boat which offered passage (and admission) to the United Kingdom from Jamaica after World War II.   Levy deftly deploys four different narrators: the two characters standing in for Levy's own parents and the white woman who takes them in, and her husband, who is absent for most of the book.  Small Island shuffles between "the present" which is in 1948, and flashbacks for all four of the narrators.  For the two parent figures, this past is in Jamaica- for the mother, and in Jamaica and as a driver in the Royal Air Force, for the father.   The white husband, the last of the four narrators to get his shot, is largely concerned with his time serving in the English army in India. 

  The most memorable and significant characteristic of Small Island is the straight forward, virulent racism of English society in the 1940's.  On the other hand, the legal regime was quite fair, unlike the United States, where public and private attitudes often mirrored one another.  Thus, Hortense and Gilbert, the Levy parent figures, behave in a way that is both familiar and different to readers more experienced with the racial mistreatment of early 20th century America.

  Gilbert actually experiences Jim Crow America during his service in the Royal Air Force, where he is forbidden to make a pick up of supplies because the location is in the state of Alabama.   Small Island is very much in the category of the "international best seller" which manages to strike a chord across international borders.  Certainly, Small Island was read by a large swath of the audience for literary fiction in the UK, and it scored a BBC TV version.

  It also looks like her 2010 novel, The Long Song might also be 1001 Books material, perhaps as a replacement for this book.  Small Island replaces London Orbital by Iain Banks, which is a prime representative of the psycho geography movement, but not a huge hit, and it didn't even get an American publisher- I had to buy the English edition off Amazon, and it wasn't in the Los Angeles Public Library.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

The Savage Detectives (2007) by Roberto Bolaño

Book Review
The Savage Detectives (2007)
by Roberto Bolaño

Replaces:  At Swim, Two Boys (2001) (Reviewed March 2018)

 I'm only twenty titles into the first revision of the 1001 Books list (2008), but the major trend is already clear:  The introduction of large numbers of new authors from underrepresented regions of the globe.  I've flagged a wave of Japanese titles that made it into the pre-1700's portion of the list.  At the other end of the timeline, it is Latin American authors.  Chilean poet-novelist Roberto Bolaño  ranks at the top of this list, solely based on this book and 2666, his posthumously published epic about the femicide murders of Ciudad Juarez during the 1990's.

  If 2666 is his Naked Lunch, The Savage Detectives is his On The Road, a quasi-memoir that arrives at the intersection of Kerouac and Borges and proceeds to spin doughnut holes on the street like a participant in an Oakland sideshow.  I bought a paperback copy of The Savage Detectives at a used book store down the street.  It's almost 600 pages, but the On The Road informed style makes for an easy journey for the reader.   Sparkling and stuffed with the life of bohemia, as experienced by Spanish speaking intellectuals across countries like Chile, Argentina, Mexico, Spain and France, all of which make appearances during the frenetic, restless travels of the various characters- mostly poets and fellow travelers, The Savage Detectives spans the 1970's, 80's and 90's most often taking the form of oral history where various characters relate stories about the two major characters- Arturo Bolano, a stand in for the author, and Ulises Lima.  Bolano "himself" narrates the early adventures in Mexico City, after that the oral history format dominates.

  The Savage Detectives is filled with sex, drugs and literature, often in that order.  It is not a detective story except in the most oblique sense of that phrase (concerning the mid 1980's disappearance of Lima during a Central American conference of poets.

  The Savage Detectives replaces At Swim, Two Boys, which is great, but really, it's no comparison.  Bolano is a force of nature, he comes from an underrepresented region in the original books, and it is impossible to deny the life force of one vis a vis the other.

Gravity's Rainbow (unabridged audiobook)(2014) by Thomas Pynchon

Audiobook Review
Gravity's Rainbow (unabridged audiobook)(2014)
by Thomas Pynchon
Read by George Guidall
Penguin Audio

Book Review: Gravity's Rainbow  (1973)by Thomas Pynchon (Reviewed 2017)

 Audiobooks have been overshadowed in the past five years by the Podcast, but there is no reason to think that the Audiobook shouldn't see a kind of explosion in audience size as more and more people migrate to the world of unlimited online data.   At a very basic level, an Audiobook is much smaller than a real book, less expensive (or should be) and just as available, if not more available, from your local library for free.  Not every book gets the Audiobook treatment, and the industry essentially developed after 1970, in an iteration known as "books on tape."  This evolved to books on CD, and what was originally limited to genre books and award winners has extended down to debut works of literary fiction, non fiction, current affairs and of course, genre fiction.

  Like many new art-forms, the declasse nature of it's origins have led to a delay in acceptance and acknowledgment that an Audiobook is anything other then cheating on a regular book, but if you've actually spent any time listening to Audiobooks, you know this is untrue.  The fact is, and this particularly true for longer books,  you can get a lot more out of the Audiobook equivalent of a 500 page or more title.  Trying to read a 5, 6, 7 hundred page book is a chore, requiring the reader to set aside blocks of time in a place where it is convenient to bust out an enormous book. 

  Thus, for a long work of literary fiction, the existence of an Audiobook version expands to potential audience dramatically, even among people, like me, for example, who actually do read long works of literary fiction.  Many people do not, and it seems to me that Gravity's Rainbow as a 40 hour Audiobook is a much easier pitch than the 800 page paperback.   The Audiobook of Gravity's Rainbow is the third time that I've made my way into what Robert Newman, in his 1987 book, Understanding Thomas Pynchon called, "the epitome of the male labyrinth novel."

  Newman also compares Gravity's Rainbow to Ulysses- a reference I made in my 2017 reading for the 1001 Books project.   As I said in 2017, and Newman said in 1987, if Ulysses is the greatest novel of the twentieth century, then Gravity's Rainbow is a strong number two.   Newman identifies 11 major themes:

 (1) the heroic quest for knowledge for self-growth and for the salvation of the quester's society
(2) the ambiguity of such knowledge in an uncertain world
(3) the meaning of freedom
(4) the paradox of mutability being the only stable concept in life
(5) the betrayals that occur between generations
(6)  the consequences of repression
(7) the uses and misues of language
(8) the dangers of solipsism
(9) the perversions generated by man's misuse of nature
(10) the connections between the natural and supernatural worlds
and (11) the consequences of ignoring those lessons. - Newman 95-96
I would add a 12th theme, which is the duplicitous nature of international capitalism.

   Pynchon develops these themes through close to 450 characters.  I found the Audiobook preferable to the text in many different ways, and while the text, for a book like this is indispensable, the Audiobook stands on it's own as an important achievement.   For example, Pynchon frequently makes use of songs, rhymes (he loves a good limerick), slang and argot, and reader George Guidall is able to give voice to these moments without the reader needing to puzzle it out.

  40 hours appears to be an absolute limit for Audiobook length- Cryptomonicon by Neal Stephenson is 40 hours.  War and Peace by Tolstoy is 40 hours.  If you've ever read a long book, you can listen to a long Audiobook.  As described as above, it is simply a more manageable commitment, never more now then one can listen to it on an App on a smartphone. 

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