Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

All the Old Knives (2015) by Alan Steinhauer

Book Review
All the Old Knives (2015)
 by Olen Steinhauer

  The major bottle neck I'm facing in my book intake right now is the 15 book limit that the Los Angeles Public Library system places on holds for Ebooks and Audiobooks.  Waits of 2 to 3 months for new and popular existing releases are common.  I wouldn't be shocked to wait six months for a particularly popular title.   The problem is especially acute for Audiobooks and so inevitably I'm going to forced to expand my reading in genre fiction.  The relevant genres would be crime fiction, science fiction/fantasy and spy stories.   All three genres have spawned canonical authors in recent decades, and detective fiction seems to have particularly influence non-genre literary fiction.  You really can't throw a rock without reading a contemporary work of literary fiction that lacks at least a hint of detective fiction in terms of theme, style or characterization.

  So here I am reading a 2015 novel by the intriguing but still solidly genre bound spy fiction writer Olen Steinhauer.   The benefit of reading genre fiction is that it tends to sell well, and this makes it readily available.  For example, no wait to borrow the Audiobook version from the library (5 of 7 copies available!)   Another benefit of reading genre fiction is that it is not challenging.  The negatives are that genre fiction is, by definition formulaic, and- this is particular to spy novels- it is incredibly white. White and well educated- is there any spy novel in existence that does not have a well educated, white, protagonist?

   That certainly isn't the case for detective fiction, and certainly not the case for science fiction/fantasy, both of which have active minority communities of artists and audiences.   All the Old Knives scores a zero on the diversity meter, but Steinhauer is a cleverer-than-most writer, and the format of All the Old Knives: Two old lovers meet in a restaurant in Carmel-by-the-sea (No one calls it that in California) two discuss the murder of a plane full of passengers by hijackers, an event which happened when both of them were stationed at the Vienna station of the CIA.

   As it turns out, there was a mole feeding information to the terrorists on the plane and the book sets out reveal who done it and why.  Personally, I wasn't surprised by any event on this book, up to and including the plot twists.  I also found the motivation of the mole lacking.  Not really something to discuss without spoiling the third act, but I didn't buy it one bit.   There's a movie version in development.  Interested to see how that turns out.


An American Marriage (2018)by Tayari Jones

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
Tayari Jones, author of the much lauded novel An American Marriage.

Book Review
An American Marriage (2018)
by Tayari Jones

  2018 was a break-out year for American author Tayari Jones.   Her novel An American Marriage was a selection for the Oprah Book Club, was subsequently optioned for a movie version by Oprah, made it onto the best-seller list and made it to the short list for the National Book Award.  A Pulitzer Prize wouldn't seem out of the question at this point.

     I can understand why An American Marriage has elicited such positive feedback.  The story is about a young African American couple, Roy and Celestial, who, seem on track for membership in Atlanta's African American elite in the beginning of the book.  Roy is a first generation college student bursting with ambition, Celestial is a recent arts graduate, the daughter of a wealthy Atlanta area inventor, who has a viable artistic career as a maker of dolls.

    Jones alternates narration duties between Roy, Celestial and Andre, Celestial's childhood friend.  The near-idyllic and brand new (a little over a year) marriage is traumatized when Roy is arrested for raping a white woman in a motel near his hometown in Louisiana.  While Jones is undoubtedly a talented writer,  I found the circumstances leading to his conviction- the only piece of evidence being a cross-racial eyewitness identification by the victim- to be less than compelling.   I'm not saying that cases like this aren't possible, but it just didn't sound right to me.  For example, the utter absence of DNA evidence, the absence of which surely would have exonerated Roy well before trial.

    But of course the reader needs to accept the premises of the author, and it is really the consequences of this wrongful conviction- i.e. Roy's lengthy imprisonment while his appeals make their way through the state and federal court system, which form the backbone of An American Marriage.   Large parts of An American Marriage take place in epistolary format, the rest is first person narration by the three main characters.

   I managed to land a copy of the Audiobook from the library after waiting three months.  Since the entire book is either epistolary or narrated from a first person perspective, it makes for a solid Audiobook, but the emotional content is so charged that I found myself wishing I had the book instead, if only so I could shut it for a moment here and there and give the revelations time to settle. 

Friday Black (2018) by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

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American author Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Book Review
Friday Black (2018)
 by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Published October 2018 by Mariner Books

 I've been coming to terms with the need to read more collections of short-stories.  It is, after all, the best way to get a handle on newish type authors who will shortly be releasing novels.   It is also a format that has really come into it's own in the past decade in terms of recognition by the literary prize authorities.   For example, Alice Munro, the Canadian short story writer won the Nobel Prize in Literature a few years ago.  The National Book Award has more or less regularly rewarded short story collections in the past couple decades.  George Saunders, who finally published his first novel after a lifetime of short story collections, won the Booker Prize.

   Saunders taught Adjei-Brenyah when he was attending the Syracuse MFA program, and it is hard not to think of the influence of Saunders on Adjei (and to be fair almost every other short story writer looking to break into the literary big time.     Friday Black, Adjei's debut collection of short stories lands somewhere between Saunders and the dystopian Netflix tv show Black Mirror in terms of his themes.   Many of the stories herein contain a combination of the experience of African American men in contemporary (or slightly post-contemporary) America, and almost all of the stories contain a critique of consumer capitalism.

  Friday Black is worth looking up, and I'm excited to see what Adjei will do next.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Melmoth (2018) by Sarah Perry

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English Author Sarah Perry, 

Book Review
Melmoth (2018)
by Sarah Perry

   Sarah Perry first came to international attention with her second novel, The Essex Serpent, currently sitting on my bookshelf in hard back form, borrowed from a witchy friend of mine.  Her new book, called Melmoth, is a gender inverted, modernized version of the 1820 gothic classic, Melmoth the Wanderer, which itself is loosely based on the story of the wandering Jew. 

   Perry mimics the technique of Maturin, who weaved together a variety of narratives in a method that would strike a modern reader as "post-modern."  Incredibly, Perry and, I suppose, her publisher, seem to assume not only that the reader has not, themselves, read the original, but that they have not even heard of the original book.   In fact, one of the characters refers to the original novel as being essentially lost to modern readers.  That would probably come as a surprise to the publishers of the Oxford World's Classics series, who keep Melmoth the Wanderer in print.  It might also surprise the editors of the 1001 Books list, who included the Maturin book as a core title of their canonical list.

   I didn't particularly like this Melmoth, as indeed I did not like the original, and I positively disliked the Audiobook edition, which I would specifically NOT recommend.   The narrator's voice actually annoyed me and there were several moments- including the reoccurring incident of jackdaws loudly cawing outside a window- which almost made me physically sick.  I've never experienced anything like that reaction for any other Audiobook I've encountered, including the amateur readers of the librivox app.  I wouldn't recommend either book, to be honest.  I have high hopes for The Essex Serpent, which I still intend to read next year.

The Stolen Bicycle (2015) by Wu Ming -Yi

Book Review
The Stolen Bicycle (2015)
by Wu Ming -Yi

   Taiwanese author Wu Ming-Yi is one of a small handful of Chinese-language writers of literary fiction who have managed to find an audience in the West.  Yi's novel The Man With the Compound Eyes was published in English in 2011 and The Stolen Bicycle followed in 2015.   It was also nominated for the Man Booker International Prize, where he lost out to Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, and her elegant collection of interlinked short stories, Flights.

  Compared to that book, The Stolen Bicycle is a much more conventional work, albeit an incredibly interesting example of what you might call "the memory novel," a sub genre of literary fiction where a character retraces the past in an attempt to solve a problem in the present.   Both The Man With the Compound Eyes and The Stolen Bicycle delve deeply into the complicated history of Taiwan. 

  This history includes a diverse indigenous population with linguistic ties to the "Austronesian" family.   These groups were overrun by Han Chinese immigrants beginning in the European middle ages and in the mid 17th century Taiwan came under the control of the Chinese Emperor.  Today, the indigenous population comprises less than 5% of the population of Taiwan.    Leading up the events of World War II, Japan made major inroads in Taiwan, eventually annexing it during the war.  During the early 20th century, Taiwanese were sent to Japan to work and for school, and many indigenous Taiwanese joined the Japanese army.

   Yi manages to integrate this complicated history, narrated by Cheng, a novelist who begins a quest to tie up a loose end surrounding his father's mysterious disappearance when he was a kid.  Yi includes several chapters about the actual development of the bicycle in Taiwan, and during the course of the book Cheng becomes an avid collector-type of bicycle.  The story develops as Cheng talks to different people who bring him closer to what he hopes is the truth.

  The Stolen Bicycle makes for compelling reading, well worth the effort, with interesting detours into the history of the indigenous people of Taiwan and the experience of those people during World War II, fighting in the Japanese army.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

I'm Not Scared (2003) by Niccolo Ammaniti

Book Review
I'm Not Scared (2003)
 by Niccolo Ammaniti

Replaces: The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster (Reviewed April 2018)

 I'm Not Scared is squarely in the "international best seller" category of contemporary literary fiction, written by Italian author Niccolo Ammaniti but going on to sell in more than 20 languages, and spawn a very well received movie version only a couple years after it was published.    I'm Not Scared reminded me of a country Italian version of an early Ian "macabre" McEwan novel.

  The narrator is a young boy, on the cusp of adolescence, who lives in a very small town in rural Italy during the 1970's.   Only 219 pages in the English translation, the never quite bucolic idyll is quickly and rudely interrupted by his discovery of a young boy being kept in a pit on a farm outside his town.   It emerges that the child has been kidnapped by the adults of the village, including his own father,  the third act is filled with action and I'm sure it is that third act/resolution of the plot that catapulted I'm Not Scared to the international sales which marked it's success.

 I'm Not Scared replaced The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster.  Auster is one of the most over-represented authors in the first edition of the 1001 Books project- almost like the editors ran out of ideas near the end of the book.  I did enjoy the Audiobook version, it was read by Auster itself, which is most unusual.

The Darkening Age (2018) by Catherine Nixey

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Journalist Catherine Nixey, author of The Darkening Age, about the negative impact of Christianity on classical civilization

Book Review
The Darkening Age
by Catherine Nixey
Published April 2018 by Houghton Miffin Harcourt

   It is not often that a work of popular history delves into the period now known as "late antiquity," covering "the time of transition from classical antiquity to the middle ages" in Europe as well as the greater Mediterranean.   This is a period of history largely associated with historian Peter Brown who wrote the standard work on the subject, The World of Late Antiquity in 1971.  He has mostly focused on the development of Christianity in this period- his biography on Augustine of Hippo, one of late antiquities most important characters remains the standard work on that subject. 

  Author Catherine Nixey is not a professional scholar, rather she covers cultural affairs for the Times of London. The Darkening Age essentially takes the narrative about late antiquity developed by a generation of post-Brown scholarship and inverts it, using this book to formulate a devastating critique of the impact that the spread of Christianity had on the intellectual achievements of classical society.  She points out, quite rightly, that scholars have continued to defend Christianity for generations after the west developed a tradition of secular scholarship.

  Nixey ably develops her thesis, but The Darkening Age is a work of synthesis, with no new research to share (not that a reader would expect that from a work of popular history.)   Few people who have read Brown and his generation of scholarship will be surprised by anything Nixey has to say, rather it's a question of her looking at the other side of facts already discussed in the specialist body of literature.   Readers without this background may be shocked by the excesses of early Christianity, or maybe not.  

Monday, December 17, 2018

The Club Dumas (1996) by Arturo Perez Reverte

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Johnny Depp played the lead in the Roman Polanski movie version of The Club Dumas by Arture Perez Reverte
Book Review
The Club Dumas (1996)
by Arturo Perez Reverte

Replaces: Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

   The replacement of Tipping the Velvet with The Club Dumas is the first true head-scratcher from the second edition.     Sarah Waters is a trailblazer for LGBT themes in literary fiction, and she has shown a strong grasp of time and place in her historical fiction.  The Club Dumas, on the other hand, is a literary detective novel that was turned into a movie called The Nine Gates, directed by Roman Polanski and starring Johnny Depp.  It's obvious that there was a dramatic under-representation of Spanish language authors in the original 1001 Books list, but most of the authors who have been tapped are straight, white men, and they are often replacing socio-economic feminist and lgbt perspectives, thereby actually decreasing the diversity of the perspectives on the list.

  Which is to say that there isn't anything particularly Spanish about The Club Dumas, which might as well have been written in Italian (a la Umberto Eco), English (America, Dan Brown) or French (The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet).   Truthfully, The Club Dumas is closer to the risible (but best-selling) Da Vinci Code than anything by Eco.   The plot combines a genuine love for old books and 19th century french fiction with a dollop of devil worship and a pinch of sex.   Of course I enjoyed it- glad I'd picked the Audiobook version- even it it was abridged, but I just don't see The Club Dumas as canon-grade.

Book Review: The Heads of Colored People (2018) by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

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Author Nafissa Thompson Spires
Book Review:
 The Heads of Colored People (2018)
by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

  The Heads of the Colored People, a short story collection by author Nafissa Thompson-Spires was longlisted for the National Book Award this year.  I actually saw this book on the shelf at the local public library when I was picking up some other books and recognizing it from the longlist, I thought I would give it a whirl.

  The Heads of Colored People is truly a short-story collection, not a novella with some odds and sods thrown in for weight.  The themes that seem close to Thompson-Spires in this collection is the situation of African American's existed in largely white or multi-ethnic environments and the impact that has on the psyche of the various short story narrators and protagonists.   For readers who share this experience, or a similar fish out of water ethnic or socio economic experience, the response is likely to be nods of recognition.  For those readers without that experience, or with only a limited amount of such experiences, the reaction might well be more one of shock and horror.

I will be excited to see what is next from this author, presumably a novel.

Book Review: Bleeding Edge (2013) by Thomas Pynchon

Book Review
Bleeding Edge (2013)
 by Thomas Pynchon

   Thomas Pynchon is eight years old, and it entirely possible that his 2013 edge of 9/11 detective novel will prove to be his last published work.  If this the case, Pynchon's published novels will fit neatly into two categories, "early" Pynchon,  V.(1963), The Crying of Lot 49(1966) and Gravity's Rainbow(1973): all considered to be classics by critics and audiences alike, all still in print; and late Pynchon: Vineland (1990),  Mason & Dixon(1997), Against the Day(2006), Inherent Vice (2009) and this book.

  If and when Pynchon gets a literary biography, I believe the primary factual question to be resolved is what, exactly he was doing between 1974, let's say, after Gravity's Rainbow had made it's splash landing in the mind of the international reading public, and 1990, when Vineland was published.  The gap corresponds neatly to the amount of time it would take to raise a single child, or the substantial period of several children between the ages of zero and adolescence.

  Later Pynchon has elicited mixed responses.  Vineland is generally the least well regarded of all his books.  Mason & Dixon and Against the Day received canonical level responses from critics but failed to land with popular audiences.   Regardless of the mixed responses, those three books make sense in that they carry a common serious purpose with his early period.   What then to make of Inherent Vice and Bleeding Edge, which are like a pair of coastal detective novels, Inherent Vice representing Los Angeles and Bleeding Edge New York City. 

   Further, Bleeding Edge is the first Pynchon novel to take on what is essentially a contemporary milieu, and the milieu is New York City on the eve of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001.  My personal memory of the release of Bleeding Edge is that it happened with barely a ripple in the public consciousness.  Pynchon, of course, does not do press, let alone participate in social media marketing in public, and nor has he done something like won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

  It is accurate to say that Bleeding Edge alongside Inherent Vice are the only two books that a reader might consider, "fun." It is also accurate to say that Pynchon at his most fun is not very fun. I almost felt out of my depth listening to the 30 hour Audiobook- had trouble keeping track of the galaxy of characters, and at several points stopped the Audiobook to Google references here and there.

  The September 11th attacks were themselves like a Pynchon plot brought to life, and surely the question must have nagged the author as he wrote this book- in which the actual attack happens near the end of the book, and off camera, so to speak.   Bleeding Edge is also, notably, a love letter to prelapsarian Manhattan, as much as Inherent Vice was a love letter to 1970's Venice Beach/Manhattan Beach.  Where both books fit with the rest of the catalog is unclear. Neither book went far enough into what might be considered middle of the road public taste to spark a best-seller level phenomenon, and both plots are detective novels- not literary fiction with detective novel elements, which seems to have alienated the critical audience that more or less stood by him between the old and new periods.

I don't think anyone can read Bleeding Edge and say it in any way damages his legacy, but it didn't win him the Nobel Prize in Literature, making Pynchon second on the list (behind Philip Roth of "most snubbed 20th century American author."  As of this writing it seems pretty clear that he won't win the award at all, a pretty harsh verdict for a titan of 20th century literature. 

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